UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Barry Reddish was a senior in high school when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

The aftermath made him decide he had to go to college, said Reddish, who on January 15 took part in “Project 1972: A Conversation with our Elders,” a virtual panel of Black students and staff speaking about their experiences at Penn State in the years following King’s death. The panel was hosted by the Forum on Black Affairs and Penn State World Campus.

Reddish helped found the Black Student League at the newly opened Delaware County campus, now Penn State Brandywine, and went on to be an activist at University Park, pushing the administration to increase the number of Black students and faculty. 

“The University made concessions because we were vigorously asking for them,” he said. “We asked, ‘Why aren’t there more Black teachers, why aren’t there more Black administrators?’ By continually asking that question, they eventually had to provide an answer.”

Monte Dawson remembered a white political science professor telling him that he was “the first Black person he ever met that could think.”

“I said, ‘I hope you meet more Black people, because there are a lot of us that can think,’” Dawson said.

Selma G. Harrison, who graduated from Penn State in 1972 and went on to receive a doctorate from Ohio State, said it feels like Black Americans are still fighting for the same causes as they were when she was at Penn State, though she is encouraged by the increased diversity of those campaigning for change. 

“We have a long way to go,” she said.

The panel was moderated by Denita Wright Watson, Penn State World Campus associate director of equity, inclusion, and advocacy, whose idea it was to invite alumni and staff from the years following King’s death.

“I wanted to do something a little bit different to commemorate Dr. King,” Wright Watson said. “We have a lot of discussion panels with students and experts. To me, our grandparents and great-grandparents are the true subject-matter experts. I thought they’d have stories we could all benefit from.”

Penn State President Eric J. Barron, who worshiped at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta as a teenager, spoke before the panel discussion and noted his sadness over the normalization of hate speech in recent years.

“Pivotal times have arrived,” he said. “The challenges are many, but this time next year I hope we can celebrate a very different reality.”