Student activism promotes holiday, leads to change in schedule

For the first time, the University of Notre Dame observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with a full day off for students, faculty, and staff on January 17, 2021. Since 2016, the university had observed the federal holiday by canceling classes and activities for a two-hour window in the early afternoon. The recent expansion to full observance resulted following student activism.

President Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, announced the change to the university’s calendar on November 9, 2021. “I hope each of us will actively seek opportunities to reflect on how Notre Dame might become more inclusive and welcoming,” Jenkins said regarding the university’s celebration of the federal holiday.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the first day of the university’s Walk the Walk Week, but no events were scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Fr. Jenkins explained, “So that we might all have the opportunity to honor Dr. King’s legacy on MLK Day in our own ways—by participating in a service project, attending events in the local community, worshiping in our faith communities, engaging in dialogue with friends and colleagues, or spending time with our families and loved ones—we will not plan any campus-wide observances that day.”

During the 2020-2021 academic year, undergraduate student Eliza Smith authored the resolution calling for the expansion of the university’s observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

“The minimal two-hour observation never felt adequate time to truly reflect and converse with the importance of this day,” Smith told the Rover. “Especially given ND’s history of highlighting Fr. Hesburgh’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship, the university needed to provide a greater opportunity to reflect on the importance of social justice, racial equality, and civil rights initiatives.”

Smith gathered input from students to include in the resolution. A survey conducted the week of February 2, 2021 found that 83 of 90 respondents favored full observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The survey was sent to residents of Johnson Family Hall and Smith’s contacts in the black community at Notre Dame.

Smith’s resolution passed unanimously in Student Senate and Campus Life Council.

Over the following summer, Smith enlisted the help of additional students. “We agreed the university could do more in their response, and I realized in order to implement the resolution I would have to gather more help,” she reflected.

Following meetings with Vice President of Student Affairs Fr. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C., President Fr. John Jenkins C.S.C., and Provost Marie Lynn Miranda, Smith’s resolution was presented to the university’s Academic Council for a vote on whether to change the academic calendar to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

“To prepare for this vote, we created the MLK Coalition, which gathered all minority student leaders to create an Instagram account that spread information pertaining to the holiday, MLK, and the university’s history of race relations,” Smith said. The account has 451 followers.

Smith and fellow students involved in the MLK Coalition wrote a letter to the university administration sharing their personal reasons for their advocacy. The letter appeared in The Observer on June 19, 2021, titled “MLK deserves more than a photo,” referencing the photograph of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., and King standing with linked arms at a civil rights rally in 1964.

The letter, co-signed by Smith and twenty-seven students, appeals to the university’s mission statement, and addresses the university’s observance of other holidays.

The letter states, “Most federal holidays that occur during a semester, excluding Labor Day, receive full-day observance. Furthermore, although Good Friday is not a federally recognized holiday, the university honors it for a full day due to its significance for many religious individuals on campus. We are looking for the administration to consider this inconsistency and acknowledge MLK Day on the same level as any other holiday.”

The federal holidays that occur within Notre Dame’s academic calendar are Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving. Until this year, Notre Dame held classes on each holiday with the exception of Thanksgiving.

Smith told the Rover, “When I wrote this resolution, I was not focusing on the number of holidays Notre Dame observed. I was more focused on the meaning behind [Martin Luther King, Jr. Day]. I saw this as an opportunity for Notre Dame to give proper space for the community to observe the work done by civil activists and give the time to reflect with their peers on where we can go from here in the fight for racial equality.”

On August 23, 2021, Student Body President Allan Njomo presented the resolution to the university’s Academic Council. Academic Council minutes read: “Fr. Jenkins invited a vote to approve making MLK Day a non-class day with opportunities for the campus community to facilitate dialogue and learning oriented toward making Notre Dame a more diverse and inclusive institution. A motion was made, seconded, and was passed on a unanimous voice vote.”

Student Government Chief of Staff Alix Basden told the Rover, “In terms of the academic calendar, this day is unparalleled as a secular holiday which receives a full-day observance. This is fitting, given the unparalleled impact of Dr. King and the importance of continuing the conversations he began.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was the first day of the university’s Walk the Walk Week, described on the event’s homepage as a “week-long series of University and department-sponsored events designed to help us consider how we—both individually and collectively—might take an active role in making Notre Dame even more welcoming and inclusive.”

Walk the Walk Week events included a live, in-person episode of Center for Social Concerns sponsored podcast Black@ND, a student-focused panel discussion of Dr. King’s dream for the “Beloved Community,” the annual MLK Day Candlelight Prayer Service, a lecture titled “Transnational Black Feminism and the Pursuit of Peace,” and a conversation with Daniel P. Horan, author of A White Catholic’s Guide to Racism and Privilege.

Student Body President Allan Njomo and Student Body Vice President Matthew Bisner did not respond to request for comment. Eric Love, Director of Staff Diversity and Inclusion, declined to comment to the Rover on the topic of the university’s full observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Mary Frances Myler is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in theology and constitutional studies. She is happiest when sailing on Lake Michigan, browsing a second-hand bookstore, or exploring a national park. Suggest a destination for her next road trip to