The University of Utah picks a civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. as its graduation speaker

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. France A. Davis laughs as people pay tribute to him during his 44th anniversary celebration as pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, Sunday, April 22, 2018.

A civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and has led the push for equal rights in Utah will address graduates at this year’s commencement ceremony for the University of Utah.

The Rev. France A. Davis, who presides over the state’s most prominent black church here, will speak to students about unity and committing to social change on May 2. His talk comes at a time when the country faces contentious debate over immigration, prejudices against the LGBTQ community and challenges of religious freedom that he has said mirror the racial divides he fought against in the 1960s and 70s.

“His message is one that we could all stand to hear more often—to help us remember our humanity and to look for the best in ourselves and others,” said U. President Ruth Watkins in an announcement Wednesday.

Davis was a professor at the school for several decades starting in the 1972, when he came to Utah as a teaching fellow, and is also an alumnus there with a master’s in mass communication.

He decided to work in ministry, too, after participating in the March on Washington in 1963 and in the March from Selma to Montgomery two years later to push for voting rights. And he became the full-time pastor at Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church in 1974.

That congregation now has more than 700 members.

In Utah, he’s been a persistent — though soft-spoken — voice for justice and equality. His office has been riddled with bullets, and he’s received threatening letters from the Ku Klux Klan. But the Georgia native has worked to make the state and its capital city a welcoming place.

“When I got here, Salt Lake was, in my view, 10 or 20 years behind Berkley or even Birmingham in terms of civil rights issue,” he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

As the state’s flagship university, the U. graduated 8,568 students in 2018. Last year’s commencement speaker was Ben Nemtin, a creator and star of “The Buried Life,” a show about bucket lists.