Last week, hundreds of Duke students, including me, gathered on the quad to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We were participating in a sit-in organized by the Duke Partnership for Service in commemoration of a similar event held after Dr. King’s death in 1968. The original gathering was a milestone in Duke’s history and a testament to the passion and activism of its students.
Back then, Duke was a vastly different place. Just a year before the original sit-in, the university awarded degrees to its first black undergraduates, a total of three in a class of 961. When the sit-in occurred in 1968, racial segregation was still fresh in Duke’s collective memory, and men and women continued to live on opposite sides of the campus. It was a time of cultural upheaval and social change, the height of the 1960s. As students at Duke were taking classes, many of their peers were fighting and dying in Vietnam.
When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, his supporters at Duke felt a surge of grief and frustration. The following day, they expressed their feelings in typical 60s fashion, a protest march, heading to the house of President Douglas M. Knight to demand better pay and privileges for Duke’s non-academic employees—mostly the housekeeping staff and food service workers. President Knight willingly negotiated with these students, but he was recovering from hepatitis, so on recommendation from his physicians, the students moved their demonstration to the quad. There, it transformed into more of a vigil.
On the first night of the vigil, over 500 people came to set up camp in front of the Duke Chapel (this was long before camping out for basketball tickets became common practice). The chairman of the board of trustees, Wright Tisdale, flew to Durham to meet with the students. Other visitors included folk singers Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who performed for the crowd. Senator Bobby Kennedy sent a telegram of support. On April 10, Chairman Tisdale delivered an official statement, sympathetic to the students’ demands. At that point, there were more than 2,000 people assembled on the quad.
Ultimately, many of the demands were met, and the vigil stands out as an inspiration for those who attended as well as subsequent generations of potential activists. Forty-three years later, when students in the Duke Partnership for Service (dPS) wanted to design meaningful programming for MLK Day, they decided to commemorate the vigil and its role in Duke’s history of social action.
“A lot of students don’t realize that Duke students were fiercely active in past Civil Rights issues and have always taken the lead in voicing their concerns,” wrote Charles West, dPS Vice President of Cultural and Faith-Based Groups, in an email. He was one of the primary organizers of the MLK event.
The event started with an exhibition featuring photos of the 1968 vigil and other instances of Duke’s activist past, including Dr. King’s speech in Page Auditorium in 1964. After a short reception, participants were encouraged to march together to the main quad, where they sat in the same spot that the students gathered in 1968. Representatives came from many of the university’s social action groups, supporting a variety of causes. I attended on behalf of two groups, Environmental Alliance and Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity. According to dPS, over 400 people were present in total, including several prominent administrators. At the beginning of the sit-in, President Brodhead addressed the crowd, urging students to make the world a better place (a video of his speech is embedded below), and later on, many student leaders spoke about the social causes they valued. Towards the end, everyone gathered in a circle and sang along to a recording of Joan Baez’s “We Shall Overcome.” The whole scene was throwback to a different era, a time when turmoil and discontent spawned hopes for a better future.
Since the 1960s, the Gothic stone facades at the heart of Duke’s campus have remained more or less the same, but the world around them and the students within them have changed immensely. Thanks to reformers like Dr. King, we have made amazing progress. However, plenty of injustices persist. Forty-three years after Dr. King’s death, Duke students continue to take action for what they believe is right. Just one day before the MLK event, students in the Black Student Alliance protested a study implying that black students achieved academic success by switching disproportionately to easier majors. And last fall, Duke students were active in the Occupy Movement, setting up tents (formerly used for K-Ville) on the main quad to stimulate discussion about income inequality and corporate influence over politics. Both of these actions sparked significant controversy on campus (browse the Chronicle’s Opinion pages for some examples), but regardless of viewpoint, they showed that Duke students still engage with pressing social issues.
Over 80 student-led service and social action groups work with dPS, pursuing a range of objectives related to social justice. Charles West and the rest of the dPS leadership encourage this type of student engagement.
“dPS is constantly looking for new ways to inspire social action and student involvement in contemporary issues that in one way or another affect our lives,” he wrote.
Duke students join together in singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
NOTE: The photos in this post are courtesy of Ellen Paddock and Duke Partnership for Service.
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