Struggle for MLK holiday still persists

Rani Gupta

On a day when the Northwestern community will gather to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., some students voiced fears that administrators might be eroding the celebration’s significance.

And former students who led the effort to establish an official celebration on campus worry that apathy could undermine the results of their two-year battle.

Drawing on overwhelming student support, campus leaders pushed in 1998 for an entire day off to reflect and attend MLK Day programming. Administrators agreed in 1999 to hold an official celebration, but granted a three-hour window for events.

Some warn that the previous fight for a day off might soon become a struggle to keep the three-hour ceremony.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s set in stone and I don’t think a lot of students realize that,” said former SASA executive chair Purvi Shah, who last year served on the provost’s MLK Day committee. “I think that’s the big danger. I don’t think the university wants to take it away, but they haven’t made a commitment.”

University President Henry Bienen has said NU values a vibrant MLK Day celebration, but said he strongly objects to canceling a full day of class – a move he said might prompt students to take a three-day weekend instead of attending programming.

“I will be extremely unsympathetic to fooling around with it again,” Bienen said.

The most significant change in this year’s observation is that administrators pushed the time slot back from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Now classes are canceled from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The switch allows Monday’s keynote speaker, Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, to appear at the Chicago campus at noon, and speak in Evanston at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at 3 p.m., Bienen said.

Manu Bhardwaj, Weinberg ’00, a leader of the movement for the day off, said the shift signals that the university is minimizing the day’s significance.

“It’s less of a university commitment,” said Bhardwaj, a former Associated Student Government academic vice president. “It’s not very much of an academic holiday.”

The university plans to hold the celebration during the later time frame again next year, said Associate Provost Stephen Fisher. The MLK Day committee is securing a keynote speaker with those hours in mind, said Fisher, a member of the committee.

The later time frame could inhibit reflection and makes the event seem impermanent, said For Members Only Coordinator Tiffany Berry.

“The way it was last year, in the middle of the day, professors with classes after that would suspend classes because people would be in the mood,” said Berry, a Weinberg junior. “Professors with class before three will not be pushed to suspend classes. Not only are we not getting a day, but there’s not even a set time frame. It’s going to fluctuate from year to year.”

But some students and administrators said the change will accommodate keynote speaker Kyles’ schedule, cancel fewer classes, boost attendance and prevent professors from holding class during the scheduled observance.

“Unhappily, we got some reports that some faculty members – contrary to all directions – held classes,” Fisher said. “I hope that doesn’t happen again.”

Twice as many classes are scheduled to meet between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., as opposed to during the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. period, said ASG Academic Vice President Ebo Dawson-Andoh.

About 1,400 community members attended NU’s first and second MLK Day celebrations in person and through Internet simulcasts – a number Bienen judged as “good.”

In light of the strong attendance, students should view an afternoon of missed classes as preferable to a day’s worth, Dawson-Andoh said.

“I would like to see a whole day off,” he said. “But Dr. King would have stood for education. I hope students will be able to go to classes and get their education, and still be able to celebrate the event.”

Some students and faculty members said past attendance and interest prove that students are willing to use the event as an opportunity to consider King’s legacy and would take advantage of the original goal of a full day off.

“I saw (the three-hour break) and still see it as a temporary compromise,” Bhardwaj said. “It’s January, it’s cold, there’s a lot of reasons for people not to come. But students have come to events. I saw it as (three hours) until we would see student turnout. But we have had student turnout and I don’t know if (the issue) has been revisited.”

Some faculty members also said they support the value of taking a day to reflect on King’s message. History Prof. Adam Green canceled his 10 a.m. African-American history class to allow students to attend early events.

Teachers who hold class miss an opportunity to use MLK Day to focus service and activism – aspects of learning beyond the classroom, Green said.

“They don’t understand the broad range of support and the thoughtful arguments in favor of not a day off, but a day where classes are canceled so students can attend to other parts of their educational experience,” he said.

Many at NU said it’s time for students to renew the activism of the past and ask for a full day of canceled classes.

“If (students) want to attend class over attending an MLK Day event, then I really question what kind of students are at Northwestern,” Bhardwaj said.

But working for any issue is difficult at NU, where the overall climate on campus is a vacuum of activism, Berry said.

“I think we should be more active in getting a day off,” she said. “But I think a lot of students get pumped about something and once it’s died down and people aren’t talking about it anymore, people forget about it.”

Berry said if students are interested in resurrecting this issue, more people should take responsibility instead of counting on groups that have traditionally led the movement for a full day off.

“It shouldn’t be pushed on FMO like it’s only FMO’s job to get a day off,” she said. “This is more than just a black thing.”

Ultimately some students said they worry that the three-hour compromise has dampened willingness to pursue a goal of full-day recognition.

“If we continue to be complacent about the three hours, that’s what they’re going to give us: three hours,” Berry said.