Things have been pretty quiet here in Claremont for the last two weeks after the holidays. That’s because the college students are still on Winter break. Things will be picking up, and I’ll be going out to lots of lectures, soon enough, with classes starting for the Spring semester on Tuesday. I know this, because Monday is the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, and the Claremont colleges have been starting their Spring semester on the day after the King holiday.
This has been the case for the last several years. It certainly wasn’t always so. Perhaps the real reason that the date of the first day of Spring semester classes at the Claremont colleges is hard-wired in my brain is that, for many years after the King federal holiday was established some 30 years ago, the Spring semester classes started on the King holiday.
The Claremont colleges are private institutions, and, as such, they can do pretty much what they want, at least in terms of scheduling. There have been many years, for instance, in which they haven’t observed Labor Day. But I always thought that it was weird that there were not only classes but that they began on the King holiday. I always imagined it was something like a slap for the relative handful of black students, faculty and staff at the colleges.
I can’t say if there was racism - conscious or unconscious - going on. But I can say that I thought that the noon ceremony held annually on that day, with the college presidents attending and with august words spoken and stirring anthems sung, didn’t cut it.
No, it wasn’t enough. Especially not with students, especially those feeling like they were in an alien environment, scurrying around, preoccupied with working out their class schedules, buying their books and getting and feeling settled. The ceremony - no doubt the last thing on these students’ minds - felt tacked on and empty.
That is, if it didn’t feel like a bad joke, being a substitute for a genuine tribute.
As far as I know, there never was any protest about this. I didn’t hear or see any outcry. I suspect - or would like to think - that there was quiet grumbling over the years. In any case, I thought it made sense, thought it was right, when, about five years ago and with no fanfare, Spring semester classes started on the day after the King holiday, as has happened since. It felt like a wrong was quietly righted. And the series of talks by noted black activists and scholars over the next month or so helps, even when there is a whiff of patronization about these presentations.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by all this - not when the Methodist church has a nativity scene featuring a fatally shot Treyvon Martin and not only makes national headlines but also gets letters and online comments from Claremont residents condemning the scene as sacrilegious, saying that it is a “shameful” and “disgusting” perversion of the Christmas story.