On the evening of April 4, 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, stunned the Duke University campus, and Durham, as it did campuses and communities across the country.
At Duke, in the wake of that assassination, a growing group of students, after initially occupying President Douglas Knight’s house, began a days-long, around-the-clock protest in front of the Duke Chapel. The “Silent Vigil,” its demands including Knight’s support of an ad calling for a day of mourning and his resignation from segregated Hope Valley Country Club, also demanded support of a strike by housekeeping and dining hall employees for union recognition and higher wages.
Let’s recall the context. The year of 1968 was arguably the most disorienting in post-World-War II America. Consider how Todd Gitlin, a scholar and an activist of that period, summed it up:
“(D)raft card burnings … the Pentagon … Stop the Draft Week ... the Tet offensive ... The McCarthy campaign … Johnson decides not to run for another term … Martin Luther King killed … Columbia buildings occupied … Paris … Prague … trips to Hanoi … Robert Kennedy killed … Mexico City … Miss America protest … Nixon elected … deserters, flights to Canada and Sweden, mutinies, “fragging,” in Vietnam ... Eldridge Cleaver underground … San Francisco State, Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, etc. etc., besieged…. People’s Park … police shootouts with Black Panthers … student, freak, black, homosexual riots … SDS splits … Woodstock … women’s consciousness-raising … the Chicago Conspiracy trial … Charles Manson … Altamont … My Lai … Weatherman bombs … Cambodia … Kent State … Jackson State … a fatal bombing in Madison … trials, bombings, fires, agents provocateurs, and the grand abstractions, “resistance,” “liberation,” “revolution,” “repression…”
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The Vigil was, in the midst of those wrenching divisions, singular in its dignified and nonviolent tactics, and would become an iconic moment in the history of student protests at Duke. It marked the beginning of a pivot in Duke’s approach to its employees and in its culture.
As Bill Griffith, assistant to the provost for student affairs at the time, recalled three decades later for Duke Magazine, “It really was special to Duke and to higher education; nothing like it happened anywhere else in the country.”
For many students who took part in the Vigil and others on its edge, it was a transformative moment. That was, I might note, true for me although, to be precise, I was overseeing The Chronicle’s coverage and trying to honor some journalistic objectivity by not being on the Quad.
As the event’s 50th anniversary approaches, an informal coalition of many of its participants, allies and observers are preparing to look back on the significant impact of that moment. That is what set many of us on the road toward social justice and gives the event resonance in the political and cultural context of 2018.
While this is, to be sure, an opportunity to reflect on the Vigil and the half-century since, we have agreed that the program will focus on exploring future directions, rather than on nostalgia. We hope to connect its relevance to today’s challenges, and to connect to the generation of students now on campus who are facing those challenges.
A tribute to Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook on Thursday evening, April 12 – and a performance and discussion afterwards for those who were immersed in the Vigil, whether on the Quad, lending support from the edges or watching from a distance – will launch the program. Cook, the first African-American faculty member at Duke, had a distinguished career as a scholar and civil rights activist. His address to the Vigil protestors was a riveting moment. Thursday evening will remember the era’s Freedom Rides as well as others involved in the early struggle for African-American equality
Friday and Saturday panels will examine such topics as “Race, Class and Gender at Duke;” “Activism Then and Now;” “The Vigil, Rights Struggles and War;” “Paying it Forward: What Our Class and Cohort Learned and How We Apply That in the Current Climate;” and “Where Are We Going as a University and Nation?” Black student actions at Allen Building in 1967 and 1969 will be part of the discussions. Other panels and workshops may consider income disparity, voter suppression and gerrymandering, immigration reform, and climate change. There will be opportunities for small-group, intergenerational conversations that include current students.
A half-century later, as discussions with many of my classmates from that era have underscored, the Vigil remains a pivotal and memorable point in shaping our futures. We look forward to looking back on, sharing and relating to today’s political context, those memorable days.
Bob Ashley, a 1970 Duke graduate, is retired editor of The Herald-Sun. Mark Pinsky, Julia Borbely-Brown and Anne Newman contributed to the content of this column. Parts of it appeared in a media release from the event organizers.