Pop quiz: True or false: Yale College graduated as many blacks in 1969 as in 1996.
True or false: Yale’s African American Studies program only became a full-fledged department after its chair resigned in protest at her program’s treatment.
True or false: This year is the first year ever Yale’s unionized employees have been given Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday, making our University the second-to-last major employer in the entire state to give its employees the day off, 18 years after the federal government first declared the holiday.
All of these are true.
But that is not the reason I will spend my day on Monday, Jan. 15 — the day the rest of the country celebrates Martin Luther King Day — at specially planned activities. I will have to skip many of my classes so I can better commemorate King and his legacy. That legacy is not only increased civil rights and a call for respect for all people, but it is symbolically the best of America, the promise we can improve ourselves relatively peacefully.
A broad array of organizations on campus has organized a day-long series of events to commemorate King, and these organizations have asked professors to reschedule classes so Yale students can join the nation and New Haven in celebrating him. They are also asking students to attend as many of the day’s special events as possible, not only to celebrate King and his legacy, but to show the administration that while it may refuse to honor King and his legacy, we will choose to do so.
King represents to this country its promise, the promise of improving itself peacefully. The civil rights movement was at times ugly and bloody, but overall it was reason that won. It is reason that dictates every person should be treated with dignity and respect and that one person’s life is equal to another’s. It is reason that requires the voices of the people be heard over the desires of the rulers. King’s movement reminds us that however flawed the United States is, it can be changed, and it can be re-imagined as more inclusive, more true to its ideals.
Martin Luther King became famous fighting for the right of black workers in Montgomery — the city’s maids, busboys, factory workers and street cleaners — to travel to and from their jobs with respect. He was murdered while fighting to ensure workers in Memphis were treated with respect on the job. In between, he demanded every person be given an equal vote, he argued that oppressed people could not wait “until the time was right” before fighting for their rights, and he fought against the Vietnam War, which was killing blacks and other people of color, including three million Vietnamese, disproportionately to whites.
Perhaps my strongest image of King is him standing next to a sign that reads “I Am a Man.” It is a simple and eloquent reminder every person deserves dignity. Every one of us, regardless of our color, class, occupation or education should be treated as a full and equal human being.
It is for this reason I am glad Yale’s unionized workers — so often ignored on campus, so often treated poorly with little respect — will finally have the day off to commemorate a man who reminds us all every person deserves personhood. And it is why I hope next year, I will not have to cut class to do the same.
Jacob Remes is a junior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on alternate Thursdays.