Guest column: Continuing tradition of excellent MLK speakers

By Marc Robinson, WSU Culture & Heritage Houses director

MarcRobinson-80PULLMAN, Wash. – In January, Washington State University will celebrate its 28th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Community Celebration. The excitement for this event has been building, especially because of the guest speaker, Angela Y. Davis, an internationally known scholar and activist.

Davis-80She will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, in the CUB ballroom. Her visit will be the climax of a yearlong slate of events organized by the MLK program and associated units. (Visit the MLK website for details:

Davis’ appearance is the most recent example in a long tradition of outstanding speakers marking MLK Day at WSU – a tradition extending back far before last year’s memorable program featuring civil rights leader Diane Nash and social critic Michael Eric Dyson.

Community celebration

James Farmer was the speaker at the first WSU MLK event.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the third Monday of January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday. Three years later, the first national holiday was observed.

That same year, WSU held an event marking the occasion. The keynote speaker was James Farmer, former director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), an influential civil rights organization during the 1950s and 60s. Farmer was a close ally of King.

In 1988, WSU event organizers began using the name “MLK Community Celebration.”

Family of King, Gandhi speak

Throughout the late 1980s and into the 90s, WSU continued to hold annual events featuring national figures, state leaders or WSU staff as keynote speakers. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, came to WSU in 1995 and King’s daughter, Yolanda King, came in 2005 – providing direct links between WSU and the King family.

An outstanding speaker in 1998 was Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi whose non-violent philosophy had a great influence around the world – including on King and other civil rights leaders. Arun Gandhi built on this linkage by discussing the importance of non-violence in the 21st century.

WSU speakers participate

Dorothy Cotton was the speaker in 2000. (Image sources: Box 31 Folder 44, Box 32 Folder 1 and Box 32 Folder 2, WSU News Subject Files, 1940s-2011, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Wash.)

Other notable speakers included Dorothy Cotton (2000) and Morris Dees (2002). Cotton was education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She worked closely with King, president of SCLC, and directed the citizenship education program.

Dees is co-founder and chief trial attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading organization challenging white supremacist groups since the 1970s.

In addition to these guests, the community celebration was honored to have WSU faculty and staff serve as keynote speakers, such as President Elson S. Floyd who gave the keynote in 2011. Others from within WSU included: David J. Leonard (2013), Aaron Oforlea (2012), Robert Bauman (2010), Henry Averhart (2009) and Dallas Barns (1987).

As we look forward to the visit of Angela Y. Davis, let us take pride in this outstanding tradition of great MLK speakers at WSU.


Special thanks to Mark O’English and the staff of the WSU Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections for helping with the research for this column.