I read a recent story in The Daily Pennsylvanian with skepticism. The story has the potential to distract from the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. while questionably inserting Penn into King’s life. The article is speculation at best, detrimental at worst and lacking context in fact.
It is troubling that Penn publications and Penn students feel the need to associate themselves with many major figures and events, no matter how tenuous the connection. Even when a strong connection is there, Penn cannibalizes it, turning what should be quiet-but-known heritage into cult-like hagiography (see: Penn’s treatment of Benjamin Franklin). That Martin Luther King did indeed audit three classes at Penn is a fact I cannot dispute. What I do find problematic are assertions such as, “Penn doubtless influenced [MLK] in his graduate education in some way.” While I understand this is a quote from Mark Frazier Lloyd, not the words of the reporter, this aimless speculation ought not to be in a news article. “Doubtless” is a strong word to use with no direct evidence of influence whatsoever. How does Lloyd know? If there is evidence, why were specific examples not included?
Clearly, MLK took classes at Penn, but what is troublesome in Lloyd’s quote is the implicit connection he draws between Penn and everything King accomplished — a connection that goes unchallenged in the rest of the article. There is a King-Penn connection. There is no evidence it was meaningful to King or even to Penn. In the article, it states that 15 years after he attended, even as he grew famous, his connection to Penn was unknown by students. Until this article, UMOJA, comprised of African-American student groups at Penn, wasn’t aware of a connection either. In the article, these facts aren’t presented as a counterbalance to Lloyd’s assertion, but rather as evidence that the DP is unearthing unknown, valuable history.
This article is an attempt to increase Penn’s prestige by relating the institution to a historical figure even though there “are virtually no other records from his time as a student on campus.” Can Penn’s racial policies not stand on their own without a dubious connection to King? What is the state of race relations on Penn’s campus? How many African-American professors and staff does Penn employ? I am not accusing the DP of not covering these issues — I know it does — but it strikes me as appropriate to answer such questions in an article on King and his legacy at Penn. The article just barely touches on Penn’s racial environment in the 1950s, stating in the most disingenuous terms that the student body was “predominantly white.” That doesn’t give any idea of what Penn was like for an African American — specifically, King — in the 1950s. Perhaps the DP should examine Penn’s negative racial heritage more deeply so it can celebrate Penn’s positive heritage with honesty.
Instead, most of this article is dedicated to proving and discussing something that doesn’t matter.
I thought the quote from Valerie Allen — “We’ve crafted this image of this pastor, orator and intellect who could move people, but we’ve kind of limited [MLK] to that, and he was much more” — would be followed up with some specific examples, researched by the DP, of what King was beyond his well-known image. Nope. Instead, the next sentence once again describes the “Penn-King connection” (Penn placed first, of course) and readers are left to wonder what Allen truly meant.
I do not believe we should ignore the time MLK spent on campus, but such a minute factoid should be situated in the proper context with the proper reporting. It does not deserve an entire article. In the future, I hope that the DP will think twice before associating major historical figures with Penn simply because they set foot on campus 50 years ago. Instead, dedicate column inches to what those figures said and hoped for and how Penn is or is not living up to those expectations. Specific examples are always preferred over generalizations and speculation.
Isaac Kaplan is a College sophomore. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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