Past Speakers

Since the first UChicago MLK Celebration in 1990, an impressive roster of leaders and innovators have addressed the University and broader community as keynote speakers, including President Barack Obama in 2002.

  • 2023 Eric H. Holder, Jr., 82nd Attorney General of the United States
  • 2022 Cheryl Brown Henderson, President of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity and daughter of the lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, with special guest Pastor Chris Harris, Senior Pastor of Bright Star Church and Founder of Bright Star Community Outreach
  • 2021 Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
  • 2020 Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., theologian, pastor, and civic leader, and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ
  • 2019 Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, pastor and social justice advocate; President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. 
  • 2018 Dorothy Butler Gilliam, journalist and author; the first African American female reporter at the Washington Post
  • 2017 Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy
    Theme—Why must we continue to sing this song?
  • 2016 Van Jones, CNN contributor and author, with special guest Nikki Giovanni, poet and University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech
    Theme—History, Hope, and Responsibility
  • 2015 Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, with special guest Ernest G. Green, member of the "Little Rock Nine"
    Theme—What does justice look like?
    25th annual MLK Commemoration Celebration at the University of Chicago
  • 2014 Deval Patrick, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
    Theme—Celebrating 50 years since the Civil Rights Act. What's next?
  • 2013 Judy Richardson, Associate Producer of Eyes on the Prize series and former SNCC activist
    Theme—What do you stand for?
  • 2012 Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone
    Theme—"Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education" - MLK
  • 2011 Judith Jamison, Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
    Theme—We are tied in a single garment of destiny
    25th anniversary of the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • 2010 Melissa Harris-Perry, Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University
    Theme—“Still I Rise” Dr. Maya Angelou
  • 2009 Rev. Joseph Lowery, minister in the United Methodist Church & civil rights leader
    Theme—Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy
  • 2008 Loretta Ross, co-founder and National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective
    Theme—Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
  • 2007 Julian Bond, Chairman of the Board of the NAACP
    Theme—Let Just Roll Down Like Water
  • 2006 Valerie B. Jarrett, Executive Vice President of the Habitat Company and Trustee of the University
    Theme—Realizing the Dream
    MLK Day is an official University of Chicago holiday
  • 2005 Kweisi Mfume, Former President and CEO of the NAACP
    Theme—Living the Legacy
    First year that the celebration moved from a one day service to a week of activities. Celebrations from 1994 to 2004 consisted of the Memorial Service and Reception on MLK Day.
  • 2004 Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago
  • 2003 Rev. James Lawson, one of the architects of the nonviolent protest strategies that were employed during the Civil Rights Era
  • 2002 Barack Obama, Senior Lecturer in the Law School, University of Chicago
  • 2001 Dr. Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School
  • 2000 Dr. Manning Marable, professor of history and political science and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University
  • 1999 Dr. Mary Frances Berry, Professor of American Social Thought, University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the United States Civil Rights Commission
  • 1998 Dr. Angela Davis, Professor, Author, Activist, Scholar
  • 1997 Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General
  • 1996 Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, Apostolic Church of God
  • 1995 Mohammed Athie, Chairman of the American Anti-Slavery Group
  • 1994 Hugo Sonnenschein, University of Chicago President
  • 1993 Dr. Kenneth Clark
  • 1992 Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.
  • 1990 Clarence Page