If Friday is Monday and Monday is Sunday or some other nebulous weekend day and then there is some point in April when Monday is Friday, what do you get? My very annoyed Arabic professor, who still doesn’t quite get Yale’s convoluted Martin Luther King Jr. Day phenomenon. (Only at Yale do we come up with this solution, right?) Today, many undergraduates are likely perusing their copy of the Yale Daily News before, between or during class, grumbling that they actually have to do something on a Friday but looking forward to the three-day weekend. Meanwhile, my professor and, I would say, a number of other Yalies, myself included are dumbfounded and exasperated by the convolution of it all.
Over the past two years that is, since the institution of MLK Day in 2002 the most common argument made in favor of repealing the day off for MLK Day has been that in allowing that day as the only federal holiday on which Yale takes a day off, the University is suggesting that MLK Day is superior to all federal holidays, including, among others, Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day. Indeed, arguments in favor of and against the holiday have been flung across these very pages for years. The truth is, however, that the fervor with which the subject was debated in print does not correlate with the feelings of the average Yale student, or the average American. Federal holidays like MLK Day and others are simply not an important priority for most Americans — except to the extent that it allows them a day off — and ultimately do little to pay tribute to the causes they intend to honor.
Three years ago, when the MLK Day Coordinating Committee rallied on Beinecke Plaza on MLK Day for the institution of a University holiday, 150 students attended. This is a testament to the organizers, for with the large presence of activism on this campus, it is often difficult to make one cause stand out over another. At the time of the decision of the Yale Calendar Committee to allow MLK Day as a day off, some critics suggested that there should be a vote not just of the faculty, but of all parties impacted by the decision. Indeed, from the speed with which the decision was made — and we all know the bureaucracy of Yale does not generally facilitate changes to something as revered as the academic calendar — suggests that Yale officials may have been playing to the political correctness police by so graciously accepting the suggestion. Would a similar attempt to make Columbus Day a holiday be met with such easy acceptance?
Many of those who support the MLK Day holiday argue that we are all King’s heirs. Indeed. Americans are the heirs of all that has happened in this nation’s history. Not just civil rights. Wars and the work of the country’s economic workers are equally important parts of the country’s cultural landscape. But truly, how much does the average American care about Vietnam War veterans, on Veterans Day or any other day? Not much. Moreover, do those who support having MLK Day as a day off really need a day of the year on which to commemorate King? Barely. There are many more useful ways to commemorate an important leader in a nation’s history than to have a day off of school or work. Federal holidays do little to encourage tributes to our nation’s history. Indeed, take, for instance, a holiday most Americans celebrate — Thanksgiving. How many of us look up from football or mouthfuls of pecan pie and cranberry sauce to think about our proverbial forefathers? True, the majority of Yalies likely place higher importance on MLK Day than many other federal holidays, but the vast majority of Yale students probably do not spend such a significant amount of time reflecting on King’s legacy on MLK Day, specifically, that they need a whole day in which to do it. Indeed, as Vidhya Prabhakaran ’03 wrote on this page (“Yale’s recognition of MLK Day the right choice” 1/22/02), those who attended the MLK Day activities did so especially in the afternoon and evening. Certainly it would be not only feasible but easy to attend panels and lectures outside of class time on any normal school day, as Yalies do all the time.
That is, I am not making a case here for or against MLK Day as a holiday, and I am certainly not suggesting that other Federal holidays are more important. The relative merit of any such commemorative federal holiday is highly questionable. The work of the MLK Day Coordinating Committee was therefore misguided. Americans — Yalies included, and I certainly among them — require a lot more invigoration about the importance of their shared history than a paltry one-day holiday can do. Why do so few Americans — again, Yalies included — truly care about MLK Day? Because, having such holidays makes what they stand for entirely devoid of significance.
To those who intend to truly celebrate MLK Day: congratulations, and enjoy. In an informal poll of my friends at Yale, I found one who had ever attended such activities in past years. Indeed, I encourage those who support MLK Day to point to a majority or even a significant minority of Yale students using this day as something more than an excuse to party for another day this weekend. So, to the majority of Yale students, enjoy your day off.