Check out these 2023 MLK Day events around Iowa

By: - January 15, 2023 10:30 am

American minister and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 1968) waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on Aug. 28, 1963, on the Mall during the March on Washington after delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Washington, D.C. (Photo illustration via Canva with photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is a state and federal holiday that will be observed Monday. Here are some ways Iowans can celebrate this week:

Des Moines metro

The Iowa Department of Human Rights’ Office on the Status of African Americans will host its 34th annual celebration honoring King’s life and legacy at 10:45 a.m. Monday. The virtual event will be streamed via the Department of Human Rights Facebook page:  It will include Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Proclamation designating Jan. 16 as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the period of January 15–21 as Martin Luther King Jr. Week; video presentations; and the holiday bell ringing.

10th Annual MLK Jr. Prayer Breakfast John R. Grubb YMCA will present the 10th annual prayer breakfast from 7:30–9:30 a.m. at Drake University Knapp Center. The event will gather various community residents, leaders, and agencies to join in fellowship through a dialogue on environmental justice in Iowa. Keynote will be delivered by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, a distinguished professor and award-winning author known as “The Father of Environmental Justice.”  Register in advance.

MLK Day of Service at CYC – All are invited to join for service projects from 1-4 p.m. Monday at King Elementary, 1849 Forest Ave., Des Moines. Additionally, from 1:15-2:15 p.m., there will be a leadership workshop for middle school students, and from 2:45-3:45 p.m. a leadership workshop for high school students.  Please RSVP using the link, CYC’s 2023 MLK Day Registration, or by emailing [email protected]

MLK Day Celebration: The Beloved Community: Hope + Elim will host an event from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. to include worship, musical performances by Bridges to Harmony and Genesis Youth Foundation, and guest speaker Sam Acho, an ESPN football analyst, nine-year NFL veteran, author, and ambassador to International Justice Mission. Attendees are encouraged to bring non-perishable items to be shared with community members in need. To-go meals will be handed out as people leave. The event will be livestreamed.

Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Multicultural Reception and West Des Moines MLK Day Celebration – 3:30–6 p.m. at the MidAmerican Energy RecPlex. The Greater Des Moines Partnership will host a Multicultural Reception in partnership with the City of West Des Moines, the West Des Moines Human Rights Commission, West Des Moines Schools, West Des Moines Historical Society, Des Moines University, Polk County, Taste of the Junction, Meals from the Heartland and the West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce. The theme is “The Time is Always Right to Do Right,” in honor King Jr.  The event will begin with a roundtable discussion from 3:30–4:15 p.m. Attendees will have the opportunity to discuss a variety of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)-related topics of importance to their organization and the community. A beverage and appetizer reception will begin at 4:15 p.m. with brief remarks around 4:30 p.m. and continue until 6 p.m.

Forest Avenue Library MLK Day Celebration, 4–5 p.m. at the Forest Avenue Library. Keynote speaker is community leader Jacquie Easley McGhee, the division director for health equity, diversity, and inclusion for MercyOne. She is also the health chair for the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, and in 1990 became the first Black woman to serve on the Des Moines School Board. Live ASL interpretation will be onsite for the speakers, funded by the Forest Avenue Library Brick Fund. Refreshments will be provided courtesy of the Forest Avenue Library Brick Fund.

Free Tours of the Jordan House Museum, 1–3 p.m. Sunday, free tours of the historic Jordan House will be available. The Jordan House is a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.  There will be a book giveaway or “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “It Starts With Me.”

MLK Packaging event at Meals From the Heartland – Volunteer for a 90-minute shift between 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Monday to package meals for the hungry here in Iowa and around the world. Sign up in advance.

Undesign the Redline ExhibitTake a – virtual tour of this Polk County Housing Trust Fund exhibit, which provides background on federal policies started in the 1930s showing which neighborhoods were worthy of investment specifically due to the race, ethnicity, and class of residents. These policies had a profoundly negative social and economic impact on those living in “undesirable” neighborhoods, especially African American residents, that persist to this day.

Ankeny ‘s MLK Jr. Vigil – 5 p.m. Monday at the Ankeny Library, 1250 S.W. District Ave., Ankeny. Cookies and warm drinks will be provided.

Free skating with donations at Brenton Skating Rink, 12–9 p.m. Monday.  Receive free admission to Brenton Skating Plaza with a food or clothing donation.  Donate non-perishable food items or adult-sized new socks. One item equals free admission for one customer. With two items, one customer receives free admission and free skate rental. Walk-up registration only. Donations will support Central Iowa Shelter and Services.


Free activities for all ages at the Memorial Union in Ames will include creating freedom quilt squares and MLK coloring pages from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, according to the Iowa State University. The programming will take place in the Memorial Union’s Workspace in the east basement of the building, 2229 Lincoln Way, Ames. Free parking for the event can be found at the Memorial Union ramp adjacent to the building.

“Let Freedom Ring” concert  — 11:50 a.m. Wednesday at the Iowa State University Campanile. The concert, performed by carillonneur Tin-Shi Tam, will consist of hymns, spirituals and music honoring King Jr.

