“Service, social justice, equality has always been part of my upbringing.”

Machamma Quinichett

Quinichett with a portrait of King fashioned from jellybeans as part of the “Jellybean Nation” program


Associate director, African American Resource Center

Length of service:
2 years

Other stuff:
She is a product of the Talented Tenth—her father, like King, was a Morehouse man, and she graduated from its sister school, Spelman College

Photo by Candace diCarlo

If planning the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Symposium were left up to one person, it would be a full-time job all year.

As it is, Machamma Quinichett spends a good chunk of her time each fall overseeing the planning effort for the two-week series of events. But the only paid member of the symposium’s planning committee—it’s part of her duties as associate director of the African-American Resource Center, the symposium’s sponsor—has plenty of dedicated volunteers from the entire Penn community to help her with the job each year.

We spoke with her about the symposium and what goes into organizing it during a calm moment just before this year’s event.

Q. What does being chair of the planning committee involve?
I help with the organization of the entire symposium. I am responsible for planning the executive committee meetings, for recruiting and membership for the executive committee. I keep minutes for the meeting. I attend all of the subcommittee meetings. We have the program subcommittee, we have the Day of Service subcommittee, we have the Community Involvement Award subcommittee and we have the public relations subcommittee.

I also fill in the gaps. Whatever needs to be done, I either ask someone to help me with it or I do it.

Q. Is there anything different about this year’s events?
This year, the breakfast is a bit different in that we’re partnering with GlaxoSmithKline and “Kids’ Corner” at WXPN.

“Kids’ Corner” partnered with GlaxoSmithKline to promote “Jellybean Nation.” The performance that [local elementary school] students are doing is tied into the “Jellybean Nation” celebration.

Q. What’s this “Jellybean Nation” about?
It promotes racial understanding. [The year-long educational program uses jellybeans, which are composed of 99 percent sugar and gelatin and one percent color, as a metaphor for racial and ethnic differences among people.] They consulted with us about how we could incorporate this program into the Day of Service. For logistical reasons, it worked out better that we incorporate it with the breakfast and have it as the kickoff event.

Q. What’s the most enjoyable part of putting this symposium together?
Knowing that we’re doing something to promote Dr. King’s legacy. I grew up in the South, in Atlanta, Dr. King’s birthplace, and so the King holiday and the King legacy was something that was pretty much incorporated in the fabric of life for me growing up.

Q. What was it like growing up there? Were you active in civil rights or social justice activities?
I saw the elders around me participate in service and political avenues to make society more just. I heard my parents talking about their experience in the South growing up. The college I attended, one of Dr. King’s sisters had an office across from a class I attended. So service, social justice, equality has always been part of my upbringing.

… In working with the students here, there seems to be a difference in that people don’t really talk about the civil rights movement, or if they do talk about it, they talk about it as an event that happened so many years ago that it’s almost as if—

Q. It doesn’t matter?
Yes. I think there’s an illusion that we’re better off today than we were in the ’60s. I think that’s an illusion because we still have high infant mortality rates in the black and Latino communities. We still have a large number of homeless. We still have people who are violent towards gays and lesbians and people from different cultural backgrounds. We still have gross exploitation of women. The same things King talked about and died for, we’re still struggling with those same issues today.

In some ways, we are better off. We have more material things, we have more opportunity, we have a more equal playing field. But there’s this quote from Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Q. Do you ever wonder if things would be different if King hadn’t been assassinated?
I do wonder about that. And I listen to people when they ask the question, If Dr. King were alive today, what would he say and what would he do? And I have a hard time. I don’t know where we would be if he were not assassinated.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge in organizing the symposium?
Really getting student involvement is difficult. And I think it’s difficult because I think the perception is the King symposium is a black event or a minority event, and really it’s for everyone.

Originally published on January 29, 2004