Virginia’s Washington and Lee University held classes yesterday on Martin Luther King Day. Many students objected to the policy. According to an article by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post:

Washington and Lee… has a busy week of MLK-related events planned, but no holiday. The private liberal arts college doesn’t close for Labor Day or Veterans Day, either.

The programming reflects a “desire to respect and honor Dr. King’s legacy on MLK Day,” Jeff Hanna, a university spokesman, said in a statement. “We believe that canceling classes is not the only way, or even necessarily the most meaningful way, to demonstrate that respect.”

Washington and Lee law student David Knoespel petitioned the school to cancel classes for the holiday. “MLK Day should not be just another day or just another holiday,” Knoespel told de Vise. “[T]o me, ceasing classes, stopping the business as usual, sends a valuable message.” He was unsuccessful. His petition garnered 164 signatures. There are 400 students in the law school. The university’s student body is 83 percent white.

Apparently a spokesman for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta said that the center encourages all academic intuitions to celebrate the federal holiday while, “at the same time, we don’t want people to just go home and do nothing.”

At many colleges in the Northeast students celebrate the holiday chiefly by using the three-day weekend to go skiing.

Note that until recently Virginia did not, technically, celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at all. The third Monday of January was, in that state, known as Lee-Jackson-King Day. The holiday somewhat ironically honored both the slain civil rights leader and the birthdays of Confederate Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In 2000 the state legislature separated the holidays. Virginia state offices are now also closed on the Friday before King Day to honor Lee and Jackson.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer