It’s one thing when Duke administrators open their arms to shadowy individuals tied to violent organizations. It’s another when they cancel classes for them.
On Monday, our University attempted to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a series of speeches and discussions that culminated with a keynote address by Angela Davis of the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Davis is a former Black Panther and Communist Party candidate for vice president. As one might expect, University press releases did not advertise these parts of Davis’s bio, instead calling her an “activist” and “criminal justice critic”—a reference to her view that prisons should be abolished.
In her speech, Davis told listeners that U.S. President George W. Bush does not really want to spread democracy to the Middle East, but simply wants to exploit Arabs for economic profit. She then went on to accuse the United States of spreading “war and torture” around the world in the name of peace. Davis even called capital punishment a modern-day form of slavery.
The speech was wildly one-sided, conspiratorial and unscholarly. It was also a perfect demonstration of the utter absurdness that exists in Duke’s handling of MLK, Jr. Day.
I wrote about MLK, Jr. Day once before, and pointed out that Duke is the only school of its kind that celebrates it but no other single-day holidays. Some may also remember a Chronicle article a year ago which said administrators were supposedly considering canceling it because too many students were using the day to sleep in and relax instead of attend the events, as a vast majority probably did Monday. Today there are as many problems as ever with Duke’s only holiday outside of a break, and they need to be resolved.
Low attendance at events is not the biggest reason why MLK, Jr. Day needs to be reevaluated as a University holiday. It needs examined because Duke administrators should not be deeming one holiday more important than all others—which is exactly what they are doing—and then “celebrating” it in a divisive and offensive way—which is exactly what they are doing.
Duke’s current position on MLK, Jr. Day, at least according to various quotes from administrators, is that it needs to be a University holiday so that Dr. King can be properly honored, while other holidays like Independence Day and Easter should not be University holidays so that the school year isn’t any longer than it has to be. And while this explanation once seemed like a harmless double standard, it is now grounds for outrage given Monday’s keynote speech. For if an agenda headlined by a political hit from a Communist who wants the prison system abolished merits the canceling of classes, then certainly our nation’s founding does as well.
Even more important, to cancel classes on a holiday so that everyone can commemorate it, only to design a radical and extremist commemoration for that day is especially inconsistent. It is indeed very hard to see a brutally divisive message from a brutally divisive person like Angela Davis bringing anyone together. It’s also very hard to see outsiders being impressed with newspaper headlines like “Activist gives blistering address at King celebration,” which ran in Tuesday’s Durham Herald-Sun.
Perhaps intellectuals at Duke want to impress intellectuals at other schools with their sophistication and progressivism, in this case by hosting programs featuring hard-hitting speeches by famous “activists” like Angela Davis. But Davis’s very inclusion in this year’s commemoration and a glance at other speakers this year and in years past shows that MLK, Jr. Day events here at Duke are actually always lacking in diversity, at least in diversity of opinion.
It’s time to reconsider what Duke does to honor Dr. King, and for a variety of reasons. If the day is truly deserving of a University holiday, then aren’t at least a couple of other holidays deserving of one as well? And if MLK, Jr. Day is in fact deserving of a day off for commemoration by all, then a program aimed at everyone should be designed, not another that results in low attendance, shock, resentment and the extremizing of opinions. Otherwise, just save the time, money, effort and political correctness by canceling it altogether.
Nathan Carleton is a Trinity senior. His column appears Thursdays.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.