Whether we’re constant critics of our university or its greatest cheerleaders, one of our biggest desires as Northwestern students is to see this school excel, not just in academics and research, but also in its commitment to people. Two years ago, many of us were lucky to be students when Northwestern reaffirmed its commitment to the ideals of peace, humanity, and a life of purpose by canceling classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Watching that process unfold and grow into a full celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy has been an incredible joy.
In January 2006, Roslyn Brock, the first female vice chairman of the NAACP, spoke to a crowd of 100 people in Alice Millar Chapel as the keynote speaker for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Candlelight Vigil. The relatively small crowd erupted when she issued an open challenge to President Bienen to properly commemorate the day and erase the shame of being the last Big Ten school to do so. The next year, Northwestern canceled classes.
Admittedly, Brock probably wasn’t the main reason the classes were canceled. It must have had something to do with the seven years of student advocates begging for change. Somewhere along the line, enough professors must have agreed to rearrange their schedules. And somewhere in the administration buildings or in between calls among trustees, someone decided that in 2007, Northwestern would not punish its students for not knowing of Dr. King’s legacy, but rather would take on the incredible task of impressing upon 8,000 undergraduates the significance of his work.
The first year, of course, proved to be an obstacle. Deemed “a day on, not a day off,” students had to be convinced that celebrating MLK Day would be about more than lying in bed, reveling in not having classes. It would center around service, dialogue and learning. And if it did not — then it would be canceled. Like few other times I have seen in my four years, students rallied to answer this call. Groups typically unaffiliated banned together to make sure the day went perfectly. Thousands of pins and pluggers were made in the Associated Student Government office, while members of For Members Only went from dining hall to dining hall talking to students. Panhel and IFC leaders rallied their houses, while CAs reminded their residents. The result? Two packed keynote addresses, and a guarantee that classes would remain canceled on MLK Day.
Since then, Northwestern has refined its commemoration of Dr. King. Last year’s day of service was overwhelmingly attended, even in frigid weather. We’ve heard from Pulitzer Prize winners, cabinet-level policy makers and lawyers recognized for being the best in their field. Community conversations on race relations have offered a safe space to discuss a dynamic issue that many students would have otherwise felt uncomfortable addressing. And most importantly, a vast majority of NU’s undergraduate population has bought into this day, and into the premise of us joining as a university community to celebrate.
Despite our success, the critical mind of the Northwestern student knows that there is still a challenge going forward. We stand on the eve of perhaps America’s most remarkable inauguration ever, certainly its most anticipated. At the center of it all is a man who, 40 years later, reached into the sky and claimed the torch of justice that Dr. King so memorably championed. Barack Obama has made repeated calls to Americans to believe in justice, in peace, and in community. He has made it clear that his election was about far more than Nov. 4, or Jan. 20. We have the ability to heed his calls within his lifetime.
Similarly, the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not about that third Monday in January each year, but about committing ourselves to rid humanity of indecency, intolerance, and at the root of most material problems, poverty. Though we could not heed Dr. King’s message in his own lifetime, we can carry it forward nonetheless. And we can do it in such a way that we each have a small part in hoisting that torch of justice that Barack Obama is so valiantly carrying now.
Mark Crain is the former Coordinator of For Members Only, which bills itself as “the voice of the black community here at Northwestern.”