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VALPARAISO — From womb to the tomb, what kind of person will you choose to be, Cornel West asked those who attended Monday's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at Valparaiso University.

King came from people who were on intimate terms with death, West said. That image of death is the key to understanding what it means to be human.

He said King learned how to die daily, meaning he was committed to a life of examining himself.

West is a lecturer and activist, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University.

He is the author of “Black Prophetic Fire,” about 19th- and 20th-century African-American leaders and their visionary legacies. He has appeared on  “Real Time with Bill Maher,” CNN and C-Span.

West said Valparaiso is a special place with a rich history, pointing to the university's Methodist roots and its current Lutheran association.

He encouraged students to take their time in college to challenge the way they think about their lives and their treatment of others.

"You're not paying to be schooled ... you're here to be educated," West said.

There is no maturity without going through the process of learning how to die, he said.

West said King never promoted the American Dream. He said Americans are obsessed with status and brands. King never had a brand, he had a cause, West said.

He said King was not an optimist, rather "he was a prisoner of hope."

West said hope is different because it allows you to be a different kind of human being.

Conscious Humanity: What is Justice? was this year's theme and drew hundreds of participants to discussions and lectures on campus and in the community throughout the day.

"I think it's always important to talk about love and justice, no matter what context, no matter what generation," West said before the convocation. "There's no doubt now we're in the moment of Donald Trump. We need more truth telling, and we need more witness bearing when it comes to justice. We needed it under Obama, we needed it under Bush, we needed it under Reagan. We need it each and every generation. That's how timeless the message of Martin King is, how timeless his life remains."

West said he hoped his message would encourage people to act on their convictions.

"The message of today, it has to do with choices people make and lives they choose to live and make. We have to make sure the message is made available to them."

"Whether people choose to execute it through the year that's always an open question," West said.

The convocation also served as a platform to present the Martin Luther King Jr. Awards to two faculty members for their significant contributions to diversity to the campus community and beyond.

VU President Mark Heckler recognized Heath Carter and Faisal Kutty.

Carter is an assistant professor of history at VU who has organized students and faculty efforts to engage in dialogue about diversity and race. He also was instrumental in forming the city's Human Relations Council.

Kutty is an associate professor of law at the Valparaiso University Law School and was honored for enhancing the dialogue of race and inclusion at the law school. He was named the one of the 500 Most Influencial  Muslims in the World, by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan.

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