On a Thursday evening in fall 1949, an unassuming, 20-year-old student walked into then-assistant professor Elizabeth Flower’s “Philosophy of History” course at Penn.
Less than two decades later, that student — Martin Luther King Jr. — would be recognized as one of the leading social activists of his time.
While many are gearing up for this weekend’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day programs, few on campus remember — or even realize — the Penn-King connection.
In addition to the 1949-50 course King took with Flower, records housed at the University Archives show that King spent time on campus taking two other courses: “Kant,” taught by former professor Paul Schrecker, and “Problems of Esthetics,” taught by former assistant professor John Adams. Both courses were held during the 1950-51 school year.
King audited all three courses at Penn while simultaneously enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary. The classes were listed in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Apart from King’s transcript from the University, there are virtually no other records from his time as a student on campus.
“My conclusion is that, although we don’t want to make too much of our association with King, Penn doubtless influenced him in his graduate education in some way,” University Archives and Records Center Director Mark Frazier Lloyd said. “The fact that he didn’t take just one course but came back to campus indicated that he thought the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences held a distinct benefit for him.”
Lloyd added that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, King must have demonstrated a “certain personal courage” in coming to Penn, given that the University was still a predominantly white institution at the time.
In April 1988, at the request of Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, Lloyd began looking into King’s time at Penn. In a memo sent that month to McCoullum, Lloyd noted that King had returned to campus just once after auditing the three courses — a May 1965 visit to speak at two of the University’s “Law Day U.S.A.” panel discussions.
As part of his research, Lloyd asked Flower, who died in 1995, if she had any recollections of King from his time in class. Flower responded that, while she had vague memories of him sitting and taking notes in the course, she did not remember him for “any outstanding qualities or expressed points of view,” Lloyd said.
“It’s unfortunate from a historian’s perspective that we don’t have an oral history from anyone who ever taught him or would have gone to class with him,” Lloyd said. “I do think King was among the most nationally significant figures in 20th-century American history, and I do wish we had more information about his time at Penn.”
Lloyd added that King’s return to campus in 1965 was especially significant, given that he had just won his Nobel Peace Prize a year earlier and was surely in high demand for speaking engagements.
In a 1965 newspaper clipping, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that King’s Law Day speech centered around how the law often neglects the poor.
“Justice at times proceeds with a halting gait and the law has often been slow to speak for the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised,” King said at the event, according to the Inquirer.
According to Lloyd, nobody on campus made the connection in 1965 that King had been at the University only 14 years earlier.
King’s legacy today
Despite the lack of documentation of the Penn-King connection, many believe that King’s legacy remains on campus today in other ways.
“I think Penn does a lot to promote the idea of doing service to the community in pursuit of social justice, and that’s exactly what Dr. King would have wanted,” said African-American Resource Center Director Valerie Allen, who is involved with organizing the annual commemorative symposium for King. “It behooves us to reach out beyond our gates and extend a hand of support to those around us.”
Allen, along with AARC Associate Director Robert Carter, said she had not been aware of King’s time at Penn. For Carter, learning about the connection was not necessarily surprising, given that “it seems like we’re always getting educated about new details [from King’s life] that we didn’t know before,” he said.
In addition to the annual symposium, Penn has gone about honoring King’s legacy in a number of other ways since his death.
The University hosted its first commemorative program on King in 1980. Former President Judith Rodin began canceling classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2001, designating the occasion as a time for University-wide service.
Although Allen has been pleased with the amount of programming Penn has for King’s birthday, she said she would like to see more people across the University adopt a more holistic view of King’s life.
“We’ve crafted this image of this pastor, orator and intellect who could move people, but we’ve kind of limited him to that, and he was much more,” she said.
Like Allen and Carter, College sophomores Abrina Hyatt and Meron Zeru — the planning and facilitating co-chairs for UMOJA, the black student umbrella group on campus — were not aware of King’s time at Penn.
For her part, Hyatt was surprised to learn about King’s connection to Penn, given that most aspects of his life are well-documented.
“I think we do see a lot of his legacy in the work that UMOJA does — especially our work with other minority groups on campus in making things a lot easier not just for us, but for those other groups as well,” she said.
Zeru agreed, pointing out that this year’s holiday is especially significant because it coincides with President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
“We’re continuing to memorialize the principles of his life even if we may not have tangible symbols of his work on campus,” McCoullum added. “I think that his legacy centered around speaking what he believed to be true, and his truths are such a strong part of what we do at Penn today.”
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