Reimagining MLK Day at Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Darren Wilson. Timothy Loehmann. James Earl Ray. These are all members of the long list of white men who have shot and killed black men in American history. The last name is especially significant today. James Earl Ray is the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Many shootings in recent months have conjured up ghosts of that fateful day. 47 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr, the only African American for which we have a national holiday, how are we observing his legacy?

The legacy of Dr. King’s dream remains alive but largely unfulfilled: though an African American President occupies the Oval Office there still remains this pervasive threat (whether grounded in racial sentiments or in fear) to black lives. The news clippings of protesters filling streets and police decked out in military gear are reminiscent of King’s time. After King’s death, Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as president of the South Christian Leadership Conference, wondered “if the next person I passed wouldn’t pull out a gun or start blasting away or if a bullet fired from some distant window wouldn’t suddenly tear into my head, even before I heard the sound of the shot.” [1] Who knows whether he could have predicted that almost 50 years later, young black men across America would still be not have the basic right to live without the threat of annihilation.

Though progress has been made, something about today’s current events seem painfully too familiar, especially for communities of color. The events of today impact us all. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King stated: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” We should unequivocally celebrate the legacy of a man who fought and died fighting for a dream that called for our nation to live up to the true meaning of its founding creed.

Prior to coming to Swarthmore, both of us had an institutionalized observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day every single year of our schooling. In elementary school, we generally did no more than file into an auditorium to watch a kid-friendly movie relating to civil rights, and in middle school, we watched King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” almost every year. In high school, we had the extreme privilege of setting aside an entire day of classes to have prominent advocates like Lani Guinier and Spike Lee come speak at the MLK Day All-School Meeting and the rest of the day would be spent discussing issues of social equality in workshops and watching performances and presentations.

It wasn’t until coming to Swarthmore that there was very little observance of MLK Day at all. Despite the fact that Swarthmore has a dismal record of observing holidays in general, it is still surprising that Swarthmore does not observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day more rigorously given the fact that it is, in our view, the national holiday most closely aligned with social justice.

This year, we had a poorly-advertised luncheon and talk in Bond Hall by Dr. Howard Stevenson, Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and Professor of Africana Studies in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Though the talk was excellent and there was a number of staff and faculty at the event, the students received little advance notice of the event. There were about 40 students in attendance, roughly 3% of the student body. Of those students, many had classes which ended at 12:20 or began at 1:00, giving some students only 20 or 30 minutes to drop into the event. Far too often in our experiences, events like yesterday’s have failed to reach the majority of the student body.

As we begin another semester, let us take with us the desire to create a world that mirrors the justice of King’s dream, so that when tragedies like those at Ferguson and Staten Island occur it does not catch us off guard but actively rededicates us each and every day (as Dr. King did) to making a better world.

In the future, we call upon the students and administration of Swarthmore to organize a mandatory day of mutual education and service on Martin Luther King Day. We are the only school in the Tri-Co to hold classes on this day. In the past, Bryn Mawr, along with dozens of other schools like Yale, Villanova, and Williams has held a College-sponsored day of service. Harris Wofford, Pennsylvania’s own Senator from 1991 through 1995, was the first to declare MLK Day a “day of service,” challenging citizens nationwide to honor King by volunteering and doing local service work. Swarthmore could mobilize itself to embark upon one-day service projects, perhaps with organization by the Lang Center.

We also believe Martin Luther King Day should be a day dedicated to having the tough conversations about race and class, with workshops, speakers, and events. We all have come to this institution to learn and engage with each other; thus we need to end our fear of having such challenging conversations with each other.

Here’s a goal: in three years, we will be honoring the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. By then, our hope is that the College will have taken our advice and cancelled classes for this day to truly give the community this time to reflect, learn, and give back to the community.

Ultimately, how we choose to observe is a question up for debate, but we believe that to let the holiday pass without more recognition in future would be a discredit to a man who profoundly shaped the world we live in today by fighting the injustices of his time and a discredit to Swarthmore’s own mission. In the words of King’s own former mentor, Dr. Benjamin Mays, “Martin Luther King’s unfinished work on earth must truly be our own.” [2]


[1] Abernathy, Ralph David. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. 459.
[2] Mays, Benjamin. Eulogy for Dr. King. Atlanta Constitution, April 10, 1968.


Featured image courtesy of Tavaana.org


  1. Thanks Isabel and Steve for this article. I would add that Swarthmore’s insistence on having class on MLK day corroborates the “Swarthmore bubble” alienating us from both the rest of the Tri-Co and from Philly. So it’s not only insensitive to the importance of the day, but it keeps us from connecting to these larger communities. And that’s damaging.

