Campus Life: A Day On, Not a Day Off

IC kicks off 2008 by honoring Martin Luther King Jr.   by Greg Ryan ’08

Flyers blanketed the campus. “Why are you in classes today?” they demanded. The question caught many students venturing to class that blustery Martin Luther King Jr. birthday in 2005 by surprise, and that’s what the MLK scholars who had posted the flyers wanted. As the beneficiaries of one of only two college scholarship programs in the country in King’s name, they were aiming to start a campus conversation about the College’s policy regarding the holiday.

Their plan worked. After a three-year-long discussion, the administration decided not to hold classes on King day this January, for the first time. In place of classes, the community was invited to attend a “Day On, Not a Day Off,” a series of speeches, service events, and presentations designed to commemorate King’s legacy of social justice and service.

The celebration started with a breakfast featuring a speech by rapper MC Lyte in Ben Light Gym, attended by around 350 including area residents. Lyte, who in 1993 became the first female hip-hop artist to have a gold single, spoke about the importance of working with like-minded people to effect change. “MC Lyte definitely set the standard for the day,” says Daiana Amieiro ’08, an MLK scholar. “At one point she said, ‘How many times a day do you step back and say, what have you done for somebody else? As a community, are we really embodying what King’s message was?’” After the breakfast, students and staff could participate in one of the service activities in the Ithaca community, or stay on campus and attend academic presentations about King and his legacy. “King stood for the idea that everyone has the capacity to serve their community, no matter your race, age, or class,” says Deb Mohlenhoff ’92, assistant director of the Center for Student Leadership and Involvement, who planned the service activities.

The 95 participants who chose to perform service spent the afternoon at one of nine locations, including the Ithaca Youth Bureau, where volunteers helped create a tile mural, and the community MLK celebration at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.  The presentations centered around how King’s message is relevant today. Asma Barlas, a politics professor and director of the College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, spoke about how our culture distorts King’s message, concealing his views on the degree to which racism is embedded into American society. Barlas and her copresenter, CSCRE faculty member Sean Eversley Bradwell, stayed 40 minutes after their presentation was slated to end, moderating a discussion that had started among students in the audience.

The day culminated in two theatrical performances—one by first-year MLK Scholars about their trip to historic civil rights locales in the South, and an MLK Celebration Concert in Ford Hall, which 750 people attended.

“The day definitely showed there’s a connection between now and then,” says David Cruz ’10. “It showed that where we come from is related to where we’re going.”