From the Commie Archives: YU, Apathy and the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Editor’s Note: Just over fifty years ago, Yeshiva University was confronted with student pushback following its response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Some of the articles related to that saga are reprinted here.
Title: From the Archives (May 2, 1968; Volume 33 Issue 12) — From The Editor’s Desk: Infamous Isolation
Author: Gary Schiff (Commentator EIC 1967-68)
The platitudes had been offered by the President’s office—and such sentiments were necessary and proper— and the time was right for a meaningful tribute to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet, not only was no such ceremony forthcoming, but the administration showed its insensitivity to events on the American scene by allowing college classes to proceed as usual, both on the national day of mourning and on the afternoon of Dr. King’s funeral. When will those in charge learn that a public-relations type, black-bordered box in The New York Times does not free the fifth-floor office from the responsibility of providing a vehicle for the expression of genuine student sentiment?
Title: From the Archives (May 2, 1968; Volume 33 Issue 12) — In My Opinion: A Time To Mourn
Author: Joseph Kaplan
Yeshiva University is unique, our Public Relations department proclaims. Yeshiva College is unique, our catalogue states. Yeshiva policy is unique, our administrators pontificate. Indeed, all are correct, and this uniqueness has been shown in many areas. And we continue to be unique. A few weeks ago, while a great part of the nation was mourning the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Yeshiva College was the only college in New York City to have classes on Sunday, the national day of mourning and Tuesday, the day of Rev. King’s funeral. Oh yes, we are unique. Yet I cannot help feeling that in this respect we should be ashamed of our uniqueness, not proud of it.
Of course, Dr. King’s passing did not go unmentioned. A notice in Furst Hall stating “non-violence does not mean non-learning” proclaimed to one and all that by continuing in our studies on that day of sorrow we were memorializing Dr. King in our own way. A nice thought; a touching idea. But in practice, how many classes were dedicated to the memory of Dr. King? A Rabbi Rackman who spoke about Dr. King during his lecture and a Dr. Pleskin who showed a film on Rev. King—but how many more? How many rebbeim spoke not about Dr. King but rather what he stood for— man’s responsibility to his fellow man? Which teachers discussed civil rights? Who stressed the work still left to be done? The notice in Furst Hall was neither indicative nor important; neither was the black bordered ad in The New York Times. It is the answers to these questions that show the true attitude, and the answers are all too clear.
Other colleges and universities acted differently. Memorial services sponsored either by students or administrations were held on Friday or Monday and, in general, they were well attended. Classes were not held on Tuesday in show of proper respect. (Let me emphasize, that when I decry the non-cancellation of classes in YC, I refer to college classes and not those in the religious divisions. The learning of Torah can truly serve as a memorial to one who has died, if it is dedicated to his memory.) Time reported that scholarship funds were set up in many colleges for Negro students and pledges were made to double minority group enrollment in 1969. These were some of the positive actions taken; actions, not mere lip service paid in notices and ads.
The students are not blameless either—in fact, they are perhaps more guilty. The YCSC Reception held that Sunday should have been either postponed or cancelled. Money might have been lost, a few students might have been angered, several plans might have been disrupted, but at least the student body would not have been shamed. YCSC represents the student body and this reception, held when it was, offended a substantial part of that student body. It is interesting (and saddening) to note that while the High School realized this and postponed its Senior play, our student leaders did not. I like to feel proud that I am a part of the Yeshiva College student body. I usually do. That Sunday I could not and did not. And yet, Yeshiva’s insensitivity to Dr. King’s death is not the disease—it is merely another symptom of a far larger malady. For all of Yeshiva’s expansion and accomplishments, it is so concerned with itself that its response (or non-response) to the world around it is quite poor. Its attitude towards Israel, Public Relations notwithstanding, is apathetic, as was shown in the Editor’s column a few issues back. The Jewish community, indebted as it might be towards YU, has not received nearly as much from Yeshiva as it should, especially in the realm of Jewish education and scholarship. Concern with Israel is relegated to the graduate schools, as was pointed out by Rabbi Greenberg at the Yom Iyyun symposium. Contemporary problems, both Jewish and other, in ethics and morals have yet to be studied in depth within our four walls. It is not surprising Yeshiva acted the way it did after Dr. King’s murder. It fit right into the pattern.
