Va. students object to Martin Luther King Jr. Day classes

January 16, 2012

By , The Washington Post

Washington and Lee University will hold classes Monday over the objections of David Knoespel and some of his law school classmates, who unsuccessfully petitioned their institution to shut down for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

They are concerned, in part, that the day commemorating King will be overshadowed by events three days later to mark the birthday of Robert E. Lee.

The proximity of the two occasions poses a particular challenge for Virginia and for the university in Lexington named in equal parts for the founding father and the Confederate commander. Lee served as the school’s president after the Civil War and set it on a course toward national prestige in the liberal arts.

For more than a decade after the 1986 advent of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Virginians celebrated the births of the civil rights icon and Confederate generals Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on the same day. (Jackson, too, was born in mid-January.) In 2000, Lee-Jackson-King Day was split into two holidays, one for the generals on a Friday, the other for the civil rights leader on the following Monday.

Most universities in Virginia, Maryland and the District will close for King Day. Some schools already are effectively closed for winter break. A few, including St. John’s College in Maryland and Virginia Military Institute, next door to Washington and Lee, will hold classes as normal. Others, including Maryland’s Washington College and Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, are on break but will not close for the day. Many shuttered campuses reopen Tuesday for a week-long tribute to King’s life and work.

Washington and Lee, too, has a busy week of MLK-related events planned, but no holiday. The private liberal arts college doesn’t close for Labor Day or Veterans Day, either.

The programming reflects a “desire to respect and honor Dr. King’s legacy on MLK Day,” Jeff Hanna, a university spokesman, said in a statement. “We believe that canceling classes is not the only way, or even necessarily the most meaningful way, to demonstrate that respect.”

Knoespel, 24, a first-year law student from Charlotte, N.C., acknowledges the university’s efforts to remember King, but he contends the school would serve the legacy better by participating fully in the federal holiday — that is, by shutting down.

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