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Vandalization and protests: The little-known history of MLK Plaza

A photo from The Oracle’s original coverage of MLK Plaza’s renovation ceremony in 1996.

Most students recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza on the Tampa campus as a quiet and scenic area to study or socialize. Before becoming what students know it as today, however, the location endured redesigns and vandalizations. 

Work on dedicating the plaza to King began in 1982 when the Black Student Union (BSU) and Student Government (SG) frequently met to achieve this goal. The plaza did not welcome its signature bust of King until 1992.

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The bust initially featured just King’s head. However, in 1996, renovations for the plaza began in order to resemble the National Mall where King presented his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Shoulders were added to the statue and it was moved to its current location. Granite stretches were added to certain areas around the plaza including the pool.

The design for the plaza was finalized at this time and the university held a ceremony featuring singing, poetry and a jazz performance.

The plaza evoked controversy as the bust was vandalized two times within the span of a few months. On Sept. 2, 2002, it was thrown into the MLK reflection pool after being removed from its base, according to a 2002 Oracle article. 

Just a few months later in February, 2003, the statue was vandalized again – this time in a more subtle way that suggested a larger plan was in development.

UP was contacted at the time about the bust being loosened from its base, according to the article. Vincent Ahern, coordinator for public art for the institute of research in art at the time, said in the article that the metal anchors installed to keep the bust grounded following the first vandalism were becoming detached.

After inspecting it, Ahern said in the article that he believed it was lifted from its base with a crow bar. 

“I came up to take a look at it and realized the vandals had been at work,” Ahern said in the article.

He was in charge of the repairs being made to the statue.

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University Police investigated the case as criminal mischief instead of a hate crime since it was damage to property, not a person, the article read.

After about two months of repairs, the bust was put back on display. Since then, no vandalizations have occurred.

The plaza also has been home to protests big and small over the years. 

In 1992, BSU president Monique Beau gave a speech at MLK Plaza, denouncing then-SG president Lesia Miller. After facing accusations that her cabinet lacked diversity, Miller didn’t answer student questions pertaining to the topic during a BSU meeting and eventually left. Following Beau’s speech, USF made a rare decision to disband SG temporarily.

Most recently, students marched from the corner of Genshaft Drive and Alumni Drive to MLK Plaza in a pro-Palestine rally. The march came shortly after an order was given by State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues to disband chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine. 

Related: USF’s response to letter disbanding pro-Palestinian student groups still unclear

See below to read some of The Oracle’s original coverage of MLK Plaza’s opening ceremonies and vandalizations: 

Scans by multimedia editor Justin Seecharan