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Penn State alumni remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at Rec Hall on this day in 1965

 On January 21, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke to a crowd of about 8,000 in Penn State University Park's Rec Hall.
On January 21, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke to a crowd of about 8,000 in Penn State University Park's Rec Hall.

More than fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke in Rec Hall at Penn State University Park. Former WPSU intern Shelby Lincoln spoke with some attendees about their experience and the impact King, and the Civil Rights movement, has had on their lives.

On January 21, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke to a crowd of over 8,000 in Rec Hall on Penn State’s campus.

“[The auditorium] was full…and the fact that he came was celebrated,” said Dr. Bruce Trotman, Penn State’s first Black senior class president in 1965. He recalls being the one to suggest bringing King to speak.

“And it was a good talk, I mean, the man was brilliant,” Trotman said. “He had a capacity for the word. And he summoned the whole civilization to his beck and call.”

Consuelo “Conni” Miller was 21 and a Penn State senior in 1965. Miller was a member of the historically Black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She was also president of the NAACP student chapter, which organized bringing King to the school.

“We were excited to have Dr. King on campus,” Miller said, “Those of us who were members of the student NAACP were already considering ourselves activists, I suppose. But, I’m sure we were further inspired by what Dr. King brought to us.”

Donna Queeney, and her late husband Rick, decided to attend King’s speech at Rec Hall. Queeney was a graduate student, her late husband, Rick, a faculty member.

“I can still picture where we sat, to the right of the aisle on these folding chairs, about two-thirds of the way back. I just remember the feeling he left us with,” Queeney said.

Queeney is white, as was her late husband. And both grew up in predominately white, upper-class neighborhoods. She says they felt they were not prejudiced against Blacks and understood the depth of racism in America, until listening to King’s speech that day.

“Well, what we learned from Mr. King was that we weren't so enlightened. That, yes, we felt we had an open mind, but we didn't view things the way we should,” Queeney said. “I remember going to leave, and I remember Rick saying ‘Oh, my God, you know we’ve missed so much.’”

King spoke at Penn State about the history of slavery and segregation, and its impact on Black Americans. This included the continued violence against Black communities.

After the event, Queeney talked with some of her white peers and neighbors about the speech.

“I don't think that any of them were quite as struck by it, as we were. Some of them almost had the, you know, ‘Yeah, we're making progress and that's the way it is’ kind of thing. And, I think we felt that we hadn't really identified even the problem, let alone the full range of the problem. So, it's hard to make progress, where you haven't completely defined the problem,” Queeney said.

For Miller, King and other civil rights activists inspired her to continue serving others and fighting for equality. After graduation, she joined civil rights organizations in Philadelphia, and later Chicago.

“And there was the work itself, the inspiration, to continue to do work that was usually unpaid and… because you didn’t do to get paid. You did it because it had to be done,” Miller said. “Somebody needed to be making a difference.”

Trotman still sees there is work to be done, 57 years later.

“We've regressed to the point where people are still trying to vote in this country,” Trotman said, “He could give the talk today. He could give the talk today.”

But, he does have hope for the future.

“America has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go,” Trotman said. “So, I think we have to get to the point where we can see the future. And the future should be bright for all Americans.”

Shelby Lincoln was a WPSU news intern in the summer of 2021.
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