50 years later: Take a look back at The Chronicle's coverage of the Silent Vigil

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of a series of events that would become known as the Silent Vigil. 

In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s April 4, 1968 assassination, Duke students organized and took action to mark his legacy and create lasting change at the University. We looked back at The Chronicle's coverage of the events to show how they unfolded. Over the next several days we will publish a variety of remembrances of this historic part of Duke's history.

Thursday, April 4, 1968

King was assassinated at 6:01 p.m. as he stood on the balcony of the motel where he was staying in Memphis, Tenn. The late Samuel DuBois Cook, Duke's first African-American faculty member, told The Chronicle of his sorrow. He also recalled a prayer he said King gave after a white supremacist bombing—"Lord, if someone is to die in this cause, let it be me."

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"The ultimate tragedy is that Dr. King's death will not be redemptive," Cook said. "Racism will be the order of the day as usual. This country, I believe, will not learn from this tragedy."

The Chronicle joined college newspapers across the country in calling for a state funeral for King and in an editorial sought action "to keep the hatred which snuffed out [his] life from destroying all that he tried to build."

The day before his assassination, activism on campus was marked by an anti-war march on East Campus and a visit to campus by Saul Alinsky, a left-wing community organizer. Reaction on campus and in Durham was muted in the immediate aftermath of the assassination—but planning was underway for action and more was to come. 

Friday, April 5, 1968

The pace of activism picked up Friday as nearly 450 students marched through the Duke Forest neighborhood to President Douglas Knight's home, which far exceeded organizers' turnout expectations. As some students spoke with Knight, others entered his home and ultimately presented him with four demands, some connected to labor activism that had been ongoing for months. These included raising non-academic employee salaries, establishing collective bargaining for University employees, signing a newspaper advertisement condemning racism and resigning his membership in the segregated Hope Valley Country Club.

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The Chronicle reported that Knight's wife treated the students hospitably as they entered the house. Others stayed outside talking to Knight and canvassing the neighborhood for signatures in support of the ad. 

Eventually, Knight entered the house and met with spokespersons for the students for several hours before talking to the whole crowd, calling for more time to discuss the demands.

"I don't want to feel myself that I was pushed," he said, according to an article in The Chronicle at the time.

The Chronicle described the students' mood as "sometimes belligerent but nearly always respectful." After the back-and-forth continued, students decided to spend the night at his residence.

Saturday, April 6, 1968

Saturday morning brought new hope to the demonstrators at Knight's house, The Chronicle reported. Knight emerged seemingly willing to work with the students. In a speech at the Chapel that afternoon, he agreed to set up a committee of students, faculty and administrators to discuss the issues the students had presented.

That evening, The Chronicle quoted an organizer of the protest as being confident in achieving each of the four demands.

Sunday, April 7, 1968

The mood of the student demonstrators shifted over the course of the day as the official response from administrators was insufficient for the protestors.

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Nearly 200 students gathered outside the Chapel Sunday morning to protest in front of churchgoers there. With songs including "We Shall Overcome" and "Kumbayah," congregants' responses ranged from support to quiet derision, The Chronicle reported.

Students also vacated Knight's house and moved to the quad after his doctor ordered secluded rest to recover from a previous illness. The students left behind a cleaning committee to restore the Knight's house. His health was a topic of much concern as Knight was thought to be one of the more sympathetic administrators, The Chronicle noted at the time.

The students marched to the quad with discipline and formed eight rows of approximately 30  each. The Chronicle reported that they did not talk or sunbathe except at designated periods to avoid a "picnic atmosphere." The students on the quad were free to "study, sleep, or merely contemplate the trees." Volunteer leaders wearing armbands maintained order. Other students helped organize jackets and blankets, while a food committee headquartered in 201 Flowers supplied food.

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Other students on campus met the effort with "concern, confusion, and comedy," a writer commented.

Meanwhile, labor activism was underway as Local 77, a group which advocated for dining hall employees, threatened to strike unless satisfactory answers were given to the demands. 

Monday, April 8, 1968

In its editorial, The Chronicle reiterated its call for action in the face of King's death.

