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‘Caste’ author Isabel Wilkerson to headline MLK Symposium

January 15, 2021 By Payton Wade

On Jan. 25, the University of Wisconsin–Madison will welcome the highly respected narrative nonfiction writer Isabel Wilkerson as the keynote speaker for the virtual Martin Luther King Jr Symposium.

“The work to fulfill Dr. King’s vision of racial equality continues today, and Wilkerson is carrying on this work,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “We look forward to hearing her presentation in honor of MLK Day here on campus.”

Isabel Wilkerson Photo by Joe Henson

Wilkerson, winner of the National Humanities Medal, is best known for her works, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” and “Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Her books focus on how the history of Black people in America can help everyone understand the issues Black people still experience in this country today. Wilkerson has a unique ability to bring life to historical events and connect them to the American hierarchy still experienced today.

“It is important for us to have a speaker like Isabel Wilkerson address how the historical challenges people of color faced are sadly still relevant today,” says Lori Reesor, vice chancellor for student affairs. “Wilkerson’s expertise on this subject will provide a new perspective that supports UW–Madison’s commitment to seek social justice and fight racism.”

Student Affairs and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement are sponsoring the event at 6 p.m. CST in partnership with the Wisconsin Union Theater. Registration is free and open to the public until the start of the event, which coincides with the first day of classes for spring semester.

Wilkerson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Before the release of her most recent book, “Caste,” the Chicago Tribune declared that it “should be at the top of every American’s reading list.” Dwight Garner, chief book critic of The New York Times, called the book “an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.” Oprah Winfrey featured “Caste” as part of her Summer 2020 Book Club.

“Isabel Wilkerson is a distinguished author with writings that synthesize history and personal narratives to help our generation consider the implications of a system of oppression and racism,” says Cheryl Gittens, interim deputy vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. “It is an honor and privilege to engage Wilkerson at this year’s annual Martin Luther King Jr Symposium on the virtual stage. UW–Madison is situationally poised to use ‘Caste’ and Wilkerson’s insights to deepen our understanding and challenge our approaches to address systemic issues that Martin Luther King, Jr, and many other trailblazers have championed.” 

Captioning will be provided for this event. For additional accommodations, please reach out to Kathy Kuno at