MLK Jr. Celebration returns to EMU on Jan. 13-15

A gospel choir concert, a one-man show and a pair of movie screenings will headline a three-day slate of events for EMU’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration this month. 

The celebration, held on the Harrisonburg, Virginia, campus from Saturday, Jan. 13, to Monday, Jan. 15, is themed “Remember, Celebrate, Thrive.”

“We need to remember that a lot of people are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us during the Civil Rights Movement,” said Celeste Thomas, director of multicultural student services at EMU and chair of the committee planning the celebration. “We have to remember their sacrifice and all their hard work, but we also have to celebrate the accomplishments that came out of that. So, we celebrate what has been achieved and then stand on those shoulders so we can thrive as a community.”

A wide range of activities and events will honor the iconic civil rights leader:

Saturday, Jan. 13

11 a.m.-2 p.m. — Northeast Neighborhood tour: Monica Robinson, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project, will lead a tour of the Northeast Neighborhood, a historic community built by and for African-Americans in Harrisonburg following the Civil War. 

Stops along the tour include the Bethel AME Church, with information about the neighboring Dallard-Newman House, and discussions and lunch provided at the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center. Rides from EMU will depart from the Black Lives Matter mural in front of the University Commons at 10:30 a.m. Registration is required to attend the tour, and is available online at

Sunday, Jan. 14

6 p.m. — Screening of Rustin: A biopic of Bayard Rustin, adviser to MLK and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, will be shown in the MainStage Theater on Sunday evening. The film, released in November, stars actor Colman Domingo as the title character and Chris Rock as activist Roy Wilkins. Rustin faced struggles not only because of his race, but also his sexuality as an openly gay Black man. 

“The Civil Rights Movement was a diverse movement of people from all spectrums of ethnicity, religion and sexuality,” Thomas said. 

A talk-back session after the screening will discuss the film (runtime: one hour, 46 minutes; rating: PG-13) and answer questions. 

Monday, Jan. 15

A solidarity march during the 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

9:15 a.m. — Solidarity March: A silent march will proceed from the BLM mural outside University Commons to Lehman Auditorium to kick off Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

“Marches were what happened throughout the Movement,” Thomas said. “You had the March on Washington, the march between Selma and Montgomery, you had marches in Memphis, to show solidarity.” 

Students are invited to create posters in the Student Life office on Sunday night to display during the march.

“It’s a silent march, so that people are concentrating and reflecting on the movement and how it has supported them and how it affects them today,” Thomas said. 

9:30 a.m. — Speak Out: Following the march, EMU students, faculty and staff and other community members are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings, music, poetry and anything else supporting the celebration’s theme at Lehman Auditorium. 

“People will have an opportunity to come to the microphone and share in whichever way they want to share,” Thomas said. 

The event will wrap up with a preselected student monologue.

Jeremy Gillett

10 a.m. — Black & 25 in America: Playwright and actor Jeremy Gillett will perform his one-man show, Black & 25 in America, at Lehman Auditorium. The Kentucky native portrays five different characters in a series of vignettes about the lives of young Black people in America that explores the issues of race, class, gender and identity. 

A talk-back session will offer audience members a chance to engage with him after the performance. 

12:30 p.m. — Lunch at Northlawn Cafeteria: A special soul food-inspired menu will be served at the dining hall. “I want to give credit to Dining Services, Pioneer College Caterers, and to Food Service Director Shannon Grinnan for working with us on that special menu for the day,” Thomas said. Regular dining charges will apply for the lunch. 

The EMU Chamber Singers perform with the VUU Gospel Choir in Richmond.

2 p.m. — Convocation featuring the VUU Gospel Choir: Hailing from Richmond, the Virginia Union University Gospel Choir will perform at Lehman Auditorium. In October, the historically Black university invited the EMU Chamber Singers to perform on its stage with them and Grammy Award-winning artist Hezekiah Walker during a live recording. You can read more about the partnership between the two schools here. 

EMU Music Program Director David Berry will open Convocation with a medley, followed by remarks from EMU President Susan Schultz Huxman, Thomas and Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed. After a series of songs from the VUU Gospel Choir, the EMU Chamber Singers will join them for a performance of I Need You to Survive.

Those attending Convocation are asked to bring a nonperishable food item to donate for the food drive.

7 p.m. — There is a Field screening: A showing of the movie There is a Field inside the old Common Grounds space will round off the MLK Jr. Celebration on Monday evening. The movie mirrors the struggles of Palestinian activists in Israel with members of Black communities in the U.S. It will be followed by a talk-back session, cosponsored by Tim Seidel, Trina Nussbaum and the Center for Interfaith Engagement. This event has been postponed due to inclement weather

All events, other than the lunch on Monday, are free to attend. For more information about the performers and events, visit

Thomas credited the EMU Black Student Alliance and Tyler Goss, director for student engagement and leadership development, for their help.

“I think, if people come out,” Thomas said, “they’ll learn something not only about other people, but also about themselves.”

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