Va. students object to King Day classes

January 13, 2012

Washington and Lee University will hold classes Monday over the objections of David Knoespel and some of his law school classmates, who unsuccessfully petitioned their institution to shut down for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

They are concerned, in part, that the day commemorating King will be overshadowed by events three days later to mark the birthday of Robert E. Lee.

The proximity of the two occasions poses a particular challenge for Virginia and for the university in Lexington named in equal parts for the founding father and the Confederate commander. Lee served as the school’s president after the Civil War and set it on a course toward national prestige in the liberal arts.

For more than a decade after the 1986 advent of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Virginians celebrated the births of the civil rights icon and Confederate generals Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on the same day. (Jackson, too, was born in mid-January.) In 2000, Lee-Jackson-King Day was split into two holidays, one for the generals on a Friday, the other for the civil rights leader on the following Monday.

Most universities in Virginia, Maryland and the District will close for King Day. Some schools already are effectively closed for winter break. A few, including St. John’s College in Maryland and Virginia Military Institute, next door to Washington and Lee, will hold classes as normal. Others, including Maryland’s Washington College and Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, are on break but will not close for the day. Many shuttered campuses reopen Tuesday for a week-long tribute to King’s life and work.

Washington and Lee, too, has a busy week of MLK-related events planned, but no holiday. The private liberal arts college doesn’t close for Labor Day or Veterans Day, either.

The programming reflects a “desire to respect and honor Dr. King’s legacy on MLK Day,” Jeff Hanna, a university spokesman, said in a statement. “We believe that canceling classes is not the only way, or even necessarily the most meaningful way, to demonstrate that respect.”

Knoespel, 24, a first-year law student from Charlotte, N.C., acknowledges the university’s efforts to remember King, but he contends the school would serve the legacy better by participating fully in the federal holiday — that is, by shutting down.

“MLK Day should not be just another day or just another holiday,” he said in an e-mail interview. “[T]o me, ceasing classes, stopping the business as usual, sends a valuable message.”

Knoespel wrote a petition last fall on the Change.org Web site, addressed to administrators of the university’s 400-student law school. It has drawn 164 signatures, many of them from Washington and Lee law students and their friends. Knoespel says he has met with several administrators, including interim Law Dean Mark Grunewald. They told him it was logistically impossible to declare a holiday on such short notice.

Knoespel predictedthat the institution will add a King holiday in 2013.

Hanna said he “wouldn’t want to speculate on next year.” He added that the academic calendar is “the purview of the faculty,” and a change would require a vote.

Some of Knoespel’s classmates say the university’s handling of King Day has bothered them. The observance falls on the same week as Founder’s Day, set for Jan. 19, Lee’s birthday. On that day, students follow a shortened class schedule to accommodate a lunchtime convocation.

“It is the juxtaposition of one next to the other that has caused the strife,” said Koral Fusselman, 24, a third-year law student from Winter Park, Fla. “It is a university that has Robert E. Lee in its name, and I think that’s the source of a lot of the questioning.”

Washington and Lee students are 83 percent white and 3 percent black. Too many view the third Monday in January as “a holiday for black people, and not a holiday for Americans,” said Chrishon McManus, 22, a first-year law student from Charlotte. Shutting down the university, he said, might change that view.

Amber Cooper, 21, an undergraduate who works in the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said participation in King Day events has grown since her freshman year. Still, Cooper wonders whether the community is ready to accept a holiday.

“I just don’t see that happening for a while,” she said.

All 50 states now observe the holiday; in Virginia, the state legislature is one of the few public entities open for business Monday.

The District has honored King’s birthday since 1969, the year after his death. Catholic University treats the holiday as a day of service, with students and faculty liberated from classes to cook food, clean schoolyards and sort clothing. George Washington University will hold a reflective walk from campus to the new King Memorial on the Mall.

“We certainly encourage all colleges and universities to celebrate the Martin Luther King holiday as a national holiday, as a first-class holiday, on par with the other major holidays,” Steve Klein, spokesman for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. “At the same time, we don’t want people to just go home and do nothing.”

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