In late January this year, members of the Cowboy family and Tulsa Public Schools convened at The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts, where actor Jay Ellis delivered the keynote speech for Oklahoma State University’s 2023 MLK week keynote speaker. The OSU Speakers Board collaborated with the Celebration Committee and the McKnight Center to organize the event.
Ellis is a well-known actor, famous for his portrayal of Lawrence Walker in the HBO series “Insecure” and his recent performance as “Payback” in “Top Gun: Maverick.” NAACP award-winning actor, Ellis, spoke to the audience about the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Meghan Robinson of Inside OSU moderated the Q&A session with Ellis, posing questions to him from the Cowboy family about his formative years in Tulsa and the impact of Dr. King on his life. Ellis expressed that he would not have been able to sit on the stage had it not been for Dr. King's accomplishments.
“I probably wouldn’t be able to sit on this stage had he not done what he did,” said Ellis. “I know there’s a lot of us in this room that would not have been able to be here.”
Ellis stated that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, demanded the end of racism and race inequality in the United States, and when asked if he believed that Dr. King’s dream was realistic or idealistic, he stated that it was realistic.
“I work in an industry that is completely made up,” Ellis explained. “We always have to be seeing and believing and have a strong point of view, because that becomes your reality. Language is powerful, and when you are constantly speaking something into existence, that thing will come into existence.”
He emphasized that the recognition of history is essential, and even though it has been nearly six decades since the end of segregation, there is still a long way to go for people of color in the U.S. Ellis grew up in Tulsa and learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre from his community and his mother, who was in charge of taking photographs of survivors for a memorial project.
“I remember that being my first real grasp of what happened, and really understanding from all their stories of how it all started and how it all ended,” he said.
Ellis was also asked questions about his acting career and his role in “Top Gun: Maverick,” where he and his co-stars had to endure a seven-hour fitness test in the water and learn to fly an aircraft. The bond he developed with his co-stars helped him persevere, even in the most difficult moments.
Jillian McGee, co-chair of the Celebration Committee, expressed how thrilled students were to have Ellis be their MLK week keynote speaker, given his Tulsa roots and the added layer of relatability that he brought to the event. The goal is to continue hosting impactful speakers and events in the future that encourage the OSU community to celebrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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