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Around Campus

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a community

For the past 35 years, Carolina and the Chapel Hill community have honored the late civil rights leader by celebrating current students who are working to improve their community.

People listen to a speaker during a banquet.
Reginald Hildebrand, author and former professor of African American studies and history at Carolina, addresses the audience during the 34th annual University/Community Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Banquet and Award Presentation in 2019. (Photo by Jon Gardner)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a champion for civil rights, equality and justice lives on around the world and right here at Carolina.

Every year, the University hosts a weeklong celebration of King and his legacy. Carolina began its celebrations of King long before there was a federal holiday for the civil rights leader.

Gretchen Bellamy, the University Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s senior director for education, operations and initiatives, said the celebration marks a critical moment for reflection.

“It’s a time where we bring the campus community together and think about how we progress, move forward and advance the University in a positive way for all students,” Bellamy said.

This year, one of the week’s main events, the University/Community Annual MLK Banquet, will celebrate its 35th anniversary.

First held in 1985 as a Chapel Hill community event, the banquet has grown throughout the years and is now hosted by the MLK University/Community Planning Corporation, a community-based organization comprised of business, civic and religious leaders from Chapel Hill and the University.

As the event grew through the years, the MLK University/Community Planning Corporation introduced the MLK Scholarship Awards, which are given to local high school and Carolina students who work to improve the quality of life for everyone at Carolina and the community.

Using funds raised by the annual banquet, the group has awarded more than 150 scholarships to deserving students with demonstrated financial need since 1993.

“The scholarships mean so much to the students who receive them and their families. Every student has been so deserving of the award, said Lillian Lee, a member of the Community Planning Corporation board and the wife of former Chapel Hill mayor Howard Lee — the first African American mayor of a major Southern town.

This year’s event will feature North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley as the keynote speaker. Beasley is the first African American woman in the court’s 200-year history to serve as Chief Justice.

Bellamy said the banquet is an opportunity to reflect on Carolina’s commitment to the Chapel Hill and Orange County communities.

“We as a University serve the state of North Carolina, and this is one of the ways we do that,” Bellamy said. “It’s a strong indicator of our commitment to work together with our surrounding communities.”

Other highlights of this year’s celebration include the annual MLK Lecture and Awards Ceremony at Memorial Hall on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. The lecture will feature author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Tickets are free and are available at the Carolina Performing Arts.