Colleges’ Reluctant Embrace of MLK Day

January 20, 2019

It wasn’t that long ago, in 1990, that Yale University started its spring semester on January 15, the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King. That didn’t sit well with community members who were pressuring the Ivy League school to close for a King holiday, whether on his actual birthday or the federal observance on the third Monday in January. The holiday was signed into law in 1983, but was sporadically observed.

Beatrice Sibbles, a former co-chair of the Black Students at Yale organization, told the Yale Daily News that she felt the “strong absence of recognition” of what she described as a “new and politically sensitive holiday.” She went on to say that “black students feel it’s a day only they recognize.” And it wasn’t just students who felt this way. Two Yale employee unions also had their say. Local 35’s membership was half people of color, said a spokesperson, and noted many of them felt strongly about observing the holiday. In contract negotiation years, employees had asked for the King holiday off. In 1985, the university let employees take personal days for the holiday, dependent on seniority and staffing levels. A few years later, the best the university—which honored few holidays—could offer was an hour off to mark the day.

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