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White students win MLK Day essay contest at U. Montana, outrage ensues

The University of Montana thought it had a good idea a couple of weeks ago: It established a writing contest for the annual Martin Luther King Day holiday.

It turns out there was a problem: All of the entrants were white. Which means all the selected winners were white.

On Martin Luther King Day??

The essay topic, how students were “implementing Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy” at the university, garnered six applicants from which four winners were chosen, according to the Montana Kaimin, the student newspaper.

When UM announced the winners on its Facebook page, fury ensued. “[O]ver 1,000 comments flooded the post,” the Kaimin reports. “Many commenters questioned why no one students of color entered the contest and how that could reflect poorly on the University of Montana’s atmosphere.”

One person wrote “Jesus Christ this is shameful and embarrassing, and I say that as a pasty ass white girl.” Another asked how one could “think remembering the legacy of MLK Jr. is achieved by giving four white girls a shout out.”

But here’s the kicker: The idea for the contest was conceived by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, made up of members of the Black Student Union, the head of the African-American studies program, and members of the community. The committee had “personally invited members of the Black Student Union to participate,” and used a “blind judging” system — essay writers’ identities were kept secret — to determine the winners.

From the story:

According to [head of the African-American studies program Tobin] Miller-Shearer, he wanted the contest to encourage everyone, not just members of the Black Student Union, to further King’s message.

“The intention was to challenge the entire UM community to take King’s actual legacy seriously, rather than to encourage volunteerism as has been done in the past,” [he] said in an email. …

In response to the backlash, the University of Montana took down the original post with the photograph of the winners and updated its Facebook post, stating, “All walks of life and races were invited to submit essays,” and only white students ended up doing so.

Shearer commented that the outcome of the contest overshadowed the contest’s original intentions. …

He also said that this was not the best outcome of the contest and it could have been handled differently.

“We made the decision to give out awards even though we only had six entries, all of them from white undergraduate students, but it was a judgment call,” Miller-Shearer said in an email. “We may have not gotten that right.”

Inside Higher Ed points out some also made an issue of Miller-Shearer not being black, that the essay contest was “poorly advertised [and] poorly publicized,” and that the contest came at a time when “black students specifically are overcommitted.”

Read the Kaimin and IHE articles.

MORE: Radical student groups at Kennesaw State U. protest black MLK Day speaker

MORE: MLK Day seminar for white students: ‘How to Embrace Your Inner Racist’

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 20 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.