It is not too late to change this pattern. What is needed is the realization that Yeshiva cannot exist any longer in its cloistered atmosphere. Concern with itself is important, but not enough. It must open its doors, its mind and its soul to what is happening. Then it will be able to take its proper place in the academic community, take the reins of leadership of the Jewish community and become a force in the national world community.
Title: From the Archives (May 23, 1968; Volume 33 Issue 13) — Letter to the Editor: Objection!
Author: David Shatz
To the Editor:
Joseph Kaplan’s observations regarding the University’s decision to hold classes on the national day of mourning for Dr. King and on the day of his funeral (“A Time to Mourn,” The Commentator, May 2, 1968), leave me very much bewildered as to Mr. Kaplan’s position. Equally ambiguous, but more disturbing in tone, is The Commentator editorial entitled “Infamous Isolation.”
Let me make myself perfectly clear. I concur with Mr. Kaplan’s censure of Student Council for not cancelling the Student Council Reception. However, the question of cancelling classes is more complex than this, and there is at least room to believe that a man who stood for education and enlightenment can best be memorialized through a day of education and enlightenment.
Regarding the University’s decision, Mr. Kaplan writes: “A notice in Furst Hall … proclaimed to one and all that by continuing in our studies we were memorializing Dr. King in our own way. A nice thought, a touching idea.” It is not yet clear whether Mr. Kaplan is being serious or sarcastic. Judging from the sentence beginning “But in practice,” he is deploring not the University’s decision, but the failure of certain teachers to emulate Dr. Rackman and Dr. Pleskin by implementing that decision.
Yet in the very next paragraph, Mr. Kaplan writes “when I decry the non-cancellation of classes at YC….” Now this clearly contradicts his previous remarks. Is Mr. Kaplan now saying that Dr. Rackman showed disrespect by not staying home?
Let us suppose, therefore, that what Mr. Kaplan meant to say was that the University should have held mass lectures for the entire student body. This is a fine suggestion, and here we may admit an administrative oversight. But if this is Mr. Kaplan's main point, why did he not mention it? Nevertheless, even granting that these mass lectures are what Mr. Kaplan and The Commentator had in mind, what does that have to do with the holding of regular classes? It appears to me that by holding a “ceremony” and in addition holding regular classes in Dr. King’s memory, we would be demonstrating that we can memorialize Dr. King not merely in a hastily improvised ceremony, but even in our regular classes! Besides, I cannot help feeling that by the same logic by which The Commentator and Mr. Kaplan impugn the sincerity of the ad in the New York Times, The Commentator would have dismissed even these “ceremonies,” if held, as a Public Relations gimmick.
The Commentator editorial is equally ambiguous. It maintains that “the Administration showed its insensitivity to events on the American scene by allowing college classes to proceed as usual.” That phrase “as usual” may mean either that college classes should not have gone on at all, or that they should not have gone on “as usual”—i.e. Without special class lectures dedicated to Dr. King. If the former is meant, i.e. if the editorial advocates closing classes altogether, its tone is nevertheless overly harsh and intolerant, as I have pointed out that one may be completely “sensitive to events on the American scene” and yet believe that classes should have been held. And if the latter is meant, i.e. that special classroom discussions should have been held, why blame the administration? Is this not the fault of the faculty?
Let me state that I share at least some of The Commentator’s general skepticism of the past few years towards the faculty and administration. But one need not endorse the opinion expressed in the Furst Hall notice to realize that, in this case, those who formulated the University policy may very well have acted with greater sincerity and sensitivity than either Mr. Kaplan or The Commentator is willing to acknowledge. Both, therefore, should have exercised greater temperance in wording their objections.
David Shatz ‘69
Photo Caption: The Commentator archives
Photo Credit: The Commentator