The City of Ames will host a free, hybrid in-person and virtual MLK Day program from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Ames City Auditorium, 520 Sixth St. (north side of City Hall). The keynote speaker will be Anita Rollins, Ames’ first Black councilwoman, who managed Iowa State University’s Science Bound program for more than two decades, according to the Des Moines Register. Winners of the annual essay writing for high-school students contest will be announced. The essays were inspired by King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” according to Iowa State University News. Face masks and social distancing are encouraged, but not required, for in-person attendees. A virtual stream of the program will be available on Facebook and YouTube.

Iowa City

Moving the Dream ForwardThe event begins with the march at 9:45 a.m. at the United Action for Youth at the Eastdale Plaza at 1700 S. First Ave, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Participants will head to Mercer Park Gym,  1317 Dover St., where there will be performances and speakers, followed by a free lunch. Through 2 p.m., attendees can participate in a variety of activities including creating 150 care kits for the unhoused community or a community art project. “Moving the Dream Forward” is free to attend. Visit Iowa City’s website for more information.

Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration of Human Rights Week — Jan. 18, 10 a.m. The University of Iowa is hosting a series of events free and open to the public in honor of Martin Luther King Jr, according to the Press-Citizen. This includes a weeklong food drive held at the Iowa Memorial Union, 125 N. Madison St., that will benefit local food pantries and virtual discussions on health and inequity. Highlights of the weeklong event include a screening of “JustUs,” the documentary that explores how incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are involved in criminal justice reform. Following it will be a panel discussion that includes law students, activities and formerly incarcerated individuals. Held at 130 Byington Road, Iowa City.

Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Lecture According to the Press-Citizen, Donald Warne, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health, will give the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Lecture and present “Innovative Pathways to Indigenous Health Equity” at noon Wednesday at PremSahai Auditorium, 375 Newtown Road, Iowa City.

Lecture — Ashley Howard, assistant professor of African American History at UI, will present a lecture titled “Where Do We Go From Here? Meditations on Region, Violence & Possibility” from 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. Friday  at the Boyd Law Building, according to the Press-Citizen. Visit for a full list of events or to RSVP for Warne’s lecture.

Film — The Coralville Public Library, 1401 5th St., is hosting a free film screening at 6 p.m. Monday of “I Am Not Your Negro” in honor of the holiday, according to the Press-Citizen. The 2016 documentary is based on the writings of James Baldwin to explore race in America, both during the Civil Rights movement and present day, and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. The Oscar-nominated documentary runs an hour and 30 minutes. Visit Coralville Public Library’s website for more information.

United Action for Youth teen events — 5-7 p.m. Jan. 20 and Jan. 27. The United Action for Youth and the Iowa City Public Library have partnered to bring weekly programming for teens centered around the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr, according to the Press-Citizen. The Jan. 20 event will invite attendees to view and make art inspired by the civil rights movement. The Jan.27 event celebrates service. Teens will help distribute food collected by the United Action for Youth to those in need in the Iowa City area. Snacks will be provided at all sessions. Visit United Action for Youth’s Facebook page for more information. Held at United Action for Youth Swaim Youth Center, 355 Iowa Ave., Iowa City.

Iowa Children’s Museum — The Iowa Children’s Museum, 1451 Coral Ridge Ave., Coralville, is hosting a community event from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, according to the Press-Citizen. Admission to the museum is free Monday. Guests may visit the museum or participate in an activity in honor of the National Day of Service. People can help assemble activity kits provided by the museum that will be donated to local community partners to support families experiencing difficult times. Attendees may donate diapers, personal care items or other needed items to the Coralville Community Food Pantry. There will be a mobile exhibit from the African American Museum of Iowa and books for further learning. Visit the Iowa Children’s Museum’s website for more information.

Film screenings — Iowa City’s independent, nonprofit cinema FilmScene is hosting a free screening of “Selma” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday as part of its ongoing program A Community Collaborations, according to the Press-Citizen. The 2014 film chronicles the historic march in 1965 led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, where marchers where met with violence. Those interested in attending the film screening should visit FilmScene’s website to get tickets.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, FilmScene will show “Within Our Gates” by Oscar Micheaux, “the earliest surviving feature film by an African American director,” according to FilmScene’s website. The 1920 film follows Sylvia Landry, who helps a near bankrupt school for Black youth as the violence her parents faced is revealed throughout the film. The screening will have the Alvin Cobb Jr. trio perform the original score and a panel discussion will follow the film. Presented in partnership with the Bijou Film Board, tickets are offered on a pay-what-you-can sliding scale. Held at 404 E. College St., Iowa City.

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an outdated reference to events at the African-American Museum in Cedar Rapids. The museum is closed due to a renovation project. 

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Luke Clausen
Luke Clausen

Luke Clausen is a reporting intern with Iowa Capital Dispatch. He is a student at Drake University studying Multimedia Journalism, Magazine and Brand Media, and International Relations. Additionally, he helps to manage the Ambassador-in-Residence initiative at Drake with Ambassador Terry Branstad and Drake's Global Engagement team.