Keeping Dr. King's Legacy Alive in Utah

When it comes to celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Reverend’s legacy at large, Salt Lake City isn’t always the first place that comes to mind. In taking a closer look, there are numerous ways to celebrate this historic holiday in Salt Lake on January 16 and beyond. Through Utah’s own Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission, an organization that works year-round to promote diversity, equity, and human rights in Utah, the city comes together for several momentous celebrations. These celebrations include educating residents on Dr. King's mission, curating a one-of-a-kind MLK Jr. license plate, and getting the Utah Jazz involved with Utah’s youth.

How the MLK Commission Was Founded

Getting Utah its own MLK Jr. Human Rights Commission was a storied task. The seeds for the Commission were first planted in the late ’80s and early ’90s by Salt Lake activists like Dr. Forrest Crawford and Betty Sawyer. They wanted to create a platform that served as a voice for underserved communities and kept Dr. King’s legacy alive in Utah. Through their efforts, then-Governor Norm Bangerter agreed to sign an executive order on July 1, 1991, establishing the Commission in Utah. Governor Gary Herbert reissued the executive order over two decades later on August 28, 2013. The Commission was eventually codified into state statute by the Utah State Legislature in 2019, becoming an official branch of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs.

Aanjel Clayton, Vice Chair of The MLK Jr. Human Rights Commission, strives to facilitate teachings on nonviolence across Utah through the organization.
Aanjel Clayton, Vice Chair of The MLK Jr. Human Rights Commission
Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence

A large part of the Commission’s mission today is to educate and empower residents of Utah with Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence. At their core, the Six Principles are a method to overcome injustice through acts of nonviolence. The Commission believes the Six Principles are key to stopping violence amongst people, not only in Utah, but around the nation. “I like that our Commission in our community is taking on that mantle and pushing that forward,” says Aanjel Clayton, Vice Chair of the Commission, "so that we don't have more headlines around violence or gun violence, particularly with our young adults.”

King Conversation Series

The commission uses a number of methods to educate people on the Six Principles. One of its most important platforms is the King Conversation Series. The goal of the series is to bring people from different backgrounds together through discussion and dialogue, especially regarding topics of injustice. “It is definitely an important part of ensuring people are aware of the nonviolent principles of Dr. King,” says Bridget Shears, Chair of the Commission. The King Conversations may include several members of the commission, or a singular speaker depending on event specifics or organizational needs. For the past few years, these conversations have been exclusively virtual - a good example is this archived clip from a King Conversation in which Dr. Karen A. Johnson speaks with PBS Utah on Dr. King’s mission and issues of social justice.

(L–R) Eddy Thompson, Bridget Shears and Aanjel Clayton are key components of sharing and maintaining Dr. King’s principles in Utah this MLK Jr. Day.
Eddy Thompson, Chair Bridget Shears, and Vice Chair Aanjel Clayton

While the rate at which the Commission hosts King Conversations has slowed down in the wake of the pandemic, there is a plan to revitalize the series like never before. The Commission plans to release special toolkits on its website, which will be a revamped version of discussion topics in the King Conversation Series outline, and will be accessible on MLK Jr. Day. These toolkits will be printable resources available for individuals, schools, and organizations on how to connect to resources and request special seminars through the King Conversation Series.

Town Halls

Another method the Commission uses to educate and promote different communities is town halls. These types of town halls are important because they give different communities a chance to share their own voice and input more diverse opinions into the greater Salt Lake community. “We strive to keep that diversity because we want to give all communities a voice,” says Shears. “Sometimes it's hard because we only have 13 commissioners, and honestly, there are more than 13 communities that could be represented here. But we try and do our best to serve a variety of individuals throughout the state.” An example is this archived town hall from March 2021, hosted by the MLK Jr. Human Rights Commission in conjunction with the University of Utah School of Medicine, in which Liz Adeola and Dr. Charles R. Rogers speak on colorectal cancer in the Black community.

The license plate is a momentous achievement not only for Utah but on a national scale, as few other states have a license plate like this.
Utah MLK Jr. License Plate

In the over 20 years since it was founded, the Commission has achieved several milestones, from becoming codified to working with nearly every university in Utah. One of its most recent and biggest accomplishments was finally getting Utah its own license plate celebrating Dr. King and his work. Getting the plate took over a decade of effort, but it finally became available to Utahns in 2020.

The design for the license plate was created by Eleanor Smith, a student from Timpview High School.
High school student Eleanor Smith designed the plate

The design for the plate was created by Eleanor Smith, a student from Timpview High School. “I think the all-encompassing hands around the state of Utah just fit perfectly,” says Eddy Thompson, a former chair and current advisor to the Commission, about the plate design. “It just says it. It’s healing hands touching around the state of Utah. It’s just a beautiful design.” The license plate is a momentous achievement not only for Utah but on a national scale, as few other states have a license plate like this. “For the state of Utah to have something like this—it’s unbelievable,” says Thompson. Keep an eye out for these plates around the streets of Salt Lake!

Coaching staff from the Utah Jazz Organization aids with spreading Dr. King’s messages to public schools in conjunction with the MLK Jr. Human Rights Commission.
Working with the Utah Jazz

One of the biggest celebrations the Commission holds each year is getting Utah’s youth involved with the Utah Jazz on MLK Jr. day, teaching interactive lessons at schools around the Wasatch front. Each year, the students learn about Dr. King’s Six Principles, partake in a computer coding camp, play basketball with the team coaches and receive tickets to a Jazz game. “It’s always fun to bring youth in, engage with youth and then treat them to a game afterward,” says Thompson.

The Commission collectively works with public schools around the Wasatch front to create positive, educational experiences on MLK Jr. Day for students and school administration.
Celebrating MLK Jr. Day with All Communities in Utah

A major purpose of the Commission is to provide advice and assistance to organizations celebrating MLK Jr. Day. The first thing it tells any organization looking for guidance is that the holiday is for everybody. “This isn't just a Black community holiday—it's really for everyone,” says Clayton. It’s an emphasis that lies with Dr. King’s mission to fight for civil rights for all and not just for African-American communities. “I think we need to come together,” Clayton continues, “and amplify our differences together so that everyone is seen as valuable.”

The MLK Jr. Human Rights Commission invites all organizations and communities to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They offer assistance and advice for celebrating the holiday, such as where to find educational resources about the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s impact, volunteer opportunities, event participation and much more. The Commission is best reached through its website,, and by visiting the Utah Public Notice website and following the steps below:

  • Under Government, click State.
  • Under Entity, click Department of Cultural and Community Engagement.
  • Under Body(s), click MLK Commission.
  • In the results, choose a meeting date for specific information.

Follow the organization on Facebook @MLKUtah for updates on their 2023 MLK Jr. Day toolkit, updates on future town halls, King Conversation series panels, planned celebrations for the Juneteenth holiday, and more.