Monday and Tuesday of this week the college took time off from classes to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. His specific legacy for Davidson College appears to begin in the fall of 1958.
That fall Davidson students voted to use the annual YMCA gift fund to provide scholarships for “Negro ministerial candidates.” In a December 19, 1958 editorial “Meaning of the Gift Fund Vote,” Charles Chastain wrote:
Recent events has shown that Negro ministers (such as the Rev. Martin Luther King in Montgomery) have been in the vanguard of progress toward establishing the kind of race relations which will benefit both white and Negro communities. It is encouraging that the generally conservative students of a Southern white college have taken a step which will help this movement.
A few years later, in a 1961 article “Petition Opposes Recent Picketing,” a reference to King was less positive. Students opposing civil rights demonstrations in Charlotte wanted to “show the off-campus Davidsonian readers that there are still quite a few of us who are not ready to jump on the Martin Luther King bandwagon.”
The next reference to Rev. King comes in February 1965, this time in an editorial that juxtaposes the injustices around his arrest in Selma with the campus focus on the upcoming Mid-Winters events and chastises the student body for their lack of concern. Two months later, the Davidsonian reprinted an editorial from Smith College that chastised the promiscuity and low morals of marchers in Selma and criticized King for his comments about traditional morality. In October, a Davidsonian editor was even more critical citing King’s silence during the Los Angeles riots as indicating tacit approval of lawlessness.
King’s appearance at Johnson C. Smith University in 1966 earned a full article (p8) and photograph (p1). His death coincided with another gift fund – this time for a scholarship fund at Davidson –for black students.
After his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. seems to have fallen out the public discourse on campus. A grant from president Sam Spencer and work by the Black Student Coalition and the college union established the Martin Luther King Lecture series. Julian Bond have the first lecture on April 26, 1982. (Note for those interested in his critique of the Reagan administration, there is a typescript in the archives.) While the lectures were named for King, they were not held in January but always later in the spring.
Still, the lecture series put Davidson slightly ahead of the US Congress. In 1983, King’s birthday became a national holiday, although the first celebrations did not happen until 1986. During the 1980s, events hosted by the Black Student Coalition brought MLK and Black History month events.
Echoing earlier editorials on student apathy around civil rights, BSC Vice President Janet Stovall expressed frustration with the lack of coverage for BSC and MLK events in a 27 January 1984 letter to the editor. The Dean of Students office and Chaplain’s office soon joined the BSC in hosting Gospel songfests and worship services.
The college became more invested in MLK day in 1998, cancelling afternoon classes on January 19th so students could attend seminars on civil rights history. In December 1998, the Faculty Executive Committee voted to change the college calendar to cancel classes on MLK day and approved campus-wide celebration. Since 1999, the college has offered a series of programs throughout the day for students, area children and local residents.