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Penn State History Lesson: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Speech In Rec Hall

Everyone knows the story of former President Bill Clinton mixing flavors at the Creamery and visits from other former presidents including Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. However, few Penn Staters know that another famous political leader — Martin Luther King Jr. — visited the university in 1965.

On January 21, 1965, 35-year-old King gave a speech at Rec Hall. More than 8,000 students filled Rec Hall to see this moment in history. At the time, there were 20,800 students enrolled at Penn State, and only 400 of them were Black. Most of the sports teams weren’t desegregated yet, either.

Prior to the lecture, archives from The Daily Collegian provided some context to the sold-out event. King won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the Civil Rights Movement a year prior. A week before he spoke at Penn State, he was leading the charge for voting rights and the desegregation of restaurants and hotels in Selma, Alabama.

King was quoted as being “the perfect example of the right man at the right place at the right time,” according to a former professor. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred in 1956, there were few leaders that could propel the movement as far as King did. Nearly a decade later, the world realized how influential he truly was.

The speech he gave on January 21 was centered around improving voting rights for Black people. King advocated for more voter registration centers in State College and the surrounding areas, particularly in places such as post offices. This work, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t just located in the South. Voting rights were an issue across the country, and the work King was completing gave way to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which would be passed later that year.

He spoke to a crowd of nearly 9,000 students and community members in the recently expanded Rec Hall building. A historical marker placed by the Penn State Alumni Association stands outside the building to commemorate its significance.

“I am absolutely convinced that the system of segregation is on its deathbed today, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists will make the funeral,” King said.

King’s impact on history will forever be remembered in history, but his speech at Rec Hall will also go down as one of the university’s most notable addresses. You can read the complete speech transcript here.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey is a senior from Annapolis, Maryland, majoring in secondary education and minoring in social justice in education. When he is not writing for the blog, he enjoys rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor", and yes mom, actually doing school work. If you would like to talk about sports or "Survivor", the best way to reach out is on Twitter @theowenabbey. All other compliments may be sent to [email protected]

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