University of Kentucky alumnus Jim Embry, best known as a preeminent civil rights activist, eco-activist farmer, social justice advocate and public speaker, among other distinctions, was awarded the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award earlier this year in Chicago.
Often referred to as the “Oscars of the food industry,” the James Beard Foundation Awards recognizes leaders in America’s food culture that exemplify the James Beard Foundation’s core value of championing a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity and sustainability. An award from any of the 23 categories has been held as one of the highest honors in American gastronomy and culinary arts since the first award was presented in 1991.
Embry’s Leadership Award recognizes more than 50 years of work in the food justice movement and highlights his involvement with Sustainable Communities Network, Slow Food USA, and Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, even as he has affiliations with at least a dozen other organizations. Embry’s interest in local and healthy food, urban agriculture, and food justice can be traced back through his family legacy as agrarian intellectual activists. He is the great-grandson of formerly enslaved African farmers who fought in the Civil War and who became social activists in Madison County, Kentucky. Embry became involved in the civil rights movement at the early age of 10 when he accompanied his mother, the chapter president of Northern Kentucky CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), to meetings and picket lines. These childhood experiences instilled in Embry a lifelong commitment to social justice.
Some of his most enduring memories growing up are of representing the NAACP as Kentucky State Youth Chair around the age of 15 and organizing young people to join the March on Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1964 that featured Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson and many of Kentucky’s civil rights leaders. In high school he was a member of the commission that drafted the first open housing ordinance for the city of Covington, Kentucky.
While a student at UK in the 1960s, Embry helped found and served as president of the Black Student Union that ushered in many significant campuswide racial justice initiatives. After attending Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta, he helped found the annual Martin Luther King Day march in Lexington.
“My years at UK were very pivotal to my life journey,” said Embry, who graduated in 1974 with a degree in zoology from the UK College of Arts and Sciences. “In the leadership role of president of the Black Student Union, we not only transformed the university in all kinds of ways, but my UK experience further instilled in me a lifelong commitment to social justice which led me to be a recipient of the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.”