UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the Forum on Black Affairs (FOBA) and Penn State World Campus partnered to host the 46th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Celebration, “Project 1972: A Conversation with our Elders.”
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Held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the event annually brings together hundreds of Penn State and State College community members to commemorate the Civil Rights leader’s life and legacy, through presentations, performances and scholarship awards.
This year’s event, emceed by Stephanie Danette Preston, associate dean for graduate educational equity, provided a meaningful opportunity for the community to hear the lived, historical experiences of Black Penn State students, reflect on the importance of King’s work, and understand how his words and actions continue to resonate today.
In her welcoming remarks, Renata Engel, vice provost for Online Education, talked about King’s speech on Jan. 21, 1965, when he spoke to a crowd of 9,000 people at Rec Hall on the University Park campus. In his speech, King spoke about the past and the present, and shared a vision for the future.
“I still have faith in America, and I have still have the faith to believe that we will solve this problem,” said King. “We have the resources in this nation to solve it and I believe that gradually we are gaining the will to solve it, and that is developing a coalition of conscience on the question of racial injustice, and I would hope that in the days ahead, the forces of goodwill will work even harder in order to go this additional distance in order to make the brotherhood of man a reality all over America.”
Engel continued, “As I think about his words in today’s context, I’m reminded that we cannot foresee the future. We don’t know what next year will bring, but we can learn from the past, if we are open to do so; and our actions in the present can be with an eye toward what we want in the future. I know that this session tonight is going to be filled with opportunities to learn, and I know we will have opportunities to think about those things and bring them with us into the future.”
“Project 1972: A Conversation with our Elders” featured a discussion with several Penn State staff and faculty who worked at the University in the height of the Civil Rights movement and members of the University’s class of 1972, who were students in and after 1968, the year of King’s assassination.
André Culbreath, president of the Forum on Black Affairs, introduced the panelists:
— Gary Abdullah, a graduate of the University and retiree of the College of Agricultural Sciences, a founding member of the Penn State Black Caucus, and a former past president of the Forum of Black Affairs.
— Monte Dawson, who attended Penn State New Kensington for two years before completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1970 and then his master’s degree in counselor education at University Park. He worked as a researcher in the Student Affairs Research Center at Penn State, and later became director of student services at Washington University.
— Selma G. Harrison, who graduated from Penn State Fayette in 1972 and received her doctorate from the Ohio State University, is a licensed clinical social worker, consultant and college instructor.
— Earl Frank Merritt, who came to Penn State as a graduate student in human development and family studies, is director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of the Liberal Arts.
— Barry Reddish, of Philadelphia, who attended Penn State Brandywine (then the Delaware County campus), moved to the University Park campus 1970-72, and received his degree in political science and government, going on later to a career in education as a schoolteacher.
Denita Wright Watson, Penn State World Campus associate director of equity, inclusion and advocacy, and AnneMarie Mingo, assistant professor of African American Studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, moderated the discussion.
The panelists discussed what it was like for them during that period of time, coming to Penn State as Black students; shared memories of both initial isolation and the need to form strong community with others; talked about those who broke ground for all Black students and the slow, incremental progress over the years; and compared King’s time to the present still-urgent need for substantial and lasting change.
The panel ended with Wright Watson offering each participant the opportunity to share a call to action for today’s Black students.
“Mine is really easy,” said Reddish. “Vote!”
“Keep on graduating,” said Dawson.
Harrison said, “Keep an open mind, do your research, don’t be stagnant.”
“Communicate,” said Abdullah. “Even when we thought we were breaking barriers and being pioneers, there were others before us. The young working with the old will make a difference in the future.”
“Speak up about injustices,” concluded Merritt, “and don’t be silent.”
The event also included the presentation of the 2021 Fannie Lou Hamer and W.E.B. DuBois Service Scholarship award, to Penn State Berks student Ja’nique Jules. Jules, majoring in communications and political science with a minor in Spanish, is the first Penn State student studying at a Commonwealth Campus to receive the award. Given annually to full-time, degree-seeking Penn State students who are excellent scholars and actively engaged in service to the African-American community, the award honors the memory of civil-rights leaders Hamer and DuBois.
Penn State President Eric Barron also offered welcoming remarks, acknowledging the past year’s challenges and current turbulent times, and expressing appreciation to those in the University community who have taken action to bring about meaningful change at Penn State.
“It has been a challenging year in every way. But let’s go back to Dr. King’s wisdom,” said Barron. “He said, ‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.’ …. The challenges aren’t over, but this time next year, I hope we can celebrate a very different reality.”
About the Forum on Black Affairs
The Forum on Black Affairs seeks to form meaningful partnerships with individuals and other organizations, and encourages participation in a shared vision of an improved diverse and inclusive University community. Visit FOBA’s website to learn more.