MLK, Jr. Essay Contest

The College of the Liberal Arts and the MLK, Jr. Commemoration Committee invite students enrolled fulltime at any Penn State campus for the spring 2016 semester to submit a 1500 word essay on Silence, Betrayal, and Social Justice.
On April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. broke his silence about the Vietnam War well before he gave this speech. He spoke up because continued silence would have meant betraying his ethical convictions. But his critics argued that silence was exactly the right approach. Some worried that speaking up would pit the civil rights movement against its friends in the US federal government. Others complained that speaking up would take King outside his area of expertise, and that he should steer clear of foreign policy and stick to ‘the Negro problem.’ Concerns like these raise questions. When does silence become betrayal? When should one speak up? When must one speak up?
The aim of this contest is to insist on the links between activism and ethical reflection. If we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy with a day of service, we should remember that he had to decide what ideals to serve, and when, and how. All of us have to make this same decision. This contest invites Penn State students to model this decision-making process, and to hone their skills for communicating its results in writing.

Essays should be no longer than 1500 words and will be judged on originality, relevance,
eloquence, and creativity. Submissions should of course demonstrate facility with the
mechanics of writing in English. The contest is open to all full-time baccalaureate students
who are enrolled at any Penn State campus for the spring 2016 semester.

  • 1st place: $750
  • 2nd place: $500
  • 3rd place: $250

All winners will be acknowledged at the Evening Celebration event during MLK, Jr.
Commemoration Week on January 20th at 6 p.m. in Schwab Auditorium.

Winning essays will be published on the MLK website and the Liberal Arts blog.

Submit your essay in .doc, .docx, or .pdf format to

Submission deadline: January 13th by 11:59 p.m.