On Jan. 21, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gathered a crowd of 8,000 at Penn State’s Recreation Hall as a part of his nonviolent protest campaign during the civil rights movement.
Years later, State College community members gathered to take photos at the same spot as part of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza Committee’s first MLK Day local legacy search event on Saturday.
“Martin Luther King came to our community and spoke at Rec Hall — the history of his work and nonviolent protest is here,” State College Mayor Ezra Nanes said. “It’s important to recognize that we share the history of that movement with the whole country.”
Participants hunted to solve seven clues about local history knowledge in relation to MLK in the local State College and Penn State community.
After solving the clues, community members ventured to the Downtown State College Improvement District’s office to submit their response in hopes of winning one of three prizes.
For Amy Grubb, who has worked for the borough for six years, solving the clues with her group of four participants was “very exciting,” and she was the first participant to submit her results.
“The whole process took about two to three days, but when it was crunch time, we got working on it really fast,” Grubb said.
Participants were able to start working on the search earlier than Saturday because the clues were released prior, Grubb said.
“First, we took a picture of the stones, then we drove around the campus and took the photos we needed from there,” Grubb said. “Then, we took the photos we needed of the murals, which was great, and then the one that was a real big stumper was the six steps, but we figured it out.”
For Nanes, it’s an “honor to be mayor” for a community where there’s “a lot of people who have already started this important work.”
“It’s great to feel the energy of the community coming around MLK Day and this holiday, which is really important,” Nanes said.
Nanes said he anticipates this being a “popular event in the future because there’s so much to learn, and you can discover parts of the community.”
Kevin Kassab, State College community engagement manager and five-year MLK Plaza committee member, said the event’s purpose had an “educational aspect” and brought the “community together for a common good.”
For Kassab, the event served “to educate the community that the MLK Plaza is here” since the committee “found that a lot of people don't really know it's here.”
“It's near and dear to the hearts of our community, the mayor, the council, the borough manager and our staff, so we do everything we possibly can do to support the MLK Plaza,” Kassab said.
Another committee member, Jonathan Friedman, said the event strived to “bring out more information regarding MLK and his connection to the area.”
“It's important to be inclusive in the community, which really drives us to hope to make the community a better place through inclusivity,” Friedman said.
He said the turnout is “variable because of the weather,” but these kinds of events “will grow over time,” as the committee will make new clues for future MLK searches.
Carol Eicher, another committee member, said the committee “searched through the archives about King’s visit” in 1965 and did “a lot of research” to create an “educational opportunity” for the community.
Eicher, also co-chair and founder of the Community Diversity Group — a nonprofit based in Centre County — said working for the community is “part of [her] DNA,” and this is “just one event” the committee planned to “showcase the plaza’s impact.”
In 2012, the State College Borough Council passed a resolution to rename Fraser Plaza downtown in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom the plaza serves as a memorial, according to Eicher.
“Our goal is to create awareness of the cultures in the community, celebrate them and educate people on what a wonderful, diverse community we have and for individuals to learn the benefit of that,” Eicher said.
Charles Dumas, Penn State professor and inaugural member of the MLK Plaza Committee “before there was a plaza committee,” said they have never done this event before.
Dumas said the search is a “brilliant idea” from Penn State professor AnneMarie Mingo because it combines adventure, education and fun — as well as “a little money” for the winners.
“I think the success is we got it together and found something that is compatible with the weather and is something that can go on throughout Black History Month and the year,” Dumas said.
Even though it was “colder than heck” outside, Dumas said the event was educational, even for himself, as someone who teaches African American studies and “knew King and his wife.”
“If you came here for an education, the biggest education you are going to have to learn is through interacting with people,” Dumas said. “It’s the people in this community — the people who have built this plaza — you can learn from.”
For Dumas, staying involved in the local community and advocacy is “vital” because it “keeps you going.”
Dumas said “to stay active means to keep contributing to the community” and learning, and he said he is “proud of the people who are trying to make things better.”
“If there's going to be positive change in our country and our community, it's going to come from people who are doing these kinds of things.”
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