CMU presents MLK Jr. Day keynote lecture with Soledad O'Brien

On Tuesday, Feb. 8, Carnegie Mellon’s University Lecture Series presented a keynote lecture with Soledad O’Brien. The University Lecture Series invites artists, experts, and scholars nominated by Carnegie Mellon faculty, students, and staff.

The 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Keynote Lecture with O'Brien opened with remarks from Vice Provost of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Wanda Heading-Grant, who encouraged the in-person audience and those joining over Zoom to reflect on the words, actions, and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her remarks were followed by a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the Black National Anthem.

Following Heading-Grant's remarks, Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian praised the student performance before stating there is “an institutional effort and institutional commitment” to DEI. He praised the progress that has been made since the commitments to DEI were announced in July 2020. President Jahanian then introduced Soledad O’Brien, a broadcast anchor and executive producer who currently hosts “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien” on Hearst Television.

The lecture opened with O’Brien introducing the history of Dr. King and historic misconceptions surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. She discussed his unpopularity during his lifetime and how, until his assassination, public perception increasingly portrayed him negatively as a radical. Dr. King’s platform focused on economic justice alongside civil rights.

O’Brien showed how misrepresentation of history affects policy today, such as recent efforts in several states to obstruct voting for communities of color.

She described her experiences working on documentaries about Dr. King, where she had access to primary sources revealing a man who was not inherently a leader, but a man who stood up when called to leadership. She also emphasized the qualities that made him an ideal leader for the civil rights movement, including his charisma and likability. She noted that Dr. King had died planning a program for the poor.

O’Brien made clear that many of the issues related to race, equity, and apathy that were present in Dr. King’s time are still present today. She also encouraged young people to continue to push for equity and justice, stressing that it is often young people that push for change and have done so successfully before.

Questions for O’Brien were submitted through a link, focusing on personal experiences with racism, worries about inaction in the policy sphere, modern hysteria, and what young people and administrators should do. O’Brien offered the audience direct answers to these questions while also reassuring the audience that despite days of feeling hopeless, there is more to be optimistic about than pessimistic. In follow-up comments with The Tartan, O’Brien further emphasized the media’s struggle and “failure” to address complicated issues surrounding racial and economic issues.

Vice Provost Heading-Grant also commented on the future of DEI, particularly focusing on DEI’s commitment to creating an excellent environment of “belonging” and getting to a place where students are part of a “family.” She also highlighted the “role of education in terms of advancing the needle and supporting students,” and the next step is to help students thrive and be successful through DEI initiatives.