Black Lives Matter co-founder to speak at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation

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Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who helped bring to life one of 21st century America’s most influential and high-profile civil rights movements, will be the keynote speaker for the 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation in downtown Santa Cruz.

The convocation takes place at 7 p.m. Friday, February 12, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

In the past, the convocation has attracted a wide array of speakers, including the Harvard professor Cornel West, the author Alice Walker, and the radical activist and UC Santa Cruz emeritus professor Angela Davis, who drew one of the biggest-ever crowds to the convocation last year. 

But this year’s incarnation of the event will give audience members a modern-day lens of the civil rights movement and pay homage to King’s legacy.

“What Dr. King stood for was not just about what happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” said Sheree Marlowe, UC Santa Cruz campus diversity officer for staff and students. “He built a legacy and provided a platform for other activists moving forward. He and other Civil Rights activists laid the framework in the fight against anti-blackness that made it possible for movements like Black Lives Matter to exist. This is an example of how his legacy has continued on through the voices of today.”

Black Lives Matter describes itself, in its website, as “a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes … Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.  It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”

“I believe this is a crucial time for the convocation,” Marlowe said, citing the number of police shootings of unarmed black citizens in the United States. "Based on what is happening nationally, and what is going on in college campuses across America, it’s important to talk about what it looks like to be part of a civil rights movement."

Marlowe also called Garza a “pivotal” figure “in the fight against anti-blackness.” 

Black Lives Matter roared into life three years ago in part because Garza was furious and heartbroken by the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American adolescent, and, a year later, by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Martin. Initially she went to social media to express her grief, and began ending each message with the phrase “Our Lives Matter/We Matter/Black Lives Matter.” 

A signature sign-off turned into a movement name; Garza—along with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors—began to use “Black Lives Matter” as a Twitter hashtag. The result was a grassroots activist movement that soon went nationwide. 

Garza’s work has earned her various honors, including two Harvey Milk Democratic Club Community Activist Awards. In 2015, Garza and the Black Lives Matter co-founders were honored with inclusion on The Root’s top 100 list for the movement’s social and political impact. She is now the special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Garza has also served as director for People Organized to Win Employment Rights, where she led the charge on significant initiatives, including organizing against police violence in black neighborhoods.

Prior to her appearance at the convocation, Garza will engage in a dialogue with a small group of UC Santa Cruz students. 

During the convocation, audience members will also get to meet this year’s recipient of the Tony Hill Award, recognizing an individual who is engaged in the needs of the community and seeks to provide tools to work toward solutions. The deadline for the nominations for the award is January 22. The individual should be one who demonstrates hands-on service that results in building connections among diverse groups, promoting equality and justice.