It’s a nice twist of fate that Martin Luther King Jr. was born at the end of the holiday season. By January, our nationwide frenzy to gorge ourselves on toys, food, booze and discount merchandise can turn all but the strongest of stomachs. Some optimists posted signs around campus in December encouraging people to curb holiday excess by giving alternative, homemade gifts instead of purchased ones. However, given news networks’ endless footage of consumers trampling each other on Black Friday, it is something of a miracle to this columnist that anyone could retain faith in conscientious consumerism.
Holiday excess is not ending anytime soon, and depending on whether you’re majoring in economics or philosophy, that could be a respective blessing or curse. How lucky for us, then, that Martin Luther King Day falls right at a time when we may be looking to redeem ourselves after a period of intense gluttony. Of all of our national holidays, Martin Luther King Day is unique in that it encourages historical commemoration while simultaneously urging action for the present.
On Monday and Tuesday, National Public Radio and The New York Times ran stories on the many social action projects that people undertook in their communities to commemorate the late civil rights leader. People across the country worked at soup kitchens and painted murals. Schools sponsored music and poetry presentations. According to “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day On the Net,” a Web site that celebrates King and the holiday dedicated to him, the theme of this year’s holiday was “Remember! Celebrate! Act! A day on, not a day off!”
So Yale didn’t get that exactly right. Because of the semester’s schedule, Martin Luther King Day became more of a travel day, or a last-minute Blue Book day. It would be unfair and inaccurate to pick on that favorite of targets, the Yale administration, for letting the holiday become very much of a day off instead of a day on. After all, it was already a major step in 2001-2002 for the higher-ups to acquiesce to protests and make Martin Luther King Day the one national holiday that the university observes.
That commitment to celebrate the holiday was well in keeping with Yale’s historically strong stance on social justice. We, the current students at Yale, have much to be proud of when we consider the role our university has played in the struggle for civil rights and national unity. During the Civil War, the story goes, Yale President Theodore Dwight Woolsey refused to send his Southern students home, insisting that the University not succumb to the nation’s divide. That kind of conviction sounds very much like King’s own vision of American unity. Going back as far as 1876, we can boast of Edward A. Bouchet, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from an American university.
As far as King’s immediate legacy goes, we need look no further than the actions of our own students, professors and administrators during Bobby Seale’s New Haven trial in May 1969. When the Elm City became host to the Black Panthers, many students chose to go on strike to protest what they saw as unfair aspects of the trial. The administration did not oppose them, but aided them. Classes were declared optional, and students were given the opportunity to make up their exams in the fall.
In an era of bravery and personal sacrifice, Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin and Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. were particularly notable for their outspokenness in questioning the U.S. government’s wish to police New Haven with the National Guard during the trial. Their courage and candor is summed up by President Brewster’s famous comment: “I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S.” The bleak words provide a chilling counterpart to King’s vision of harmony and progress as outlined in his “I have a dream” speech. Both statements offer indispensable glimpses into the spirit of the civil rights movement, and provide much for us to reflect upon as we continue to work to promote equality.
Martin Luther King Day does not have to be an abstract concept to students at Yale. In the coming days, there will be quite a few events celebrating King’s legacy. It is unfortunate that our schedule did not allow us to make the most of the holiday itself, but it bodes well that the day should fall at the very start of the new semester. This is the perfect time to look for new ways to work for social justice and get involved in the New Haven community. Dwight Hall hasn’t yet moved off Old Campus. If you haven’t done so already, look into what it has to offer. Where social action is concerned, Yale has history on its side.
Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.