Skip to main content

2020 Keynote Speakers

MLK Commemorative Series 2020 Keynote Event
Langford Auditorium | 5:30–8 p.m. (doors open at 4:30 p.m.)

*NOTE: The event is free to attend; for event planning purposes, those who would like to attend are asked to confirm their interest. Filling out the interest form does not guarantee admission; all seating at the event, including overflow spaces, is on a first-come basis.

Confirm your interest in attending this event>>

Parking for the event will be available in the 25th Avenue Garage, located near the intersection of 25th and Highland avenues. Please use the Highland Avenue entrance.

There will be CART services (live captioning) at the event for hearing-impaired audience members. To use the service, please contact


Janelle Monáe

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, performer, producer & actor

Janelle Monae
Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe, known for her unique style and groundbreaking sound, has been immersed in the performing arts since a young age. She founded her own record label, the Wondaland Arts Society, and has released the EP “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), and three critically acclaimed solo albums: ArchAndroid, which reached No. 17 on the Billboard Charts and earned her two Grammy nominations, including one for the hit single “Tightrope;” The Electric Lady, an album that reached No. 5 on the Billboard Charts, featured Prince and Miguel, and won an MTV Video Music Award for the music video for the album’s first single Q.U.E.E.N; and DIRTY COMPUTER, which had an accompanying narrative film titled the “Emotion Picture,” featured the hit songs “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” and was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards.  Monáe also serves as a spokesperson for cosmetics brand CoverGirl.

Additionally, Monáe has starred in several films, including Academy Award-nominated Hidden Figures, the Best Picture winner Moonlight, the live-action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp, the biographical film Harriet and upcoming film Antebellum.

Yusef Salaam

One the Exonerated Five, formerly known as the “Central Park Five”

Yusef Salaam
Yusef Salaam

Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, formally known as the Central Park Five, was wrongfully tried and convicted at age 15, along with four other boys of color, for the rape of a woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after the five men had each spent between 7 and 13 years in prison. The unidentified DNA in the case, unlinked to any of the five, was identified to be that of a convicted murderer and serial rapist who confessed. The convictions were overturned and they were all exonerated, later receiving a multi-million-dollar settlement from the city of New York.

Since his release, Salaam has been an advocate and educator on issues related to the disparities in the American criminal justice system, race, false confessions, and more. Salaam now serves on the board of the Innocence Project. He received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 from then-President Barack Obama. In 2019, he partnered with Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro on a Netflix feature limited series on the story of the Central Park Five, When They See Us.



Dean of the Divinity School Emilie M. Townes, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society

Dean of the Divinity School
Dean of the Divinity School Emilie M. Townes

Dean Townes’ broad areas of expertise include Christian ethics, cultural theory and studies, postmodernism and social postmodernism. She has been a pioneering scholar in womanist theology, a field of studies in which the historic and current insights of African American women are brought into critical engagement with the traditions of Christian theology. Townes has a strong interest in thinking critically about womanist perspectives on issues such as health care, economic justice, poetry and literary theory.

She is the author of the groundbreaking book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2006). Other books include Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Care and A Womanist Ethic of Care (Continuum, 1998), In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon Press, 1995) and Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (Scholars Press, 1993). She co-edited Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) with Katie Geneva Cannon and Angela D. Simms. In addition, Religion, Health, and Healing in African American Life (Praeger, 2008) was co-edited by Townes with Stephanie Y. Mitchem.

The ordained American Baptist clergywoman earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Joint Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary/Northwestern University Program in Religious and Theological Studies in 1989. She also received a doctorate in ministry from the University of Chicago in 1982. Previously, Townes earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees at the University of Chicago. She continues her research on women and health in the African diaspora in Brazil and the United States.

Townes currently serves as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2012–2016). She was the first African American woman elected to the presidential line of the American Academy of Religion, which she led in 2008. Townes was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.

Townes, who was born in Durham, N.C., came to Vanderbilt from Yale Divinity School, where she was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology and associate dean of academic affairs. Previously, she was the Carolyn Williams Beaird Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

In 2010 Townes was honored as Distinguished Religious Scholar by the Black Religious Scholars Group. She also received a Doctor of Human Letters from the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary that year. She has also received honorary doctorates from Washington and Jefferson College and Franklin College.

Townes is a contributing blogger for the religion page of the Huffington Post and the Feminism in Religion Forum.