Dining Hall employees began their strike Monday. Student groups, including fraternities and independent houses, pledged moral and financial support for the protestors. 

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On a day-to-day basis, the Vigil remained orderly and periodically broke silence to hear speeches and sing protest songs. The crowd size grew to nearly 400.

Tuesday, April 9, 1968

Employees of Duke's Operations Department, also affiliated with Local 77, began striking Tuesday afternoon, The Chronicle reported. 

The Vigil began to receive national media attention and received a telegram of support from Robert F. Kennedy, which reportedly caused a standing ovation among protestors. The size of the Vigil swelled to more than 1,400 students at some points. Many faculty members also joined the students in support, cancelling classes or deciding not to penalize for absences.

Although the negotiations were "obviously" proceeding poorly, The Chronicle's staff wrote, "One can imagine no greater pressure on an administration negotiator than to realize that the students are in control of the University."

Operations to feed participants grew as the Vigil expanded, and the demonstration had its own bank account, The Chronicle reported. Some deans expressed support and the police noted the demonstration posed no trouble.

Wednesday, April 10, 1968

After a night with nearly 1,500 participants, things began to move rapidly. Demonstrators crowded into Page Auditorium to approve a series of proposals, including actions to carry "the argument of the vigil to the classroom." 

The participants decided to temporarily drop demands related to Knight's membership in the country club and the newspaper advertisement condemning racism due to his ongoing illness. They also discussed methods to continue supporting the ongoing labor strikes. The resolutions were not without contention between student leaders who wanted to continue pressure on the administration and faculty proposals to ensure a return to academic life.

The meeting lasted nearly six hours, with a break for dinner. 

"We have realized our great end already," said Religious Studies professor John Sullivan as he convened the meeting. "Your existence has been acknowledged. You have transformed this University."

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Earlier that afternoon, Wright Tisdale, chairman of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, joined the students on the quad singing "We Shall Overcome" and promised an increase to wages by 1969. 

Late Wednesday night and into early Thursday morning, participants marched from the main quad to East Campus and back.

Nearly 300 employees were estimated to remain on strike as it entered its third day. The Chronicle's editorial board noted that much of the potential success for workers still striking was "dependent on student support." 

Thursday, April 11, 1968

In a special edition, The Chronicle announced the end of the four-day vigil. In its front-page editorial, The Chronicle praised the resolution, stating: "The school will never be the same, and it is up to the people who participated in or supported the Vigil to see that the change is as much for the good as possible." It noted that the demand for a wage increase was being taken seriously by administrators, as were attempts to form a study committee on collective bargaining for non-academic employees.

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That evening, Vigil members held a "Keep the Faith" rally to demonstrate the continued watchfulness of campus activism. Academic Council approved a resolution supporting collective bargaining for non-academic employees.

Friday, April 12, 1968

Friday's issue of The Chronicle saw the publication of several letters critical of the Vigil—but an editorial largely praised its work, effusively stating "We must not let the new Duke University created by the Vigil die, for in it lies our destiny."

Some student participants expressed relief that the physical presence of the Vigil on the quad had ended, with one headline reading "Everyone was miserable but somehow survived."

Subsequent events

In the following days, the strike by dining hall employees continued into the next week. The Vigil helped coordinate food for students engaged in boycotts of the dining facilities. A Chronicle editorial condemned any intimidation of striking workers. During Easter services at the Chapel, more than 1,000 students and faculty gathered on the quad to show their efforts were still alive. 

Striking workers returned to work on April 22, calling for a moratorium on strikes until the University committees had opportunities to work. Over the next several weeks, Vigil leaders continued pressure on administrators through sporadic re-groupings and other protests, but were disappointed by the final report of the committee tasked with making recommendations about working conditions. It did not include specifics about collective bargaining.

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Ultimately, impending finals and the start of summer meant an end to organized activism on campus for the time being. However, the Duke University that resulted from the Vigil was far different than the Duke that existed before. Consciousnesses had changed—for students, faculty, administrators and staff alike—and more was to come in the years that followed.

Adam Beyer | Digital Content Director

Adam Beyer is a senior public policy major and is The Chronicle's Digital Strategy Team director.


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