Officials reconsider holiday

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is a federal holiday dedicated to the memory of the fallen civil rights leader, whose credos of faith and nonviolent protest shaped the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But at Duke, officials question whether the holiday is just an excuse to extend weekend revelry one more day.


 This year's celebrations will include community service opportunities, open discussions, performances and a keynote speech by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree. In light of low student participation rates in recent years, however, administrators have expressed concerns that students do not celebrate the day in the way they had intended.


 "The question has been raised about why we have this as a holiday when a lot of students are using it as an opportunity to take a long weekend off campus or a lot more partying or sleeping in, when it had been argued by students that it was disrespectful to Dr. King to hold classes, and therefore we should show respect for Dr. King to use the opportunity to educate," said Judith Ruderman, vice provost for academics and administrative services and chair of the University Scheduling Committee.


 The University began to officially observe Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 1999, after Duke Student Government passed a resolution recommending the University set aside the day as an academic holiday. Student organizers of this year's celebrations have expressed concern that the administration might be reconsidering this decision, although no formal inquiry has yet to come before any official committee.


 "In speaking with several administrators, they warned me to keep in mind that the University wants it to be high participation," said senior Maya Washington, president of the Black Student Alliance and a member of the University's 2004 King commemoration committee. "Initially, I'm thinking that they need to take everything into consideration. The University hasn't even had this holiday for 10 years--I'm not sure they'll be able to understand fully the implications of [such] an action."


 Part of the impetus behind the original proposal to designate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day as a holiday was the fact that most of Duke's peer institutions give students the day off. Despite this consideration, administrators still question the validity of offering students an academic holiday if they are not actively participating in the celebrations.


 "The thrust of it was [that] we had to ask ourselves, 'Why do we have it as a University holiday?'" Provost Peter Lange said. "We wanted to make sure that the day received appropriate recognition, especially as a major university in the South with a strong commitment to diversity. We wanted to be sure that everyone in our community took note of that. Our concern was, is that what's really happening? Or is it like Veterans Day, where most people don't pay attention to it except as another day off?"


 Giving students the day off does not mean they will automatically spend it in reflection about King's life, said Leon Dunkley, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, but he cautioned that changing the day's status could be interpreted as indifference on the part of the University.


 "There's one argument that says it would be good to have classes and then you could incorporate what Martin King said in those classes," Dunkley said. "But there's another argument that says if we held classes, we would be ignoring Martin Luther King."


 In response to the questions that have been raised, this year's organizers have been working to increase student involvement in events like a soapbox speakout on the Chapel Quadrangle.


 "I've contacted a lot of student organizations to try and get them to actually participate," Washington said. "We tried to offer events where the organizations could actually participate so we could further solicit their membership for the audience."


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