Diversity and Inclusion

MLK Jr. Lecture stresses ‘The Time is Now’

Keynote speaker Michelle Alexander cited King and urged action, not just words, in the fight for justice

A woman, Michelle Alexander, speaking from a podium on a stage at a lecture.
Michelle Alexander warned against waiting too long to take action against injustices. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Michelle Alexander made it clear why “The Time is Now” was the theme of Carolina’s 43rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture and Awards Ceremony on Jan. 18.

“There is such a thing as being too late,” Alexander told the Memorial Hall audience, quoting King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam — a Time to Break Silence” speech. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.”

Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of the acclaimed “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” laid out several issues she believes can’t be excused by society’s tardiness. These include state violence at home and abroad; attacks on voting rights; the diminishing of diversity in higher education; climate change; and the potential negative impacts of artificial intelligence.

“I’m not saying all this to depress you — quite the opposite, actually,” Alexander said.

Instead, Alexander pointed to a blueprint offered by King, one of hopefulness paired with a reality check: Actions, not words alone, are a necessity for change.

“He aimed to remind us that we have more creativity, more power and more collective genius than we often imagine. But we will merely repeat tragic mistakes of the past unless we grow morally, spiritually,” she said. “We must evolve, and we must do it now. These are revolutionary times, he said, and the fate of humanity depends on us rising to the challenges of our time.”

Alexander sees examples of humankind doing just that. She spoke of “something new in the air.” People are coming together in “unprecedented ways” and embracing new ways of seeing the world.

“Making another way possible: a way out of no way,” she called this.

Several University leaders spoke at the event, including Student Body President Christopher Everett and Leah Cox, vice provost of equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. Everett said doing the right thing is “never easy” but “always worthwhile.”

Cox quoted King on the importance of taking action, no matter how big or small: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving.”

Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts also spoke, telling the audience, “Carolina must follow Dr. King’s legacy — to use the tools of democracy to persuade our fellow citizens to follow the path of justice.”

Awards and performances

Several members of the Carolina community received honors at the event. Cheryl L. Woods Giscombé and Allison Schlobohm, both Carolina alums, were named the 2024 MLK Jr. Unsung Hero honorees for their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Giscombé is the interim senior associate dean for academic affairs and the Levine Family Distinguished Scholar in Quality of Life, Health Promotion and Wellness in the School of Nursing. Schlobohm is a clinical associate professor of management and corporate communication at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The Harvey Beech Scholarship, named for the first African American to graduate from Carolina’s law school, was awarded to Angelica Foster, Lyric Grimes, Joann Obioma, Jaleah Taylor and Yacob Lemma.

A student, Michael Fair, taking a group photo with two other people on stage, Lee H. Roberts and Leah Cox, after winning an award.

Michael Fair (center) posing with Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts (left) and Leah Cox, vice provost of equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, after winning the MLK Jr. Scholarship. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Michael Fair won the 2024 MLK Jr. Scholarship, which honors juniors who have shown a commitment to improving the quality of life on campus and in the community. Fair is majoring in nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and is minoring in chemistry and business administration. Sarah Zhang, a computer science and political science major and data science minor, was named the scholarship’s runner-up.

The night also included musical performances by a cappella group Tar Heel Voices and Tray Good, assistant director of student access, success and engagement, who sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Lizabeth Bamgboye and Kiara Garcia of Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre performed spoken-word poetry to conclude the evening.

Two students on stage doing a poetry reading performance.

Kiara Garcia and Lizabeth Bamgboye of Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)