After tumultuous year, Iowa City, UI come together to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy

The rising full moon passes behind the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Washington Monument, Tuesday evening, Dec. 29
The rising full moon passes behind the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Washington Monument, Tuesday evening, Dec. 29, 2020, in Washington. (J. David Ake/AP)

Focusing on community was a hallmark of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In honor of that legacy, several organizations in Iowa City have put community at the heart of planning a weekslong celebration. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Celebration is an opportunity to highlight why Dr. King’s legacy is as important today as it was when he was alive.

“Thinking about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., community was at the center of that and it was so important to him. That’s why I think it’s important that we work collectively to keep this legacy alive,” said event organizer Shalisa Gladney, coordinator of the Afro-American Cultural Center at the University of Iowa.

Those involved in putting the event together ranged from community members to students, to University of Iowa staff. Partner organizations include the Black Voices Project, the James Academy of Performing Arts, the Iowa City Public Library, United Action for Youth, Beloved Community Initiative, the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center, the City of Iowa City and the University of Iowa.

» LIST OF EVENTS: MLK Day events planned in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City

Gladney is proud of the work that so many people put in, especially in thinking creatively to pull off the event during a pandemic.

“We worked to make sure everyone was at the table. And I feel like all of us on the committee brought together our various creative energies and expertise to make this happen,” she said.

“We’re doing it over the course of two weeks, so it’s a human rights celebration, she added, noting this will allow students to get involved upon their return to campus for the semester.


“And we have various activities and events and projects, so there’s literally something for everyone.”

The event kicks off on Monday with a bell ringing ceremony, car parade, free drive-up lunch and a virtual talent show taking place throughout the day. That evening, “We the People: Protest and Peace,” will be hosted virtually by the Iowa City Public Library and will feature musicians and speakers, as well as a short service to honor King’s legacy.

There’s also a virtual showing of “John Lewis: Good Trouble” through FilmScene. UI Health Care is presenting a distinguished lecture by Dr. Joan Y. Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Community-based service projects are happening during the event as well, including gathering donations for literacy kits, food drives and youth service activities.

Samer Suleman, a UI student helping to organize the event, put together an event called Celebrate Black Excellence Everyday: Honoring Unsung Heroes, to honor the names and faces of individuals who are not always remembered for their contributions to history and the civil rights movement as a whole.

“We wanted to find a way to celebrate the unsung Black heroes of the past and the ones still around us today,” said Suleman of the interactive presentation. “I volunteered for the job because I used to attend a Black history game show in Des Moines called ‘I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa’ where I learned about a great number of influential Black people in history. People can expect to come learn about faces they’ve seen before but never knew the names of, or names they’ve heard before but never saw the faces they belonged to, and they can expect to learn about people that they never heard anything about.”

Suleman noted the event will be timely.

“Recent events have led me to discover Black heroes such as Stacey Abrams and Eugene Goodman and to recognize and celebrate them and their brilliance amid everything,” he said. “Those two names will appear in my presentation for the very reason that they represent heroism, sacrifice and the principles of the civil rights movement.”

Of course there has been much attention throughout 2020 and recently with events at the U.S. Capitol on racial injustice. Gladney said she hopes that people realize the importance of showing up for events like the MLK Celebration of Human Rights not only when the issues hold national attention, but always.


“Racial injustice is what this country was built on,” she said. “That has to be something that we admit to. This annual celebration is just one of the many ways that folks across the community and the university can work to address this. It’s important that we continue to do the necessary work to address racial injustice.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. quote selected as inspiration for this year’s event is “We will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

“Even this quote highlights the importance of community and the important role everyone has in addressing racial injustice,” Gladney said.

She hopes that many people get involved in this year’s celebration.

“There are so many different things going on, so there are just lots of ways for folks to participate and show up. I’m excited about that,” Gladney said.

All events for the MLK Celebration of Human Rights are free. For a full listing of activities, visit

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