Student Reflection: Community MLK Celebration Keynote Event

Elisabeth Waldron
February 20, 2024
Elisabeth Waldron, School of Data Science Graduate Student Council, Inclusive Excellence Chair 

I was honored to co-host with Scott Ackerman, associate director of organizational learning, culture, and outreach at the University of Virginia Library, and represent the School of Data Science at this year’s Community MLK Celebration keynote event at The Paramount Theater. The keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, and his speech was titled “We are Called to Be a Movement.”

The event featured an introduction by the Rev. Xavier Jackson, a distinguished figure with many notable achievements. Jackson, a UVA alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, is an accomplished lyric tenor, preacher, and community leader. Currently serving as the 10th pastor of Chapman Grove Baptist Church in Charlottesville, he is also the coordinating pastor of youth for the city, reflecting his commitment to both spiritual and civic leadership within the UVA and Charlottesville communities.

Barber is a prominent religious leader, author, and activist with a rich history of advocacy for social justice. Currently serving as the president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, he has been a bishop with The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries and the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina for almost three decades. Barber is also a professor in the practice of public theology and public policy at Yale Divinity School. 

Barber gained national attention as the president of the North Carolina NAACP, leading the Forward Together Moral Movement and establishing Repairers of the Breach to train communities in moral movement building. A prolific author and sought-after speaker, he has addressed numerous conferences, including the Democratic National Convention, and received several prestigious awards, including the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. Barber's influence extends to media appearances and global platforms, making him a key figure in the fight against poverty and injustice in the United States. 

Reverend Doctor William Barber speaks at Paramount Theater Keynote Event for 2024 Community MLK Celebration
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II delivers the Community MLK Celebration keynote address at the Paramount Theater

In his compelling tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barber not only honored the iconic civil rights leader but also delivered a poignant message that resonated with the present challenges facing our society. Barber eloquently reminded us that King's advocacy extended beyond racial boundaries to encompass all underserved communities, including poor white individuals. In a nation often consumed by political and racial tensions, Barber drew attention to the equally significant class war, emphasizing that poverty affects people of all racial backgrounds. He urged us to recognize the interconnectedness of struggles and unite in solidarity, transcending divisive narratives perpetuated by media and politicians. 

Barber's impassioned call for collaboration and mutual support echoed King's vision for a more just and inclusive society. By invoking King's unwavering commitment to doing what is right, even in the face of imminent danger, Barber challenged our generation to follow in King's footsteps. He emphasized the need to advocate for the rights of all underserved backgrounds, including those in the middle and low classes, the LGBTQ+ community, and individuals with disabilities. 

Five women audience members joined the speaker on the stage at the Paramount Theater
Event attendees joined Rev. Dr. Barber on the stage 

Barber's inspiring words served as a rallying cry, encouraging us to stand up for justice and equality, regardless of our perceived imperfections. He convincingly argued that these very imperfections can be a source of strength and empathy, empowering us to make a meaningful impact in the ongoing fight against poverty and injustice in the United States. As we reflect on Barber's powerful message, we are reminded that King's work continues to resonate, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that his legacy thrives in our actions and advocacy. 

Elisabeth Waldron is a student in the MSDS residential program, inclusive excellence chair of the Graduate Data Science Council, and an admissions ambassador.

Photography by Alyssa Brown.