By Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2020

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - The University of Montana is working to learn from criticism after four white students won an essay contest about Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, the school said.

A majority of the 1,000 comments posted on social media were critical of selecting only white students, The Missoulian reported Thursday.

The contest sought submissions from students, faculty and staff on how they had worked to implement King’s legacy at the university. Only six submissions were received, all from white students, the university said.

The university deleted the photos and names of the contest winners out of concern they could be targets of harassment, the school said.

“Yes. These students are white,” the university wrote. “But the color of their skin does not preclude them from submitting an essay, publicly honoring MLK or working toward equality. That takes all of us, including those of you who have responded with passion and concern about the result of this contest.”

Staff decided the best way to handle the criticism was to post the update and remove the students’ identities rather than delete the post entirely, Communications Manager Paula Short said.

“In hindsight, our team has spoken at length about the careful and delicate nature of having these conversations on social media,” Short wrote in an email.

Many commenters noted the lack of people of color entering the contest may have indicated they did not believe it was a productive use of their time or energy.

African-American Studies program head Tobin Miller Shearer and Murray Pierce, special assistant to the provost and adviser to the Black Student Union, speculated that many of the union members were likely busy planning the Black Solidarity Summit, the group’s upcoming keystone event.

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