A history of MLK Day at UAA

A week after every winter semester begins, students and faculty alike take a day off. The strange timing is no coincidence — officially, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of every January.

If you payed attention in third-grade history class, the reasoning behind this is obvious: it commemorates the legacy of a man — and several other brave men and women — who helped bring rights to large demographics who sorely needed them.

Most students use this time advantageously.

“If I’m not at school, then I’ll probably be using it to study,” said Antionette Street, a student at UAA who works for New Student Orientation. “Or, if my boss lets me, I would probably work.”

Others, not so much.

“I’m having a ‘Lord of the Rings’ marathon with a friend,” said Erin Cockreham, a psychology student.

While campus will be closed on Jan. 18, it wasn’t always that way. Ronald Reagan signed legislation to designate the day a federal holiday back on Nov. 2, 1983. An event was held by the UAA Student Union the following, and first, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16, 1984, on UAA’s campus.

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“I planned the first event that was held on the Anchorage campus in 1984, months after President Reagan signed the federal observance and holiday into law,” said Linda Lazzell, UAA’s Vice Chancellor Emerita for Student Affairs. “It was a simple event with birthday cakes, videos of Dr. King speaking, and handouts of one of Dr. King’s most famous speeches, ‘I Have A Dream.'”

Future events were held on following years, with Alaskan civil rights leaders, such as Elizabeth Peratrovich, being commemorated as well.

The campus was not closed at that point for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day yet. The University’s calendar wouldn’t be adjusted to officially give students the holiday until Dec. 3, 1994. This was, in part, thanks to student effort; the idea to observe the holiday was brought to the Board of Regents that February, and after some deliberation and postponing, the holiday was officially observed starting Jan. 16, 1995.

Officially, the day was passed as the “University of Alaska Civil Rights Day,” which later became “Alaska Civil Rights Day/Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday,” or some variant thereof. Other minor variations of that name have been used by UA campuses year by year. This changed in 2007, when UAA’s Diversity Action Council requested that it be referred to as “Alaska Civil Rights Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day” in their calendars and publications.

As mentioned before, campus is closed on Jan. 16. That doesn’t stop the university from celebrating the holiday, however. For example, one of the holiday’s traditions on campus revolves around major speakers coming to UAA, such as legal scholar Kenji Yoshino. This year is no exception. Bree Newsome, a community organizer and activist, will speak in the Student Union on Jan. 30, 2016 for this year’s MLK Student Appreciation Luncheon.

It cannot be underestimated how large of a part students played in UAA’s recognition of the holiday. It couldn’t be more fitting that it was a student effort. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. himself once said that everybody can be great because anybody can serve. While most students will be enjoying the day off, his advice has resonated with this community for years and years.