MIT began its annual commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1975, seven years after his assassination. The memorial activities featured a breakfast or dinner and lectures by prominent speakers. Martin Luther King Day was designated an Institute holiday in 1976, a decade before its first official observance as a federal holiday. These public events paved the way for bringing several visiting professors across disciplines to campus each academic year.

In 1988, MIT appointed a committee chaired by Professor Michael Feld of the Physics Department (and who happened to be astronaut Ronald E. McNair‘s PhD advisor and mentor). The Institute Committee was charged with considering how MIT could further call community attention to Dr. King’s life, work, and contributions. Among the committee’s recommendations were the establishment of the MLK Visiting Scholars program in 1991 and its expansion, the MLK Visiting Professors program, in 1995. Since then, the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program has enriched the intellectual life of MIT.

The first ever appointed scholar was Dr. Henry C. McBay (1990-91), a retired professor of chemistry at Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater. His dedicated service to the fields of chemistry and teaching included developing a treatment for prostate cancer and advancing a chemistry education program in Liberia on behalf of UNESCO in 1951.

Henry C. McBay: A Chemical Festschrift (MIT Press, 1994) documents the proceedings of a symposium in his honor as the Institute’s first MLK Scholar, with an opening biographical chapter by science historian and MIT professor Kenneth R. Manning.

The four inaugural Visiting Professors appointed in 1995 were: Wesley Harris (aeronautics and astronautics), Richard Joseph (political science), Steven Lee (mathematics), and Oliver McGee (civil and environmental engineering).