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Civil Rights Attorney Michelle Alexander Delivers MLK Keynote

Alexander calls on community to carry on Martin Luther King’s “Revolution of values”

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Celebrated civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander delivered a powerful, passionate call to a new generation Monday (Jan. 26) at Northwestern University to carry on the unfinished struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. for not just civil rights, but for “basic human rights” and equal justice for all people.

Noting the “confusion and bewilderment” of many Americans over controversial recent cases of unarmed black men being shot and killed by white police officers, Alexander said she was proud of the brave young people in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, who poured into the streets to protest injustice in a legal system that falls short of Dr. King’s dream of equality.

“I think we’re approaching a fork in the road,” she said of America, declaring that how citizens behave going forward in the wake of these incidents will determine whether the U.S. lives up to its founding principles and promise that all people “are created equal.”

In the final months of his life, she said, Dr. King was seeking to transform his non-violent struggle toward increased civil rights into a more radical path, “a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values (fighting for) basic human rights.” Alexander said Dr. King realized civil rights victories would be meaningless if all people didn’t have basic rights to escape from poverty, lack of economic opportunity and systemic injustice.

Alexander’s impassioned remarks brought the audience of nearly 1,000 people to their feet applauding in a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, marking the last major event of a 10-day celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.

In his welcoming remarks, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro noted the week’s events included a community day of service, concert and theater performances, an oratorical contest and two very special keynote speakers. He echoed the message of one of them, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate (in 1992), who spoke at the Candlelight Vigil for Dr. King a week ago at Alice Millar Chapel.

“Senator Moseley Braun reminded us that rather than simply celebrate Dr. King, all of us should commit ourselves to fight for his cause -- that all people throughout the world be entitled to live with dignity,” the President observed.

“I think the best way to truly honor and remember Dr. King is to continue to push through the ideals for which he sacrificed his life,” he added. “The struggle continues, as we all know, and rather than just be bystanders, my wish is that each and all of us at Northwestern join together in the pursuit of justice and freedom for all.”

Monday night’s program began with a musical prelude featuring the Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble, that performed John Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Joining the jazz group on stage for a musical preface were tenor Donovan Ott-Bales and bass-baritone Ted Pickell, who sang a duet of Julius Tucker’s arrangement of Thomas Dorsey’s gospel song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Following President Schapiro’s warm welcome, the crowd rose and sang a moving rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing”  -- a song that is often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.”

Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, executive director of Northwestern’s office of campus inclusion & community, one of the newest additions to the Division of Student Affairs, introduced Sarah Watson, this year’s Oratorical Contest Winner, who recited her award-winning oratory. Watson, a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy, is majoring in social policy.  

“One officer. Six bullets. One black teenager, and for four-and-a-half hours, a body left on the street,” Watson began, gripping the crowd’s attention with the story of Michael Brown. She went on to say that when a grand jury declined to indict the white police office who killed the black teen in Ferguson, “I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I couldn’t breathe. Helpless. Hopeless.”

Later, Alexander gave her stirring remarks and spoke of a “prison industrial complex” and a legal system in the United States that has more African-American adults incarcerated or under correctional control than there were enslaved in 1850. She ticked off a litany of injustices with a system that she said has for decades invested more money in incarceration than in education for African-Americans.

Alexander holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Prior to joining the Kirwan Institute, Alexander was an associate professor of law at Stanford Law School, where she directed the civil rights clinics. In 2005, she won a Soros Justice Fellowship, which supported the writing of her highly-lauded first book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” For more, visit

University Chaplain Rev. Timothy S. Stevens brought the evening’s program to a moving close with a prayer of exhortation to continue Dr. King’s struggle, calling on the audience to be resolved to “wake up” and work diligently ”so that together we can build a world of hope and justice -- and of peace.” 

The 10-day, 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration began Saturday, Jan. 17, with a Day of Service. Northwestern students engaged in various service projects throughout Evanston and the Chicago area and later reflected on their experiences.

Northwestern suspended classes Monday, Jan. 19 on the Evanston and Chicago campuses for a University-wide, full-day observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That evening Carol Moseley Braun was the keynote speaker at the Alpha Phi Alpha Candlelight Vigil at Alice Millar Chapel. President Schapiro and Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl attended the vigil, which was followed by a reception that was held in Parkes Hall.

During her address, Moseley Braun, a former Senator from Illinois and a former U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, encouraged the audience to be courageous and to teach younger generations the importance of the civil rights movement, in order to progress to a more understanding future.

She told the audience that she had “met and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King” during the civil rights movement. Moseley Braun also stressed the importance of empathy and courage during the civil rights movement and the importance of both today.

“Each of us can find meaning in our own lives by doing what we can do to help others,” she added. “It is not enough to think of yourself as a good person. What matters is what you do.”  

Moseley Braun was a former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. She also served her country as a Cook County Executive Officer, Illinois State Representative and United States Attorney. She also was the first permanent female member of the Senate Finance Committee. A women’s and civil rights activist, she transitioned to the private sector in 2001 after nearly 30 years in public service. In 2005, she founded Good Foods Organics, a premium, Certified USDA Organic and Biodynamic products company. For more, visit

The Candlelight Vigil featured a musical prelude and postlude by organist and music associate of Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern University’s Eric Budzynski, musical selections by the Northwestern Community Ensemble, and the Northwestern African-American a cappella student group Soul4Real and an invocation by Associate Chaplain Jacquelina Marquez that was followed by a closing Benediction by Chaplain Stevens.

Another MLK celebration highlight was a Faculty Recital series concert presented by the Victor Goines Quartet last Wednesday night at Pick-Staiger, which featured the premiere of Goines’ latest composition, his seven movement “MLK Suite.”

The idea for the Suite was sparked last fall, when Goines decided to compose a new work with his jazz students in mind. After several months of research into the life of Martin Luther King to see what aspects of King’s life he wanted to highlight, it took Goines two weeks to compose the Suite, just in time for him and his quartet to perform during Northwestern’s MLK observance.

For instance, the first movement, “Michael, The Archangel” references the fact that Dr. King’s birth name was Michael, not Martin,” Goines said. Movement VI, “When They Struck Him Down,” is a dirge that relates to King’s tragic assassination and reflects Goines’ New Orleans roots and the way the city mourns their deceased at the cemetery. And, Movement VII, “Yes, He Live On,” is a lively and celebratory passage that signifies that “King moved on to a better place,” Goines said.

- Storer H. Rowley contributed to this report.