The University’s decision to hold classes Monday on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is drawing protest from students and heavyweight Yale professors, 25 of whom have signed a strongly worded letter urging administrators to reconsider the issue next year.
The Martin Luther King Day Coordinating Committee, a group of student organizers, sent a letter to faculty urging them not to penalize students for observing the holiday in lieu of class and calling for the University to observe MLK Day in 2002. In response to this letter, a group of high profile faculty members penned a letter of their own to the Yale community in support of these same requests.
The coordinating committee is also organizing a vast array of events on campus Monday, including a rally on Beinecke Plaza.
African American Studies chair Hazel Carby and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration chair Michael Denning drafted and circulated the faculty letter, which has 25 signatures, to the Yale community. The letter urges the Yale College Calender Committee to cancel classes on MLK Day starting in 2002.
“For many of us in the Yale community, and particularly for those of us in African American Studies, the fact that Yale University does not recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday is a cause for shame,” faculty wrote in the letter.
All non-essential staff have MLK Day off for the first time this year.
Dean of Administrative Affairs and calender committee member John Meeske said it may be unfeasible to make the day a student holiday, because it falls on a Monday so early in the semester and could create scheduling problems.
“I’m sympathetic to peoples’ interests but it’s also difficult to get around the practicality issues,” Meeske said.
MLK Day Coordinator John Johnson ’03 said he hopes for a large student turnout at the day’s events.
“If students have the day off, it brings to mind the sense of students being in their rooms not doing anything,” Johnson said. “The day-on is meant to be an actual observance of the holiday, which is much more substantial.”
In an effort to allow more students to attend, organizers circulated the letter to faculty in December asking them to cancel class or not to penalize students who chose to go to the events.
“We believe that this day should be a time to think about Dr. King’s message and how it applies to our community and this campus,” students wrote in the letter. “We believe that it is important for students to support these organizations — by attending their events, even if Yale does not yet honor the holiday.”
Psychology professor Mitchell Prinstein, who cancelled his clinical child and adolescent psychology class for this Monday, wanted to make sure his students got a chance to attend the various events planned for that day. He received the original letter to faculty and accounted for the request in his syllabus.
“I decided to cancel class because I wanted to really commemorate him and support these University activities,” Prinstein said.
The MLK Day Coordinating Committee, reflective of its mission, has brought together a wide range of students. Student organizations as diverse as Yale College Democrats, the South Asian Society and Students Against Sweatshops have helped to organize the day’s events.
Organizer Chiraag Bains ’03 said he was surprised at the diversity of the groups involved.
“It was not just ethnic groups, but political groups and performance groups,” Bains said. “It’s facilitating inter-ethnic as well as inter-coalitional work on campus that many have struggled with in the past.”
The events include a panel on anti-colonialization movements, a play chronicling the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, a Calhoun College Master’s tea featuring documentarian Bill Greaves, activities at the Yale Peabody Museum, as well as a performance extravaganza called “Lift every Voice.”
Mark Dinner ’03, Dwight Hall executive committee member, said he changed his views toward the University’s decision not to cancel classes after attending the most recent MLK Day organizing meeting.
“It was really well put by one student — for Flag Day we already have a flag, but for MLK Day we don’t have full civil rights,” Dinner said. “I hadn’t fully questioned Yale’s policy, but after attending that meeting, I found it was something I support, not having classes on that day.”