Academy Award-winning actress, producer and philanthropist Viola Davis gave a keynote lecture Monday about her own experiences and the effect Martin Luther King Jr. had on society.
Before Davis' speech at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, IU President Michael McRobbie presented her with an honorary doctorate of fine arts. The lecture was part of the university-wide Day of Commemoration of the bicentennial and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The honorary doctorate is the highest academic achievement IU can offer, McRobbie said.
McRobbie and James Wimbush, IU vice president of diversity, equity and multicultural affairs, introduced Davis and presented her with her doctorate.
During her speech, Davis spoke about her own history. She grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, with her parents and seven siblings. She said she overcame poverty, adversity and trauma before realizing she wanted to become an actress.
Davis also spoke about the effect Martin Luther King Jr. had on society. One moment in King’s career Davis said she is inspired by was his fight for sanitation workers to earn a living wage in Memphis, Tennessee. Davis said King reminds her of how important it is to fight for those who are less fortunate than yourself.
“Is it your job to pick up a diploma or a sword?” Davis said. “And when you pick up that sword, what will you be fighting for?”
We live in a world in need of heroes, she said. Someone who is heroic must overcome whatever trivial or traumatic past they have and become someone new. She said it was an important step for her, and that it will be an important step for others.
“There is an old saying about the two most important days of your life being the day you are born and the day you find out why,” Davis said. “You were born to live a life greater than your own.”
Her philanthropic work is inspired by the trauma she went through in her childhood, Davis said. Now that she is successful, she said it is important to her to give back to those who need her help, those she shared similar experiences with.
In 2012, Davis and her husband founded JuVee, an artist-driven production company focused on giving a voice to the voiceless through effective and culturally relevant narratives, according to an IU press release.
Davis is the first black actor to win Oscar, Emmy and Tony Awards. In 2015, she was the first black actress to win the Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in the drama series “How to Get Away With Murder.”
"Viola Davis is one of our nation's finest and most accomplished actors, who has inspired many individuals through her remarkable life story, rich body of work and rise to the top of her profession," McRobbie said. "She has also become a forceful voice for women and women of color, challenging media stereotypes and championing the need for equal opportunities.
“You talked about needing heroes,” IU Provost Lauren Robel said to Davis. “Seeing you with our students, I can see you are certainly one of theirs.”