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'The voice for the voiceless': PBS Newshour journalist discusses MLK’s legacy, transformative power of journalism

Yamiche Alcindor speaks about the past, future fight for racial justice in America

In high school, American journalist Yamiche Alcindor learned about Emmett Till, a Black boy who was brutally murdered by a group of white men after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. Alcindor also learned that Till’s mother saw her son’s disfigured body and decided to leave his casket open at the funeral. 

“She literally changed the world,” said Alcindor, this year’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture speaker, during Thursday’s event. “And I should tell you, she changed my life.” 

Alcindor said this moment inspired her to become a journalist. “I wanted to be a professional witness who was bringing those hard truths of America,” she said. “I wanted to be the person who was taking the photo of the disfigured Americans that are victim to the racism and the prejudice that exists in our society.”

In her lecture, Alcindor addressed a range of topics surrounding the racial justice movements of King’s time and of today. As a journalist, she said, she never expected she would have to cover the murders of so many African Americans that resulted from discrimination.

Alcindor said she is “heartened by the fact” that she is not alone in the fight for racial justice, pointing to the long history of the Civil Rights Movement and King’s 1960 speech at Brown, during which he implored students to combat hatred and prejudice. King spoke at the University again in 1967.

Alcindor didn’t begin her writing career as an “enterprising journalist,” she said, but as a “confused 17-year-old” writing for Westside Gazette, an African American newspaper near Miami, Florida. After attending Georgetown University, she began writing for USA Today before moving to the New York Times and eventually working at PBS NewsHour, where she covers the intersection of race and politics. Alcindor also contributes to NBCNews and MSNBC. 

Alcindor’s goal as a journalist is to be “the voice for the voiceless,” she said.

She has received numerous awards in journalism, including the White House Correspondents' Association's Aldo Beckman Award for Overall Excellence.

Having covered racial justice protests motivated by the police killings of African Americans, including Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, Alcindor said that the issues King addressed so many years ago remain with us today. 

“There (is) a new generation of African Americans who (are once) again demanding to be set free,” she said.

Alcindor pointed to the disproportionate mortality and infection rates of COVID-19 within the Black population as one reason why it is “crystal clear” that Americans must finally “grappl(e) with racism.”

She emphasized the value of honoring those alongside King, including his wife Coretta Scott King, who established The King Center just three months after her husband’s death.

Alcindor also spoke about King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop,” in which he declared that if God asked him which age he would live in, King would still choose the second half of the 20th century because there was work to be done. “Only when it's dark enough, can you see the stars,” he said.

“I feel in some ways blessed to be doing the work that we're doing in this time period, because so much of what we've been grappling with now has to be faced,” Alcindor said. She added that white supremacy was “pulling away our democractic ideals,” mentioning the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Alcindor ended by noting that she met her husband at none other than the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. “Meeting my husband at (the monument) reminds me every day that at the core of Martin Luther King's legacy is the idea of love,” she said. “It is the idea that if we can all love each other … we can fight injustice in all corners of this world.”

After the lecture ended, Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Shontay Delalue said that Alcindor’s talk “was a beautiful narrative of … how our stories are interconnected, regardless of what we do for work … and that we should allow our life experiences to shine through our work.”

President Christina Paxson P’19 said that the annual lecture, which has been in place since 1996, is particularly vital this year following the national reckoning on racial inequity. 

“It's more important than ever,” she said, “that we reaffirm our values as a community that advances knowledge and celebrates diversity and works to promote equity and effect change.”

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