MLK Day at VU: Snow, storytelling and service converge for memorable commemorative series


Khalil Ekulona, host of Nashville Public Radio’s This Is Nashville, once found his dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings tested by conversations with a militia member in New Mexico.  

But “whenever we talked, I didn’t cut him off,” Ekulona said during his keynote address from Vanderbilt University’s 2024 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series. “Without judgment, I tried to see him as a human being, just with different views. Over time, this led to understanding and ultimately to trust.” 

That series of civil conversations with that militia member/roofer who had “very opposing views,” Ekulona said, embodied for him one of the key pillars of King’s philosophies centered in his Jan. 15 livestreamed remarks: understanding, grace, integrity and honesty and how they show up in everyday life. 

Ekulona challenged the Vanderbilt community to commit in their own ways to continue spreading those philosophies, working to ensure that every person can live King’s dream. 

 “The wisdom he gave us, it’s upon each of us to cultivate it,” Ekulona said, to use grace, integrity, honesty and understanding with others—and to be on the lookout for others to use them with you. 

This year’s MLK Day commemoration theme—“One Vanderbilt. One Nashville. One Dream.”—was a nod to the history of the university, which celebrates its sesquicentennial this year and where generations of Nashvillians have come together to learn and serve. 

The theme evokes “what it means to belong—to a community and a common purpose,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said in remarks before Ekulona’s speech. “It’s about people with many distinct viewpoints, acting as one, with a shared dream of a better world for all.” 

This is part of why, Diermeier said, Dialogue Vanderbilt was launched in 2023, to reaffirm the university’s commitment to free expression and helping restore the standards of civil discourse, constructive conversation and mutual respect in society today. 

 Diermeier reflected on King’s legacy and the lessons it holds for the Vanderbilt community today. Chief among them, he said, is the unwavering belief in humanity’s fundamental goodness: “Dr. King’s movement was grounded in nonviolence because he believed only love could conquer hate, and the only way to build a more just nation was to build it together.”   

And Ekulona plays an important role in unifying the community through his work with This Is Nashville, Diermeier said. The daily show and podcast spotlights diverse voices and stories from around Nashville—sometimes uplifting and celebrating them and sometimes analyzing and challenging them. 

In his address, Ekulona went on to share stories from throughout his life that he realized represented an incremental step toward the fulfillment of King’s dream.  

He experienced integrity working as a camp counselor. He found grace while interning in Washington, D.C. He faced honesty as a teacher at an alternative high school in Los Angeles. And understanding—that was gained from the militia member in New Mexico.  

In challenging the Vanderbilt community, particularly students, to continue King’s work, Ekulona acknowledged that comfort zones might need to be breached and smartphones might need to be put down: “Be curious. Look around. Take a risk. Strike up a conversation. You never know what story you’ll hear or what perspective you’ll gain.”  

Due to inclement weather, the day’s other scheduled events, including the Vanderbilt community’s participation in the Nashville MLK Day March and the Fisk Gymnastics MLK Day Meet at Memorial Gym, were canceled.  

The MLK Joint Day of Service took place as planned on Saturday, Jan. 13, convening students from all of Nashville’s colleges and universities at Meharry Medical College for a keynote address from Vanderbilt University Distinguished Professor Michael Eric Dyson before they spread out to perform community service projects across the city.