Bates MLK Day History and Keynotes

The distinctive character of today’s MLK Day observance, which features a suspension of classes, a morning keynote, and a day of discussions, readings, screenings, and workshops, was influenced by the unique circumstances surrounding the 1991 King Day observance.

On Jan. 16, 1991, the Persian Gulf War began, the U.S.’s first major armed conflict in a generation. Two days later, the Bates faculty voted to cancel classes on MLK Day — Monday, Jan. 21 — “in honor of and to reflect upon Dr. King’s contributions to world peace, and to reflect upon the issues of peace and justice in the Middle East,” in the words of Professor of Religion Marcus Bruce ’77.

An all-college convocation began the Monday programming. An ad-hoc faculty committee planned and deployed a series of events for the day, many using King’s life and legacy as a means to understand the myriad issues at play.

By 1996, this now-familiar Monday format — morning convocation, including a keynote speaker, and a day of discussion in lieu of classes — was firmly in place. In 2003–04, the college’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee became a standing committee of the faculty.

List of MLK Keynote Speakers

Prior to 1990

Informal programming at Bates.


Eleanor Holmes Norton, legal scholar and commentator.


Donald W. Harward, president of Bates.


Julius L. Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.


Dorothy Butler Gilliam, columnist for The Washington Post.


Roger Wilkins, commentator and journalist.


The centennial celebration of Benjamin Mays’ birth.

Andrew Young, civil rights activist, ambassador, Atlanta mayor.


The first time since 1991 the faculty voted to cancel classes to devote the day to programming.

Clarence Page, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author, and columnist.


Charlayne Hunter-Gault, journalist.


Henri F. Norris, attorney, activist, and founder of New Millenia Films; led effort to distribute the movie Follow Me Home.


John Edgar Wideman, author and two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award


William R. Jones, philosopher, educator and minister.


Jualynne E. Dodson, associate professor of Afro-American studies and religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Joanne Bland, tour director of the National Voting Rights Museum; and the Rev. James Foster Reese, director emeritus of the racial ethnic ministry unit for the Presbyterian Church (USA).


James H. Cone, America’s pre-eminent black theologian.


Joanne Grant, award-winning filmmaker, a writer and veteran civil rights activist of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.


Alex Dupuy, professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Wesleyan University.


The Rev. John Mendez, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Winston-Salem Chronicle‘s 1994 Man of the Year.


Sharon Harley, pioneer in the field of African American women’s history and chair of the Department of African American Studies, University of Maryland, College Park.


Cleveland Sellers, civil rights activist and historian.


The Rev. Lawrence Edward Carter Jr., Morehouse College professor of religion.


Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton.


Barbara Savage, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Thought at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Rev. James Lawson, an influential advocate of non-violent activism who worked closely with King in the 1950s and ’60s


Julian Agyeman, environmental policy expert.


Anthea Butler, author, religious studies scholar and media commentator.

S2013 Schedule of Events


Gary Younge, English journalist and author The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream.

2014 Schedule of Events


Peniel Joseph, professor at Tufts, author and authority on the Black Power movement. “They want an expansive vision of social, economic and political justice that connects democratic ideals to democratic reality.”

2015 Schedule of Events


William Jelani Cobb, staff writer for The New Yorker and a history professor and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut.

2016 Schedule of Events


Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author and Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

2017 Schedule of Events


Na’ilah Suad Nasir, education researcher and president of the Spencer Foundation.

2018 Schedule of Events


Barbara Ransby (postponed to March 2019 due to weather), a Distinguished Professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

2019 Schedule of Events


Jennifer Lynn Eberhardt, author of the 2019 book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do and a psychology professor at Stanford.

2020 Schedule of Events

2021 (online)

Angela Davis, author and scholar, and activist.

2021 Schedule of Events

2022 (online)

Five-person panel of Maine-based thinkers, practitioners, and activists.

2022 Schedule of Events


Keith Hamilton Cobb, actor and playwright who wrote the award-winning play American Moor

2023 Schedule of Events