The MLK Plaza, located at the center of USF’s campus, is one of the most familiar features on the grounds. As the first monument erected in Dr. King’s honor at a public Florida university, it promotes the activist spirit by providing a place where students can speak freely about issues dear to them.
The MLK Plaza was founded in 1982, at the urging of USF’s Black Student Union (BSU). The plaza was financially supported by various organizations on campus. Initially, it was a simple monument, but was renovated in 1996 to evoke the imagery of the National Mall where King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Although partially intended as a place for students to seek refuge from the blistering Florida sun, the plaza quickly lived up to its namesake’s passion for activism.
In September of 1992, president of the Student Government Lesia Miller faced accusations that her cabinet choices lacked diversity. At a BSU meeting, Miller refused to respond to students’ questions and fled the area. Shortly thereafter, BSU president Monique Beau gave a speech at the MLK Plaza, denouncing Miller’s actions. As a result, USF made the decision to temporarily disband the student government, a move that shocked the campus.
MLK Plaza was the site of a number of other campus protests. Protests were organized in 1999 after the university passed a rule that free speech was limited to two specific areas on campus. This regulation was passed in response to the behavior of Rudi Lopez and the Campus Ministry Alliance, who regularly harassed students outside of the Student Center and Cooper Hall. In 1986, SCAAR, or Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism, built a model shantytown in the MLK Plaza at the height of the American anti-apartheid movement in order to make students aware of the conditions in South Africa. As a form of counter-protest, a group called Students for America built a Soviet gulag at the site. Though met with initial interest, the gulag exhibit was soon marred by vandalism and destroyed.
This was not the only instance of vandalism at the MLK Plaza. In 2003, a non-student vandalized the bust of Martin Luther King, an incident that students perceived as racially motivated. Students were outraged and disappointed by the vandalism. Some students said that it indicated a continued need to fight for civil rights.
The MLK Plaza serves dual purposes: to provide an outdoor environment for students to relax and to serve as a reminder to students to fight for their rights as well as the rights of others, as King did. The student activism that takes place in the MLK Plaza follows the legacy of Dr. King.