Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Week 2019

January 21-26, 2019

Keynote Speakers

Keynote speakers during Grand Valley's commemoration week of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged audiences to consider King's legacy when faced with today's social issues and challenges.

David Stovall, professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, contends that when people consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. many think only of the man who gave the "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963.

"We often ignore the last four years of his life," Stovall said during a keynote address on January 21 in the Fieldhouse. "Those last years represented a significant change for Dr. King."

Stovall said it was young people who challenged King to speak up. "He dared to say the words 'poor people.' He said the war in Vietnam was the same war as at home," Stovall said.King's speeches during the last years of his life were not his most popular, Stovall said.

David Stovall addressing audience

David Stovall addresses the audience gathered for his keynote presentation in the Fieldhouse Arena.

In 1967, King gave a speech calling for the end to the Vietnam War, and for the government to spend less on the military and more on social programs. Stovall said King asked the nation's leaders why young men were sent overseas to war, and what will the government do for them when they return home.

"And now we're occupying Afghanistan, Iraq and just got out of Syria. In 2019, we still haven't answered those questions," Stovall said.

He asked the crowd to consider King a "revolutionary warrior for justice, peace and love." And he asked audience members to break their silence on social justice issues.

"What will you do to step in and change the condition?" Stovall asked audience members. "The work will be difficult. It's big work, to demand an end to all suffering."

Grand Valley alumna Shannon Cohen told an audience of mostly students that she didn't learn about equity and justice only in college classes.

"It started with the leaders and family who surrounded me," Cohen said. "I always go back to the lessons that were rooted in my soul."

Shannon Cohen gives a presentation in the Kirkhof Center.

Shannon Cohen gives a presentation in the Kirkhof Center.

Cohen spoke January 23 in the Kirkhof Center, as part of Grand Valley's week of events commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She is the founder and principal of Shannon Cohen, Inc., a boutique firm specializing in providing emotional health strategies to leaders and difference makers. 

She relayed a tweet by King's daughter, Bernice, stating her father was not born Dr. King, but rather inspired by "the life of Christ and by leaders in his family and community."

"Dr. King had no idea he would leave such a legacy while he was a student at Morehouse College. He was an average person shaped by a series of events," Cohen said.

Cohen said while she was a student at Grand Valley in the mid-1990s, she made a conscious decision to be a "disrupter" and work to change systems of racial hierarchy. She urged students to do the same.

"If you do not start to question the comfort and convenience of the situations that surround you, you will never break the silence," she said. "Who pays the cost when I don't do a thing?"

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf: Jefferson, Slavery, and the Moral Imagination

Sponsored by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, two historians gave a presentation on Thomas Jefferson, the most revered philosopher of the early republic’s Enlightenment ideals, was deeply involved in the nation’s original sin of slavery. Not only was he a slave owner, DNA testing has strongly suggested that he fathered children with Sally Hemings. This was in partnership with the Division of Inclusion and Equity as part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Week.

woman and man standing in library Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf


Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School. She won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a subject she had previously written about in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Her most recently published book (with Peter S. Onuf) is Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

Peter S. Onuf is a professor of history, emeritus, at the University of Virginia, where he has taught for more than 20 years. Onuf is also senior fellow at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. A leading scholar of Jefferson and the early American republic, he is the author, co-author, and editor of numerous books including Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, and Jeffersonian Legacies.