It wasn’t that long ago, in 1990, that Yale University started its spring semester on January 15, the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King. That didn’t sit well with community members who were pressuring the Ivy League school to close for a King holiday, whether on his actual birthday or the federal observance on the third Monday in January. The holiday was signed into law in 1983, but was sporadically observed.
Beatrice Sibbles, a former co-chair of the Black Students at Yale organization, told the Yale Daily News that she felt the “strong absence of recognition” of what she described as a “new and politically sensitive holiday.” She went on to say that “black students feel it’s a day only they recognize.” And it wasn’t just students who felt this way. Two Yale employee unions also had their say. Local 35’s membership was half people of color, said a spokesperson, and noted many of them felt strongly about observing the holiday. In contract negotiation years, employees had asked for the King holiday off. In 1985, the university let employees take personal days for the holiday, dependent on seniority and staffing levels. A few years later, the best the university—which honored few holidays—could offer was an hour off to mark the day.
As it turns out, Yale was not alone in its partial embrace of the commemoration. In 1998, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that about 10 of the nation’s Top 25 elite institutions of higher education conducted business as usual on the King holiday. That year, the journal began publishing a near-annual roll call of those institutions, which that year included Cornell, Duke, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, Vanderbilt, and Yale.
From the start, the push for a national King holiday prompted fierce political tug-of-war on campus and off. Less than a week after King’s assassination, Representative John Conyers (D-MI), then a junior congressman, introduced a bill calling for a King observance—one he would introduce again and again. President Jimmy Carter advocated for it, to no avail, in 1970. The next year, Stevie Wonder literally lent his voice to the campaign in a new single, “Happy Birthday,” that begins:
You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
at a day in your celebration.
The big showdown came in 1983, when archconservative Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) filibustered the MLK Day bill on the Senate floor, carrying a tome with information from King’s FBI file and insinuating, Red Scare-style, that King was a Communist. In response, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) stomped the file to the ground. Days after that dustup, Congress voted for a King holiday. Staring down a possible veto override if he objected, President Ronald Reagan begrudgingly sealed the deal. Even then, some states waxed defiant. South Carolina didn’t recognize it as a paid day off for public workers until 2000, and Alabama and Mississippi continue to lump in King with Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a deeply odd hybrid holiday every third Monday in January.
Some colleges and universities also held out. Administrators, students, staff and faculty grappled with questions that spoke to the wider national contestation, sparking a conversation about the holiday but also the demands of university life. Should classes just be cancelled or merely paused to allow attendance at Martin Luther King-specific events? Should such a holiday be best experienced by days of service—as recommended by President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s—or by fruitful class discussions that centered on racial equity or social change? While administrators pondered the cost of paying wages for a holiday, some instructors lamented the loss of another teaching day.
And there were other calculations. Didn’t observing the King holiday signal disregard for not just King, but for black students and faculty? Would student advocates become protesters? Or would alternate observances become so large and prominent—as they did in the Henrico County, Virginia school system, where almost 5,000 students boycotted school on the second official national King holiday in 1987—so that recognizing the day might be the best choice?
There were different approaches: For schools that delayed the start of classes until late January, it was almost a moot point. Others quietly or quickly made the change with the institution’s registrar, faculty councils, or governing bodies. In 1998, a spokesman at the University of Pennsylvania—where a young King had audited several courses in the late 1940s and early 1950s—declared that “universities aren’t about closing, they are about engaging in meaningful discussion. You close for snow.”
Facing continuing outcry and activism from black students, Penn eventually canceled classes for MLK Day in 2001. Later, at Yale, an attempt to move the King holiday’s Monday classes to a Friday met with stiff opposition from professors, who balked at changing the date and losing coveted nonteaching time. Northwestern University President Henry Bienen suggested suspending classes for three hours during the day in 2002, but threatened that even that short interlude would be rescinded if students didn’t turn out to a special event in satisfactory numbers.
At Duke, in January 1991, President Keith Brodie took a less confrontational approach, proposing that the institution officially recognize the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Day. It wasn’t a risky move. Academic deans at Duke had already signaled their approval, and the campus’ Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture had held events in the slain civil rights leader’s honor for years. Still, instructors taught classes, and the school’s offices maintained their regular schedules on the day. The gears of the university ground on until the administration took an unprecedented step: Employees would be dismissed early in order to attend King-related events. The arc of the university’s King holiday might not have bent decisively toward a full day off, but it was swinging—ever so slowly—toward full recognition of the observance.
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Duke factions were still fighting over what to do seven years later. A February 16, 1998, column by the editorial board of the student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, called the move to cancel classes “superficial symbolism” and questioned whether the lack of an official holiday really meant the university’s disregard for King’s contribution.
The writers raised objections heard on other campuses, namely that crammed university schedules couldn’t stand losing valuable classroom time. And besides, they argued, the campus was brimming with King-themed brownbag lunches and lectures. King should not be judged as so much more important than other American luminaries, they claimed. “A decision to halt classes for Dr. King also begs the question whether Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere and the nation’s millions of war veterans are equally deserving of such an honor.” Not to mention the concern that members of the university community would fritter away the newly-won free time they’d gain for the observance. “With their schedules lightened, would more people go to the Monday observance or would more people go out of town for the long weekend?”