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Fifty years of silence

This week marked fifty years since the greatest display of activism in Duke’s history: the Silent Vigil. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hundreds of students rallied to demand racial equality, and the event gripped our campus for days. It pushed President Knight to form a committee to address race-related issues on campus. It provoked the chair of the Board of Trustees to raise the on-campus minimum wage for non-academic workers by the following year. What began as a call-to-action to dozens, mobilized nearly two thousand students. They occupied Abele quad for days, marched with discipline and reflected in quietude. 

Their silence strengthened their solidarity. Ours guards our complacency.

The Civil Rights Movement fundamentally transformed this nation. From prominent figures like Rosa Parks and Linda Brown protesting segregated institutions to everyday black Americans daring to envision an equal America during a time of Jim Crow, Americans were moved through the 1950s and 1960s by a passion for a better America. Our hindsight is clear. The United States was built on slavery, on the disenfranchisement of black men and women, on shallow justifications used to treat some humans as less than others. The assassination of Dr. King spoke to the population that sought more than to be trapped by the legacies it did not choose and could not erase.

The American reality that ignited protests in the past, exists today. But we have become far too comfortable pretending racial inequality is a relic. Fifty years ago, students at this campus were invigorated by the death of Dr. King, but today, we are not stirred when unarmed black men are shot by police officers. Fifty years ago, students chanted that “separate is not equal,” but today, we segregate covertly. Fifty years ago, we focused on our shortcomings and worked toward improvement, but today, we ignore our issues, afraid to admit that in all of these years, our country may not have changed. 

As students, we often feel powerless. However, in many ways, we are the campus’s greatest source of power. If we chose to act as we did fifty years ago, someone would be forced to listen. A fundamental tenet of this university is “knowledge in the service of society,” but we have seemingly forgotten the most salient demonstration of our service to a society larger than our campus. The fifty year anniversary of the Silent Vigil is not simply a celebration. This week should serve as a reminder--a reminder that we have progressed on a journey that still mainly lies in front of us, that we have failed to fulfill many of the missions that drove our counterparts to act fifty years ago, that we have many more struggles to go before we shed the biases that plague our University and our country. 

As the Chronicle wrote half a century ago, “Sometimes people’s dreams compel them to act in ways they would usually call irrational, and they decide they must wrench themselves and others from complacency.” Students on campus fifty years ago dreamt of a world with racial equality, imbued with respect for all people. That dream is far from being realized. Yet we do not act. 

Fifty years ago, students set designated times to talk during the vigil, emphasizing the seriousness of their intent with their silence. Today, we are simply silent at all times. And the price of this silence is much too high. 


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