Only two federal holidays are named after specific people: Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Only one has become a day free of classes and school, and it isn’t the latter.
While some schools such as Lyndon State College and Castleton University cancel their classes for Dr. King’s day of recognition, JSC begins its semester in ceremony, but still holds classes. The argument to cancel and hold classes is reasoned for both sides for a holiday with as much historical context as this one. Yet, which approach should the college take? And what message does this send for people who fought for racial justice alongside King?
First-year student Fadhili Achinda says the holiday is one to stay home and observe King and his message of racial and economic equality.
“I think we shouldn’t have class on Martin Luther King Day,” said Achinda. “First, out of respect for someone like Martin Luther King. He was one of the most respectful guys, someone who brought many great things to this country, and someone who brings peace.
“I’m black,” Achinda continued. “It’s obvious, so, [for] people like us, he’s a very important person. That day of Martin Luther King is a day we appreciate; his kindness, we appreciate his bravery.”
Achinda holds King’s achievements in reverence; she reminds herself that even through harsh adversity, King championed racial harmony at a time when people of color could be discriminated against, beaten, or killed for such a thought.
“For that time, for a black person to stand up to the KKK and other white people, it was the hardest thing,” said Achinda. “To walk for hours and hours, to work for hours and ask for peace. To ask white people for the right for voting. He stood up and said, ‘I believe what I believe. I believe that we are all equals.’ I don’t believe that if you’re white, black, Chinese or Korean, we’re not the same person, but [we’re] all human beings.”
After coming around to the idea of having class on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Russ Weis, freshman staff advisor and part-time instructor of writing and literature, appreciates the event schedule in addition to teaching his students about King.
“If you celebrate it appropriately as we did, and have events around it, it can become a learning option,” said Weis. “Especially for Martin Luther King Day, there were service opportunities connected to it. I’ve come around to the sense that it’s okay, maybe even preferable to have classes. Because many teachers, including myself, take it as an opportunity to teach about Martin Luther King. I had about half my class devoted to it.
“I had them watch about five to six minutes of the speech and then we read a couple of pages of it. I find that students benefit from that, they really do,” Wies added. “His metaphors and his abilities to use rhetoric and speech really work in the classroom.”
Transitioning from the classroom to the calendar, dates like Martin Luther King Jr. Day are determined long before the academic year even starts by the faculty union in collaboration with the JSC administration, according to Professor of Writing and Literature Daniel Towner.
JSC President Elaine Collins says the decision to hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, while Lyndon closes has been “traditional” and will warrant further discussion as unification draws closer.
“It’ll be a different conversation at that point because we’ll be unified after 2018,” said Collins. “At that point, the discussion might change. I’d love to continue to have powerful speakers on campus, that’s what Johnson is all about is service and public awareness, social causes, and making positive social change. It makes sense with our values and our mission.”
Towner respects the decision to have classes on the holiday, but believes that the day is an opportunity to simultaneously observe an influential civil rights leader in America, but to also honor those who are still living and their memories of him.
“It is the only federal holiday that we have that’s named for an African-American,” said Towner, who recognizes that some people may still remember seeing or hearing King alive in their lives.
“It seems to be a little bit insensitive to not observe that holiday,” Towner added. “On the good side, we do have events on Martin Luther King Day that people can go to and we can take some time to think about him and his legacy. It would be more sensitive and more appropriate if we observed the holiday.”
Conversely, Collins sees the day as a day of service and learning, but acknowledges that not everyone will spend their time the same way when given a day free from classes. She emphasizes the need to be together in celebration and understanding of the meaning of King’s contributions.
“Lots of people said that if we close, the meaning of the day is more apt to be lost,” said Collins. “In other words, we wanted our students to be engaged in some way. Engaged in a discussion about human rights, engaged in discussion about nonviolence, and engaged in some kind of activity.”
Engagement and reflection of King across campus represent a familiar thread which Collins, Towner, Weis, and Achinda agree are crucial pursuits at JSC. Part-time instructor of humanities and attorney Jim Moran opposes conventional classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but supports holding civil rights workshops as an alternative.
“In all honesty, no, I don’t think we should have classes on Martin Luther King Day,” said Moran. “Maybe King would say, ‘You better have classes on my day! First of all, I didn’t ask for a day, and nothing is more important than education.’ Well, Martin, wherever you are, I disagree. I think people should think about what you did.
“Maybe the compromise would be this: you don’t have conventional classes on Martin Luther King Day,” he continued, “but what about — I’d hate to make anything obligatory — but what about obligatory workshops where the legacy gets considered? Because what could be more important than America’s answer to Gandhi? Important man.”
What workshops could consider could be to teach the power of racial unity and peaceful protest, like the vision of A. Philip Randolph’s organization of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” on Aug. 28, 1963. That march drew over 200,000 people, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, and culminated in King’s historic speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.
Even as several weeks have passed since his birthday, professors and students like Towner and Achinda urge students and faculty alike to not let the meaning of King’s civil rights work slip away.
“It’s worth considering the fact that at the time when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, a minority of Americans had a positive view of him,” said Towner. “We’re now at the point where there’s a federal holiday, he’s been on stamps and there are statues of him. We just take for granted that he’s an American hero . . . All too often, with these federal holidays, we lose the spirit of them.”