Each year Southeast Missouri State University honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a celebratory dinner, highlighted with those leading our area in diversity and inclusion.

Since 1986, America has celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through observances that teach, excite, and inspire the next generation of leaders.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner is a University tradition that continues to garner growing involvement by students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and community members from the southeast Missouri region and beyond.  It's a celebration of both Dr King's life and it's a way to highlight the work being done today that reflects his values. 

The 2023 keynote speaker is Kendra Neely-Martin. We are honored to have her come and discuss this year’s theme, Coming Together: The Fierce Urgency of Now.


Kendra Neely-Martin chose red, white, and blue for the main colors for her non-profit BackPack to BriefCase that was founded nearly 14 years ago. She wanted it to represent the American Dream, and be a representation of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said years ago. 

Neely-Martin graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a Bachelor of Science in marketing before moving on to obtain her master’s degree. Since then, she’s taken a number of leadership roles in the region and with the University, including vice president for the Southeast Board of Regents, now the Board of Governors.

"Through that, I got to do meaningful work for the University across all aspects of University life," Neely-Martin said. "But most importantly impacting the students and student life is the biggest reward from that work."

One of the biggest projects of her accomplished career was the BackPack to BriefCase Mentoring and Scholarship Program (BPBC). BPBC provides scholarships and mentoring to support college students across the Midwest with their professional development. Neely-Martin is a co-founder and the executive director. The program focuses on making the transition from the classroom to the corporate world and does so by helping with planning and placement efforts of colleges across the St. Louis Metropolitan Area. It also addresses some of the diversity and inclusion needs of the corporate workplace. 

"It's an amazing opportunity to change the landscape of the St. Louis marketplace in regard to the impact corporations have on college students," Neely-Martin said.  "We actually bridge that gap from the classroom to the corporate mindshift, creating an environment where students feel comfortable transitioning from that undergraduate experience and taking all those skills, along with the skills we provide, to successfully navigate the first two years of corporate America."

She also attacks challenges in the workplace, such as cultural awareness in hiring practices, unconscious bias, and improved team development to foster safe work environments.

"We're going to sit at major tables," Neely-Martin said. "We're going to sit with major corporations and truly identify how we can help narrow their gaps in identifying talent, retaining talent, and creating workspaces that are inclusive, liberating, and empowering. It's critical."

Neely-Martin has over 25 years of pharmaceutical experience which guides her to advocate for the disparities in access to quality healthcare and health literacy. She’s dedicated her time to becoming and advocate for narrowing those disparities that are associated with access to quality care and education, health literacy, and the impact chronic disease has on underserved communities.

Neely-Martin’s work is highly recognized. She works with several boards and organizations regionally and nationally to improve academic access and professional success. She’s earned a long list of awards and accolades that solidifies her place as an influencer and a leader in the region.

On Jan. 25, she'll return to Southeast Missouri State to be the keynote speaker for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner. Her goal is that her work reflects the same ideas that his legacy was built on. 

"If we realize that my dream in no different than your dream," Neely-Martin said. "Happiness is the root."

Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration

Each year, Southeast honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a celebratory dinner featuring a guest speaker to share their story and diversity and acceptance.