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Professors Dorothy Roberts and Marcia Chatelain reflect on the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 during the MLK Jr. Lecture in Social Justice on Jan. 24.

Credit: Derek Wong

Professor of sociology and law Dorothy Roberts received the Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice award and spoke on grassroots activism at the annual MLK lecture and awards ceremony. 

The event took place in the Zellerbach Theater on Jan. 24, with over 200 attendees present. The ceremony aims to celebrate community members “whose local engagements and active service to others best exemplifies the ideals Dr. King espoused."

Roberts is a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with joint appointments in Africana Studies, Sociology, and the Penn Carey Law School. She is also the founding director of the Center for Africana Studies’ Penn Program on Race, Science & Society. 

Roberts’ lecture, entitled “Are Civil Rights Enough?” detailed key challenges and moments within the American civil rights movement that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She advised the audience against relying on the act to protect them from "subtle racism."

“The majority of Supreme Court justices embrace a colorblind political ideology, a key post-civil rights strategy developed by conservatives to preserve white domination and laws that appear race neutral,” Roberts said. 

She also argued that civil rights were “not enough,” suggesting that the world would benefit from a broader approach to dismantling racist systems in place now — whether the racism in question is explicit or implicit. 

Roberts added that the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 served as evidence that grassroots movements and activism could incite widespread change. 

"[Grassroots organizing] should give hope to imagine a free, equal, and democratic society where today's unjust systems would be unimaginable — [giving] us a mandate to build with the urgency of now,” she said.

Before the lecture, Interim Penn President Larry Jameson delivered an address on the progression of social justice movements, from LGBTQ+ rights to environmental justice, over his lifetime. In his speech, he invited the audience to reflect on Martin Luther King’s view of social justice. 

“[It] requires us to constantly practice care, respect, and dignity for ourselves, but also for each other,” he said.  

Jameson went on to commend Roberts, characterizing her as a "first-rate" scholar who is "always accessible.” He detailed his familiarity with her work, both as an author and as a member of the University’s faculty, and commended her commitment and contributions at the intersection of race, biology, sociology, and policy.

“Her work improves lives and makes change, and she’s always in conversation with the communities that we serve,” Jameson said. 

Center for African Studies Director and Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies Wale Adebanwi also spoke highly of Roberts at the ceremony, stating that "fewer people are better placed to speak on the field of civil rights than a scholar who has examined the issue of race and subjugation and the contemporary manifestations of the issues.”

This year marked the 23rd consecutive MLK lecture and awards ceremony. It is part of the MLK Commemorative Symposium on social change, an annual month long series of events honoring MLK's legacy that started on Jan. 15.