King spoke to local elected officials, community members, students, and faculty gathered in a ballroom for the 28th year of Rowan's Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Breakfast.
The annual fund-raising event benefits the William H. Myers Scholarship Fund, named for an assistant dean who counseled students in the school's Educational Opportunity Fund program, which helps disadvantaged students. Myers died in 2003.
Kier was one of 25 scholarship recipients of many races this year, each awarded $1,000 per year for up to four years.
This year marked the first time the King name had appeared as a keynote speaker, and several repeat attendees - guests paid $75 to be there - said their expectations were heightened by that.
King, 56 and an activist himself, told the crowd he had "mixed emotions" about the holiday named after his father.
"Generally when we say holiday, we assume it's a day to chill and relax - and some would eat barbecue," King said, prompting laughter. "But that's not what this holiday is about."
Instead, he said, people should reflect on the progress the country has made and the work still unfinished in obtaining equal rights and opportunities for all. His near-half-hour speech offered his perspective on the status of the causes his father, assassinated in 1968, had championed.
Pointing to the evils his parents fought against - poverty, racism, violence - King spoke about his father's oft-cited dream. His father's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech turned 50 in August.
"Some thought the dream was realized in January 2009, when President Obama was sworn in," King said. "I'm not sure why they did."
King called young people the country's "most precious resource," saying society can improve how it cultivates its children. He denounced poverty and blacks' disproportionate share of prison populations.
African Americans were nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.
King linked violence in the nation to violent themes in entertainment and games. He questioned the country's spending on defense and wars.
"You ought to at least spend an equal amount on life and the preservation of life," he said.
The pace of King's oratory quickened and his volume rose as he championed his father's lessons in love.
"When I was 10, my dad was assassinated," King said. "Maybe it would have been easy for me to harbor hatred and malice."
After the breakfast, King posed for photos and signed autographs for those who paid an additional $25. Cameras flashed in the private room, filled with tables decorated with sparkly red hearts beneath the glass tabletops.
Some said the holiday was about applying Dr. King's philosophies to the challenges facing people today.
Democratic Assemblyman Angel Fuentes said cyber bullying and equal pay for women were examples of those.
Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP branch and a vice president of the state conference, brought her two granddaughters, ages 7 and 10, to the event.
She reasoned: "Got to keep the hope alive."