The speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered to 8,000 Penn State students, faculty, staff, and local community members in Rec Hall on Penn State’s University Park campus recognized how far our nation had come in the struggle to eradicate slavery and segregation. But Dr. King also talked about how much more America and its citizens would be required to do to truly abolish segregation and discrimination against African Americans.
Perhaps the most important issue Dr. King addressed in his 1965 speech was voting rights for African Americans. During his speech, Dr. King said:
"There are four million Negroes in the southern part of the United States who are not registered to vote.... Many of these persons are not registered because all types of conniving methods are still being used to keep the Negro from becoming a registered voter. Complex literacy tests are still given, with questions that a person with a Ph.D. in any field couldn't answer or a person with a law degree from the best universities in our nation couldn't answer.... in many instances individuals are faced with threats of violence and outright acts of violence if they seek to register and if they seek to vote."
Just two-and-a-half weeks after this speech, Dr. King met with President Lyndon B. Johnson and other national leaders to discuss the need for voting reforms that would allow African Americans the freedom to exercise their right to vote. Then King led more than 3,000 civil rights supporters in a four-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., under the protection of federal troops. Along the way, their numbers increased to 25,000. When the march ended, Dr. King spoke from the steps of the state capitol about the need for legislation to protect the right to vote for African Americans.
Later that same year, on August 6, 1965, in response to King's words, works, and the powerful non-violent movement he spawned to address voting rights and other civil rights issues, President Johnson signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act, widely considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.
Penn State will commemorate Dr. King’s only visit to campus when it places a historical marker outside of Rec Hall this spring. The Dr. King historical marker is one of 55 historical markers on campus, as part of the Historical Marker’s Program, sponsored by the Penn State Alumni Association. The full text of Dr. King’s speech at Penn State can be read online at www.psu.edu/ur/extra/2003/mlk.