26th annual MLK symposium goes online

Virtual events over three weeks offer opportunities to reflect, engage, and celebrate with family, colleagues, and friends.

Woman cups a candle with a gloved hand. She is standing in a circle with other candle-holders in the snow.
The candlelight vigil “was always powerful and will continue to be” as it offers a moment to reflect on the man and his legacy, says Toliver. Here, the Penn community gathers in 2007 to commemorate. 

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Symposium will be virtual, with nearly three weeks of free public events offered online beginning with the Jan. 16 sports and wellness event led by Penn students and staff and culminating with Jazz for King on Feb. 5. “We are using technology to provide a quality experience for the Penn community,” says Darin Toliver, associate director of the African American Resource Center. “It’s really a collaborative effort among a host of different organizations, departments, and resources in order to pull this together.”

Pulling inspiration from King’s maxim that “everybody can be great because anybody can serve,” the symposium celebrates 26 years of working together in service to the community. While the Penn community will not break bread together this year, the significance of King’s legacy will be carried throughout the symposium with events for students, staff, and families. “This is such a good feeling because the University will get the opportunity to see how much time, energy, and education that goes into making this day a reality,” says Toliver. “We’re going full steam ahead and doing this the right way.”

Many families are spending more time together because of the pandemic, and the symposium offers a number of ways to meaningfully celebrate the holiday, including the Jan. 16 sports and wellness event. The Jan. 18 Day of Service also offers the MLK Art Project, a multimedia workshop designed to lead families in creating vision boards for their goals and dreams, as well as the Penn Reads Literacy Project Lecture in which Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, will discuss African American literature, history, and culture using books for children and young adults.

High school students and their families have the opportunity to participate in the College Admissions Process During COVID-19 workshop in which they will be guided through the college admissions and financial aid processes. Not every student in Philadelphia and the surrounding area receives adequate information and coaching on applying to college, and the event gives those students tangible skills and resources, Toliver says.

Some events, like the 20th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture in Social Justice. Instituted in 2002 by the Center for Africana Studies, will be prerecorded. The lecture features leading scholars, activists, artists, public servants, and others whose life and work embody King’s commitment to social justice. Co-hosted by the School of Arts & Sciences’ Center for Africana Studies and the Annenberg School for Communication, the Jan. 27 evening will feature Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University and professor emeritus at Princeton University, in conversation with Margo Natalie Crawford, director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies and the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor for Faculty Excellence.

Two live virtual events will bookend the Day of Service on Jan. 18: the 9 a.m. kickoff with Marc Lamott Hill and the closing vigil, co-hosted by the Mighty Psi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and the Gamma Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. In other years, this event has been a candlelight vigil and march down Locust Walk. This year, participants will be invited to light a candle at home while participating in a multimedia presentation. The vigil “was always powerful and will continue to be” as it offers a moment to reflect on the man and his legacy, says Toliver. “During times like these, Dr. King’s prophetic voice needs to be exemplified and heard more than ever, when peace and togetherness are the overarching theme.”

A full list of events can be found on the African American Resource Center website.