Is the dream still alive?

At a time of social change and upheaval, how do we make sense of Dr. King’s legacy?

Since its recognition as a federal holiday in 1983, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has served as a celebration not only of Dr. King’s legacy and history but as a benchmark by which we mark our own progress. The MLK Day holiday affords us an opportunity to reflect on past achievements, consider where we have fallen short, and continue to push forward the work of racial, social, and economic justice. It also begs the question, “Is the ‘Dream’ still alive?” 

In 2023, have we reached a point where Dr. King’s strategies of nonviolence, civil disobedience, and collective activism no longer generate the kind of social change of the Civil Rights Movement, in a post-George Floyd, pandemic-weary, social media-obsessed world? Protests and boycotts are now waged on Twitter and Facebook (Meta), WeChat, and TikTok, not on “Bloody Sunday” marches from Selma to Montgomery. 

The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) spoke to organizers of the annual MLK Holiday Breakfast, General Mills Vice President Courtney Andersen (CA), and United Negro College Fund (UNCF) Development Director Laverne McCartney Knighton (LMK) about this year’s theme and keynote speaker, Valerie Jarrett, and the significance of Martin Luther King’s legacy and impact.       

MSR: The theme for this year’s event is “Keep Moving Forward,” inspired by MLK’s leadership and lessons applied to the pressing social issues of today. What do you see as today’s “pressing” social issues, and how are you and your partners working towards addressing them?

LMK: There are still so many pressing social issues facing us today that have been exacerbated by the events of 2020—George Floyd’s murder, the pandemic, racial and civil unrest, economic and educational disparities. We recognize that some progress has been made, but so much more work still needs to be done. 

UNCF, along with many other corporations and community organizations, partnered with the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity (MBCRE) to address issues and concerns that are ensuring Minnesota communities are strong and thriving. 

UNCF has long been an active partner in lobbying the federal government—the largest source of funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—to increase the financial commitment to HBCUs. The adverse impact of the pandemic on the economy and the ongoing effects of systemic racism through police shootings and civil unrest, and the need within the Black community have made UNCF’s advocacy an even more urgent priority. 

As a direct result of this advocacy, UNCF’s engagement helped direct $5 billion in federal funds to HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

CA: In 2020, General Mills banded together with companies from across the state of Minnesota to do more—support efforts, lift up and help change the trajectory of systemic racism in our communities. We are a part of the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity, alongside 80 Minnesota-based corporations and community partners, aiming to help drive meaningful change around racial and social justice in our hometown. 

Through this partnership with our corporate peers, local and state government, community leaders, and others, we will take bold and leading actions needed to combat racial and social inequity and ensure our community is a place where we all can flourish. 

(l-r) t Courtney Andersen and Laverne McCartney-Knighton

MSR: Civil rights and voting rights—hallmarks of MLK’s legacy—are seemingly under attack by the courts and politicians in many states. How have these challenges—restrictive voting laws and gerrymandering designed to undercut certain voting blocs—impacted Dr. King’s legacy? Has it informed the theme for this year’s event “Keep Moving Forward,” and if so, how?

LMK: This year’s theme, ‘Keep Moving Forward,’ is a phrase Dr. King spoke about with hope and encouragement during a speech he delivered at Spelman College in 1960. Dr. King said: “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 forward.” 

CA: Over our more than 150-year history, General Mills has a long record of and commitment to supporting voting access and participation. A strong democracy, at its most basic, is providing citizens full and unfettered access to voting.

MSR: The MLK Holiday Breakfast has been held for more than 30 years to honor Dr. King’s words and legacy. How has the focus and efforts to honor Dr. King’s legacy—through partnerships and programs—evolved over time?

LMK: The MLK Breakfast is one of the largest MLK events held in the country. It is a much-anticipated event that brings the community together and is always a sold-out event. 

We have been successful in bringing in other corporate partners as sponsors who are committed to Dr. King’s legacy and dream for a more united world. This partnership has also evolved in that UNCF is able to provide scholarships to deserving Minnesota students of color through our fundraising efforts. 

MSR: This year’s MLK Holiday Breakfast guest is Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to former President Barack Obama and CEO of his foundation. How does the choice of Ms. Jarrett as keynote align with the theme “Keep Moving Forward,” and what insights will she bring to the breakfast conversation?

LMK: We selected Valerie Jarrett as our keynote speaker because we were interested in the perspective that she would bring to our event, given her work supporting inclusion, diversity and reform across government, nonprofit and corporate spaces. Her experience is global— working across every dimension of diversity. She knows how to do the tough work of culture change, and we look forward to her sharing her inspiring journey and message with us.  

She has been an advocate for initiatives at the heart of this year’s theme, ‘Keep Moving Forward,’ and relentless in her pursuit of progress in the face of challenging headwinds in areas from higher education to criminal justice reform, to equity and inclusion.

MSR: Although this year’s MLK Day Breakfast is also virtual, why was it important to have this year’s event in person?   

CA: This year’s breakfast will be unique, as they all are, in that we will be both in-person and also virtual. We still need to be vigilant with our health and safety and want to accommodate attendees as best as we can. 

For those who are comfortable and ready to be in person, we look forward to your energy and support; and for those who prefer to enjoy the event in the comfort of their home or office, we appreciate your support and welcome you too.  

MSR: General Mills has partnered with UNCF (United Negro College Fund) in supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). How has that partnership benefitted local students? 

LMK: For the seventh year, the breakfast is an official fundraiser, with net proceeds from tickets going to the UNCF to provide scholarships to deserving Twin Cities students, supporting them in their dreams to attain college degrees. Scholarships are awarded on a need-basis to students entering or planning to enroll as freshmen at any UNCF member institution, other HBCU, or an accredited four-year institution.

Last year, over $500k was raised to benefit UNCF in providing four-year scholarships to deserving local Twin Cities scholars, and operating support to 37 member HBCUs. Our goal this year is to exceed pre-pandemic dollars raised.CA: The event continues to inspire change in the world and honor those individuals whose footprints uplift the community. Following the breakfast, members of the Twin Cities community can engage through a variety of learning and volunteer opportunities organized by Hands on Twin Cities. Learn more at https://wwwhandsontwincities.org/mlkday2023.

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