How Student Affairs Programs are Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

From the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union at Eastern Illinois to the ASUC Student Union, housed in the Martin Luther King Jr. Building at the University of California–Berkeley, the iconic civil rights figure has inspired many higher ed student centers—and for good reason.

Much like Martin Luther King Jr. himself, student unions are beacons of inclusivity, social justice, and community engagement. Commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day thus provides ample opportunity for student unions to highlight the importance of social justice, recognize the ongoing struggle for equality, underscore their commitment to fostering an inclusive environment, and encourage positive community engagement.

Here are some common ways these programs are engaging students, educators, and the campus community to celebrate this important day:

Memorial Marches or Walks

Some campuses organize memorial marches or walks in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Participants may walk symbolic routes, reflecting on the historical significance of civil rights movements, progress made, and work that remains. This year, for example, Colorado State University’s Lory Student Center is celebrating MLK Day with a 1.7-mile march from the Colorado State University to the Oval Lincoln Center  a path that commemorates the experiences of Black settlers in northern Fort Collins, Colorado, in the early 1900s, as well as civil rights community leaders and organizations.

Other schools have used marches to promote a positive and inclusive environment, discourage bullying, and foster connections among individuals from diverse backgrounds. In 2014, Eastern Oregon University honored Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a march associated with Faces for Change, an anti-bullying foundation created in memory of Jadin Bell.

Bell, a local teenager and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, died by suicide in 2013. The march in his honor underscored the university’s commitment to recognizing MLK Day not only as a celebration of civil rights but also as an opportunity to extend respect, kindness, and fairness to all individuals, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality.

Community Service Projects

Since Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often seen as a day of service, some student affairs programs encourage students to participate in community service projects, volunteer opportunities, and outreach initiatives that address local needs and promote the spirit of giving. On January 20, the University of Illinois–Springfield’s Volunteer & Civic Engagement Center will host a Martin Luther King Day of Service Tabling, where attendees will create warm, vibrant blankets that they will send with encouraging video messages to children in local hospitals.

Similarly, the University of Illinois–Chicago will host an MLK Day of Service on January 15 as part of its Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Week. On that day, volunteers will be bused to a service site at Student Center East (SCE), where they will receive an explanation of their mission and service project, followed by lunch at the Commuter Student Resource Center.

Indiana University this year is changing its tradition of holding events on the holiday, instead encouraging staff, students, and faculty to participate in the variety of community service projects that will be conducted on January 15. An IU-hosted event at the Indiana Memorial Union will be held at 3 p.m. on January 12, with a keynote from Shaun Harper, a provost professor of education at the University of Southern California. An Indiana University alum, Harper is a former ACUI board member and was an ACUI practicum student while attending IU. The event is also being offered virtually.

Educational Workshops and GALAs

Many colleges organize workshops and panel discussions that explore the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. These sessions may cover topics such as the civil rights movement, social justice, and racial inequality. Experts, scholars, and community leaders may be invited to share their insights and experiences.

This year, Sacramento State University’s Student Union Ballroom will be home to the 25th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sacramento Region’s Community Celebration Event. This gathering of elected officials, community leaders, educators, and students will create a powerful tribute to Dr. King’s legacy. The event will include a roundtable discussion in which University of California–Davis Chancellor Gary May, Sacramento State President Luke Wood, and American River College President Lisa Cardoza will share their “Vision of Higher Education in The Sacramento Region.”

Schools also host workshops focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, Northwest Missouri State University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion will mark its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week with a series of teach-ins. Inspired by a concept that emerged in the 1960s, these faculty-led sessions will explore civil rights history, activism, and various social justice issues, reflecting the spirit of Dr. King.

Keynote Speakers

Bringing in renowned speakers to deliver keynote addresses to share their perspectives on civil rights, diversity, and inclusion is a widespread practice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. These speakers often inspire students to reflect on Dr. King’s vision and consider its relevance in contemporary society.

To that end, the University of Colorado–Boulder will commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. this year with keynote speaker Tabatha L. Jones Jolivet, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles. In her presentation, Jolivet will explore the identity of Dr. King, the influences that shaped his activism, ways in which the community can relate his civil rights efforts to current circumstances, the relevance of his vision and ministry for addressing present-day issues, and the impact of intergenerational trauma in advancing Dr. King’s community vision on campuses.

Meanwhile, Illinois State University’s Office of the President, University Housing Services, Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Association of Residence Halls, and the Black Student Union have invited civil rights lawyer and scholar Sherrilyn Ifill as featured speaker for the 2024 Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner. Ifill served as the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. from 2013 to 2022. Her 2008 book, “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” remains influential in contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation.

Whether you are celebrating for a day, week, or month, combining these activities allows college student affairs programs to create a comprehensive and impactful Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration that educates, inspires, and engages the campus community. Such events also serve as an educational and engaging segue into Black History Month in February.

For more information and inspiration, see past Bulletin articles “Only Love: Virtual or Live, Campuses are Central in Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day” and “An Important Celebration: How Higher Ed is Recognizing Black History Month.”

Author

  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email (cpreusler@thewymancompany.com) with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.