Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni spoke about Martin Luther King Jr. and read her poem, "In The Spirit Of Martin," aloud.

The Center of Multicultural Student Services (CMSS) and the Madison Vision Series hosted the 35th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address celebrating King’s life and accomplishments Jan. 17. Speakers included Nikki Giovanni and other members of the JMU community.

The event was co-hosted by CMSS graduate assistant Shay Lumpkin and Daerenz Lyons, JMU’s 2021-22 presidential engagement fellow for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We are honored to shed light on [King’s] legacy by keeping his memory alive through this week’s celebration,” Lyons said. “Not only was Dr. King a precious driving force during the civil rights era — a critically influential figure in advocating for justice and equality through nonviolent acts — but his courage, perseverance and grit continues to inspire, motivate and empower young advocates like myself to engage in acts of social justice and shed light on some of the voices that have been ignored and disregarded.”

Lumpkin spoke on the meaning of this year’s theme for Martin Luther King week: “The Story of Us: Reclaiming our Past. Writing our Present. Creating our Future.” Lumpkin said the goal of this year’s theme was to reclaim moments in history, make strides toward a positive today and take actionable steps to create a better tomorrow.

JMU President Jonathan Alger also spoke, citing a speech King gave just months before his death titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Alger read an excerpt from the speech:

“The road ahead will not always be smooth,” Alger read. “There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there, and there will be those moments where the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered, and our ethereal hopes blasted. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.”

Alger said King’s words are “equally fitting today,” saying he believes that “the best is yet to come,” even at a time when our country and world are “beset with challenges of racism, inequality, public health and despair.”

Following Alger was Harrisonburg City Councilman Chris Jones (’00). Jones said that today, when it comes to health inequality, economic inequality, civil rights, voting rights and overall human decency, we still have “miles to go,” but that we should look to King as an example.

“A ton of time has been wasted on political rivalries, on hatred, on things that really don’t matter,” Jones said. “The dignity and love that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed through peace and fighting for others is something that we need to mimic and emulate.”

Xaiver Williams, junior music education major and the JMU student representative to the Board of Visitors, spoke next and said it was a struggle for him to find words to say. However, Williams encouraged and empowered the audience with lines from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Jessani Collier, junior political science major and JMU’s student body president, shared the story of her African American grandfather — a son of sharecroppers who grew up in Lawrenceville, Virginia. She said her then-13-year-old grandfather had his eyes glued to a small TV during King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, where King’s words “sent shivers down his spine.” 

“Dr. King somehow understood the pain and suffering that my rural, small-town grandfather had been burdened with and condemned it with such eloquent speech and rhetoric,” Collier said. “He empowered a poor little Black boy who built himself from nothing. [My grandfather] learned to love his skin, to empower his community and to love those who love him equally.”

Up next to speak was Giovanni, a poet, writer, activist and educator. Giovanni was the event’s special guest speaker and described as one of the most renowned poets worldwide on the event’s online description.

Giovanni began her remarks by speaking highly of King. She then read her poem, “In The Spirit Of Martin,” aloud.

“This is a sacred poem,” Giovanni read. “Blood has been shed to consecrate it … wash your hands … remove your shoes … bow your head … I … I … I Have a Dream.”

Giovanni continued to talk about King, while also discussing civil rights activist Rosa Parks, Emmitt Till — who was lynched in 1955 at the age of 14 — the killing of George Floyd, slavery and more; all of which led to the conversation of the global Black Lives Matter movement.

“We have to continue to fight for life,” Giovanni said. “It’s so basic. We have to continue to allow people to move forward.”

Brent Lewis, associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at JMU, closed the event with his own remarks.

“Let us continue to reflect on the life, the legacy and the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King — not just on his birthday but every day,” Lewis said.

Contact Kasey Trapuzzano at trapuzkm@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.