Silent Vigil: April 1968

After Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, a peaceful protest arose, in 1968, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. It was the largest student protest in the universities history. William King stated that this was the “first major attempt of students at a predominantly white university to respond to the life and death of Dr. King by confronting those who make decisions about society and its structures, and demand a change” (King 1997). Even though the event continues to be commemorated from time to time at the university, students and faculty’s perceptions and memory of how exactly the protest was received, the atmosphere of the campus, and the demands from the protesters have not always been accurately remembered (King 1997). One person who remembers vividly was William Turner, one of Duke’s first African American students to be admitted. In 1968, Turner said, “The Vigil was the first campus-wide event that took up the issues of black students and their needs and those of the non-academic employees” (Jones 2018). “I would say that our time at Duke forced the issue of whether Duke would be another good regional institution or whether it would be a world-class university” (Jones 2018).

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2018 is the fiftieth anniversary of the protest and many of the participants in the 1968 protest are looking back on the impact of the protest at that time and what lessons we can take from today. Many argue that the protest in 1968 is what helped set America on the right path toward social justice (Ashley 2018). Rather than remembering the past in the context of 1968, many of the 1968 protesters today are trying to understand and put the protest into today’s terms: how is the protest in 1968 relevant for America today in 2018?  Furthermore, many are trying to connect and reveal those experiences to current Duke students who are facing similar challenges today (Ashley 2018). Many of the social movements we see today are in parallel with the movements in the 1960’s: fighting for social justice and equality.

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One of the largest differences between this protest and other student led protest around the country was that the Duke student remained peaceful and nonviolent. The protest never escalated like so many other university protests. The students and other participants were proud that the protest at their university did not erupt in violence and chaos. Because many watched riots permeate the country, which incentivized students and faculty to make sure the movement at Duke was peaceful and constructive (King 1997). Because the protest was so peaceful and constructive, Duke history professor stated that “it’s a history that people on campus today need to appreciate and understand” (Duke Today Staff). Furthermore, he argued that the movement then needs to be remembered and be put toward solving our greatest problems we face as a nation today.

Today, in 2018, many are trying to move forward, rather than looking at the past. Brian Fitzpatrick, one of the students helping plan the commemorative activities stated, “our goal is just to start a conversation and to put this event in context with Duke today.” Aaron Markham, another organizer, said, “we want to ask, what would you be willing to sleep out on the quad for today? What’s the status of race relations at Duke now” (Duke Today Staff 2018). Given this, we can see that this 1968 site of memory is revealing itself today, not by reliving the past, but by remembering the movement and aligning itself with today’s problems in the country. Many of the issues we face today in our political climate are not too far off what American’s faced in 1968. Students across the country and Duke are very intrigued in politics and social justice. Markham stated that the Duke students today are using the site of memory toward issues within their university, making the change more immediate and affective. Robert Korstad, a professor of history, argues that the protest altered how react and respond to conflict and how other respond (Duke Today Staff 2018).

Without a doubt, the Duke student led protest in 1968, sparked a movement that is still remembered today in 2018. Not only is it remembered for the sake of social justice in in late 60’s but has been used as a site of memory today. Former Duke students look back on 1968 and seek to find how we can use the site of memory for the next generation.

  1. Ashley, Bob. “50 Years Later: Program to Remember Duke’s Transformative ‘Silent Vigil’ – Bob Ashley.” The Herald Sun, 1 Apr. 2018. http://www.heraldsun.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article207426879.html
  2. Duke Today Staff. “40 Years After the 1968 Duke Vigil.” Duke Today, 4 Apr. 2018. https://today.duke.edu/2008/03/kingvigil.html
  3. Jones, Alison. How the 1968 Silent Vigil Marked a Turning Point for Duke. 2 Apr. 2018. https://today.duke.edu/2018/04/how-1968-silent-vigil-marked-turning-point-duke
  4. King, William. The Silent Vigil, 1968. Duke University Libraries 1997. https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/uarchives/history/articles/silent-vigil
  5. “Silent Vigil: April 1968.” The Civil Rights Movement in Duke and Durham, 24 Apr. https://sites.duke.edu/sitesofmemory/silent-vigil-april-1968/dukes-main-quad/