When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated over 50 years ago this week, Columbia University responded as most other institutions did – with shock and grieving. Flags were set to fly at half-mast until after Dr. King’s funeral and President Kirk sent a telegram on April 5, 1968 to Dr. King’s widow expressing condolences on behalf of the university community.
A decision was also made to hold a campus memorial service in St. Paul’s Chapel at 3pm on April 9 – the day of the King funeral. Initially it was stated that the University would close starting at 3pm so all could attend the service. Then the administration received a letter dated April 6, 1968 from a group calling themselves “Concerned Black Students”. They argued that the University should close for the entire day on April 9 out of respect to Dr. King and what he stood for.
Among their points: “We realize that closing a university is a drastic action. But we feel that the crisis in America is an imperative for such action. We are aware of your telegram to Mrs. King and of the memorial service planned by Columbia. However, we would consider anything less than a complete shutdown of the University as an obvious affront to the memory of Dr. King and the principles that he stood for.”
The letter was hand-delivered to Columbia Security Desk in Low Library at 9:30pm on Saturday April 6 after they tried to give it to President Grayson Kirk at his residence. Their message was clearly received by administration the next morning.
By Monday April 8 notices were posted that “In respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the University will be closed on Tuesday, 9 April 1968.”
To see how this and the campus memorial service all played out, follow @1968CU on Twitter