    Yesterday I went to the “Reclaim MLK” rally and march in Philly where we heard from local civil rights leaders, religious leaders, workers, student activists, families. I saw other Swarthmore students there as well as recent alumni living in Philly. How many other students could have come if they didn’t have class that day?

    Swarthmore MLK day events are great and we should definitely receive more advance notice about them. But MLK is an opportunity for joining the larger civil rights conversation. Swarthmore’s policy doesn’t even give us that option.

  2. Amen! I only heard about the luncheon and talk when I happened to see a tweet at 12:20, and the talk was almost over if not over already. I would have loved to join student groups going into Philly for the rally and march. Admittedly, I could have done a better job researching this myself and just joining in the downtown events on my own, but gosh—I sure didn’t feel any energy around doing so on campus. This needs to change.

    What I’d love to see is a day *packed* with speakers, artists, maybe some poetry slams, and lots of real, well-facilitated conversations about the *real, present-day* issues and especially about their *direct, personal relevance* to every single one of us. Dr. Howard Stevenson’s talk—from what I heard of it here: http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2015/01/20/mlk-day-lectures-focuses-on-speaking-in/ —nails the concept that we need to focus on our *actual day-to-day interactions*, that one of our most important tasks now is “speaking in”, becoming aware of our own personal biases, privilege, and yes, racism.

    But… racism? Am I really a racist? Yes. Acknowledging that I am racist doesn’t have to mean I’m a bigot—even the most harmless choices can lead to a harmful world, as is so eloquently portrayed by the Parable of the Polygons: http://ncase.me/polygons/ . How many of us, consciously or subconsciously, can identify with or have at some point operated by that one simple, seemingly harmless rule—“I’m less happy if less than a certain small percentage of my neighbors are like me”—in the simplest of social interactions: choosing where to sit in Sharples, in class, on the train, at shows? I know I have, and, when I see how those subtle choices, made collectively, can so powerfully segregate a community and close our ears to hearing unfamiliar experiences, perpetuating our shared ignorance, I can’t help but call myself a racist. Herein lies the insidiousness of systemic racism: it can go on, unchecked, indefinitely, *without a single bigoted or even ill-intentioned individual in the entire system*. That is why, in order to solve the problem, we *must* first acknowledge that there is one.

    What happens when we don’t? Even once we get past the gruesome killings, the widespread violence, the police brutality and mass incarceration that *even now* is plaguing our society, why does diversity matter? Why must we examine our privilege? Here’s one small, simple example: http://www.zeldman.com/2014/12/28/unexamined-privilege-is-the-real-source-of-cruelty-in-facebooks-your-year-in-review/ . *Diversity matters because it enables us to have empathy for those whose experiences we don’t share.* Let me say that again: *diversity enables empathy*. Diversity enables empathy, and empathy enables love, true compassion, deep joy, and just about everything else that makes life worthwhile; everything that fundamentally lies beneath each call for racial and social justice.

    I started really paying attention to all of this for the first time just this past month while I was home (in Denver, CO) over break, hearing speakers from the Denver Freedom Riders, now one of Denver’s biggest leaders on these issues— http://www.99thstate.com/denver-freedom-riders/ —and slam poets at an event ( https://www.facebook.com/events/868976339821070 ) hosted by the incredible Suzi Q. Smith, who we absolutely need to invite to Swarthmore: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Suzi-Q-Smith/136542663067019 . My parents got involved in planning the Black Lives Matter conference that the Denver Freedom Riders threw at Denver’s MLK parade: a conference which, despite being conceived of only weeks before it took place, drew a crowd of over 1600 people—the size of our whole student body. I was very disappointed to have to miss the conference to get back to campus for class, and even more disappointed that I found so little to do here in its place.

    Remember the incredible We Are Swarthmore talk at orientation? And the powerful conversations that took place afterwards? Let’s have stuff like that *and more* on MLK day—not classes. Let’s have a full schedule of vans taking people to and from the rallies and marches downtown. Let’s have speakers, conversations, and events all day long, and let’s have *clear, direct, advance* communication about when and where these events are taking place. Let’s have an open mic for people to share their ideas and their art. Let’s have a collection. Please.

    *Actually* resolving these issues means having conversations that will inevitably make us uncomfortable, so we must decide to be okay with that. As I’ve heard said more than a few times by members of the Denver Freedom Riders, *we must become comfortable with being uncomfortable*. That is what’s missing from Swarthmore’s MLK Day events. Monday felt almost like any other day on campus. It was a good day, sure. Some people talked, some events took place, and classes were had, some of which actually address these very issues. But I was comfortable. Far too comfortable.

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