Skip navigation links

Feb. 8, 2022

Black history makers: Sharing wisdom at MSU

As an institution of higher education, Michigan State University has been home to speeches by many prominent Black, African and African American leaders, storytellers and history-makers who broke down barriers. Their voices aid in the sharing of ideas, the advancement of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students and the promotion of the general well-being of society.

Hear the voices of some of these well-known leaders during their visits to MSU.

Hosting movement leaders

During the 1960s, MSU’s campus was visited by different civil and human rights leaders including: Stokely Carmichael, then chair of the national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; James Farmer, first national director of the Committee of Racial Equality; and Malcolm X, African American Muslim minister. In 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped members of MSU’s student government kick off fundraising for the Student Tutorial Education Program. At the time it was the first all student-administered educational outreach program of its kind in the country.

Nearly 10 years after her husband’s assassination, Coretta Scott King visited with students in MSU’s colleges of Human Ecology and Urban Development, who were studying American minority families. She spoke of her experience growing up in Alabama in the 1930s, including the insults, indignities and intimidation her father experienced while working to support his family. Scott King also shared how she felt the Black family structure played an important role in reducing poverty in America’s rural south.

Inspiring Spartan graduates

At the end of each semester, graduates hear from inspirational public figures as they go off to be world-leaders and life-changers. Speakers have included: Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records; Johnnetta Betsch Cole, then director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution; and William Gray, then president of the UNCF.

In 1994, Ernest Green returned to MSU, his alma mater, to share his experience as the first Black student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1958, saying “…they wanted Ernest Green to fail. I wouldn’t let it happen.” The two-time MSU alumnus also encouraged graduates to continue learning and to take part in democracy, because both education and voting are “gifts that people once fought and died for.”

More than 10 years later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoed Green’s sentiments about voting as he discussed the efforts that led to the successful fall of apartheid in South Africa during his commencement speech on campus. Tutu then asked graduates to be God’s partner in making this world a little more compassionate and helping all know “we are made for togetherness.”

Starting conversations on culture

Among many events on campus, such as the Dr. William G. Anderson Lecture Series: “Slavery to Freedom,” the Signature Lecture Series, originally founded as the Celebrity Lecture Series, allows notable public figures to engage with the MSU community through conversations and discussions. Participants have included: then Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Judith Jamison; comedian Trevor Noah; and journalist Soledad O’Brien.

In 1990, renowned author Maya Angelou spoke to the audience on what she called real love — a condition of the human spirit that is expressed through literature. Angelou encouraged attendees to develop close relationships with their librarians who “have keys to pure magic” and to explore writings from Black authors.

Recently, Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, shared her experience writing Just Us: An American Conversation. Speaking in 2020 shortly after election day, Rankine talked about creating a relationship between the facts and a statement, and how conversations are both about understanding the other person and understanding how we are different.


  • Recordings of Maya Angelou and Claudia Rankine courtesy of the MSU College of Arts and Letters.
  • Recordings of Ernest Green, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, as well as the photo of Coretta Scott King, courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections. 
  • Recording of Desmond Tutu courtesy of Russ White and the MSU Today Podcast.


Like these videos? Subscribe to MSU's YouTube channel and never miss a video. Subscribe now

By: Melody Kindraka and Nick Schrader