Musicians dressed in tribal garb pounded African drums on the first floor of the Yale Peabody Museum on Monday afternoon as students and area residents clapped along to the beat.
The two-day festival at the Peabody was one of several campus events staged this weekend to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The events included lectures, brunches, a Dwight Hall-sponsored community service initiative, and the third annual “MLK Jr. Gospel Extravaganza” concert on Saturday in Battell Chapel, featuring performances by the Yale Gospel Choir and gospel artists Junior Fountain and God’s Generation.
Yale President Richard Levin said campus recognition of King’s birthday is relatively new. The University first canceled classes to honor the holiday in 2002.
“It was decided that it was of particular importance for this time and place, and we were motivated to do it,” Levin said.
Some of that motivation may have come from student and faculty pressure, including a letter from African-American studies professor Hazel Carby, who called the lack of recognition for King’s birthday to that point “a cause for shame.”
African-American studies professor and Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway said students who took the day off to celebrate King’s life had many opportunities to learn from the events and celebrations this weekend.
“As much as we all like to think that the magic of a Yale education only occurs in the classroom or lab, the fact is that if we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open, we will discover that we have an abundance of learning opportunities around us every day,” Holloway said.
But some students said they think the cancellation of classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seems arbitrary.
Craig Kafura ’09 said he does not understand why Yale singles out Martin Luther King, Jr. Day from the other national holidays that fall during the school year but are not similarly recognized by the University.
“If we have off for Martin Luther King Day, why not for Veteran’s Day? Back in November, many of the people I talked to didn’t even realize that it was Veteran’s Day,” Kafura said. “Veterans deserve the same amount of respect.”
Brandon Josselyn ’09 said he thinks many students use the day off simply as an excuse to party on Sunday night or sleep in on Monday morning.
“Most students take advantage of a non-school night to go out,” Josselyn said.
Still, other students said they think Yale’s recognition of King’s birthday has increased awareness of social justice issues in a way that is beneficial to the student body.
Dwight Hall Coordinator Helena Herring ’07 said MLK Day offers students the opportunity to try out a wide range of community work that they may then choose to pursue for the rest of the year.
“I think that [MLK Day] has different purposes to different people, and Dwight Hall and the Coalition for Diversity at Yale are using MLK Day not only to bring different communities together but also to show students the different community work available,” she said.
Peabody Events Coordinator David Heiser said he thinks interest in the holiday is growing and the turnout for the museum’s MLK celebrations has increased over the last few years.
“I do think people are paying more and more attention to this holiday,” Heiser said. “There are plenty of people and organizations out there making sure that it is seen as a ‘day on’ rather than a ‘day off.'”
The bill naming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday was signed into law in 1983, and the holiday was first federally celebrated in 1986.