Out of all the students, faculty and staff at the University of Montana, only six students entered a Martin Luther King Jr. Day writing contest. And all of them were white.
The writing contest was sponsored by the University and asked students to write about how they are “implementing Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy here at the University of Montana.” When the University posted an announcement Monday, Jan. 20 with the four all-white winners of the contest on Facebook, over 1,000 comments flooded the post. 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.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, made up of members of the Black Student Union, the head of the African-American studies program Tobin Miller-Shearer, as well as other community members, developed the idea of the essay contest. According to 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,” Miller-Shearer said in an email.
Committee members personally invited members of the Black Student Union to participate, according to Miller-Shearer. The contest was also judged by the MLK Day Committee and used the “blind judged” system in which the author’s identities were removed from the essay, according to the University of Montana’s updated Facebook post Jan. 24.
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.
“At this point, few have actually read the original prompt or our comment on what King’s comment actually means –– which you can still find on the AAST [African-American Studies department] website,” Miller-Shearer said. “There, we make clear that we were challenging people to think about white supremacy.”
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.”
However, despite the lack of diversity of participants in the contest, Miller-Shearer said that the on-campus portion of honoring Martin Luther King Jr. included key speaker Meshayla Cox, the former president of the Black Student Union and civil rights activist. He also said that the events were overseen by the Black Student Union adviser.
The Black Student Union is preparing for the Third Annual Black Solidarity Summit in February, which may be a reason that no club members chose to participate in the contest, according to the Black Student Union’s adviser Murray Pierce.
“The King’s Legacy Lives was but one opportunity among many to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King,” Pierce commented in an email.
In response to the need for greater diversity on campus, Paula Short, the director of communications for the University of Montana, says that a new position is being created. The position, formerly titled the diversity, equity, and inclusions specialist, will try to hire a more diverse staff and provide training for the current staff members to create a more inclusive environment. Short also said the University is in the process of conducting listening groups to get an idea of what resources and support students of color need on campus.
“We also know that our students of color deserve and need more robust support and wide recognition for their tremendous contributions,” Short said.
The Black Student Union’s president and its advisor have not responded to direct requests for comment. This story may be updated.