While he was studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1949, Martin Luther King Jr. decided to audit a course about ethics and the history of philosophy at Penn.
After his death nearly 44 years ago, students and faculty are doing their part to ensure that King’s spirit continues to resonate across campus.
In honor of King’s legacy, Penn is hosting its 17th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium — a series of community service events that began on Jan. 13 and will continue through Feb. 3.
Rob Carter, executive co-chair of the symposium and associate director of the African-American Resource center, explained that community service has increasingly become intertwined with King’s name since soon after his death.
“There’s been a movement for over 30 years to honor Dr. King,” he said. “Right after he died, people had this strong belief that we should honor this man who had worked so hard for the principles that America stood for.”
According to Carter, the symposium’s logistical core relies heavily on the participation of the University community.
In addition to giving donations, Penn also provides around 500 volunteers to oversee community service projects and events throughout Philadelphia.
“The symposium aims to bring awareness and education around issues of social justice,” Director of the African-American Resource Center Valerie Dorsie Allen said. “What we hope to do is to get people to begin to understand what’s happening, to change the lenses by which they view the world and then to begin to take action to develop a world of justice.”
While much has changed since King’s times, Carter and Allen both said there are still many social justice inequalities that need to be fixed.
College junior Aya Saed — planning and facilitating chair of UMOJA, the umbrella organization for black student groups at Penn — agreed.
“There’s a lot that has kind of gotten awry since his death. I think there’s a sense of complacency now within the black community and just society as a whole,” Saed, a Daily Pennsylvanian columnist, said. “I think if Dr. King were here today, he would be dismayed at the lack of responsibility and the lack of initiative people are taking to address these issues.”
But for Saed, the symposium isn’t just a time for reflection — it’s also a time to celebrate the diverse cultures of all of UMOJA’s constituent groups.
For others, the symposium is simply a way of giving back.
“It’s a time where we have to give thanks for the sacrifices that other people have made,” College sophomore Danielle Marryshow, UMOJA’s political co-chair, said.
Marryshow, who will be volunteering in the symposium over the next few weeks, added that “we do that by giving back to the community.”
For School of Social Policy & Practice graduate student Shari Norton, King’s legacy represents more of a personal mission.
Volunteering “is particularly important because I want to uphold the legacy of King,” said Norton, who will also be participating in the symposium. “He was an advocate for the people, he was the voice for people who didn’t have one. I want to be able to continue in that legacy for helping people.”
Ultimately, Allen said, the entire symposium is intended to serve as a conduit for positive, informed change.
“It brings light, it draws attention to what needs to happen,” she said. “He [King] talked about being a drum major for justice. I see the symposium as a drum major to bring attention to the issues of justice and equality at Penn and the Philadelphia community.”
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