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Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza
State College, Pennsylvania 16801
- Year(s)/Era: Local and National Black History (1899 – 1983), specifically the Civil Rights Movement
- Type of Place: Site
- Nomination: As a significant leader in the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), is recognized by cities and communities around the world through the renaming of streets, schools, and various buildings. However, in 2017, the State College community came together to create a designated area in Downtown State College to not only commemorate the late civil rights leader, and to also honor significant events in our community that aided the advancement of equality and social justice for African Americans.
State College, Pennsylvania, is the proud home of Penn State University, where on January 21, 1965, more than 8,000 people gathered in Recreation Hall on campus to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak about the future of integration. The MLK Plaza would later honor this event with a stainless-steel graphic wall depicting this moment in history with two large etched photographs of Dr. King speaking in Recreation Hall, as well as six pillars to represent Dr. King’s philosophy on the six principles of non-violence.
Additionally, the plaza was intentionally designed to symbolize and teach us about Dr. King and the community’s journey in advancing racial and social justice. The 15 black granite pavers in the plaza each commemorate an event in history, either significant in Dr. King’s life or significant to the community. For example, a marker depicts the first Black student to be admitted to Penn State University in 1899. The markers create a path from the past to the present to signify the journey we are on and the idea that markers can be added to continue our journey towards racial and social justice. In the words of Dr. King on that day in Recreation Hall, “We have come a long, long way in the struggle for racial justice, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.”
- Most notable attribute(s): The most notable attribute of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza varies from one individual to the next. This is because the most notable attribute of the space is its transformative ability; the plaza can be whatever you need it to be. For example, Ed Holmes, a State College Borough staff member who was heavily involved in the implementation of the plaza, describes the plaza as a sacred space. He walks through the meandering path of markers and can’t help but be flooded with emotions from the timeline of events depicted on the granite pavers. This feeling is mutual for many other community members who experience the plaza.
The plaza has become more than just a place to honor the late Dr. King and State College community efforts. The MLK plaza has become a meeting place, an event space, a gathering space, an interactive space, a performance space, an educational space, and most of all, an inclusive space that symbolizes some of the values of our community and efforts we continue on our journey.
- Special designations or recognitions: In June 2020, the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau awarded the committee a tourism grant. The committee utilized the grant to ensure the plaza and all its important features are now available to be toured virtually. The virtual tour can be viewed from this link: https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=GPGzYDRaenx
- Three words to describe: Community-driven, Empowering, Sacred
- Anything else to share? The site has become a cultural hub in the community. Every year the local NAACP chapter and the State College Borough team up to host a Juneteenth event on the plaza that includes speeches, readings, and traditional African music & dance. Recently, the inaugural “Happy Valley Latin Festival” occurred in the plaza as well. This event brought together Latin vendors and community members to celebrate Latin culture together in one place during Hispanic Heritage Month. We hope more community members come forward to host diverse cultural events on the plaza.
Another notable aspect of the plaza is the committee that was formed for the creation of the plaza and for future improvements and events. The committee members were intentionally selected, and members truly invested themselves during the implementation of the project. Members of the committee were local individuals representing Penn State University, businesses, Community Diversity Group, the Mayor, and, of course, community members who have been active in social and racial justice initiatives for decades. The development of the committee exemplifies the dedication to continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
State College Borough
State College, Pennsylvania 16801