Broadcasting the Silent Vigil on the radio

Writer: 
April 20, 2018

Fifty years ago, on Sunday, April 7, 1968, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech played over loudspeakers to 500 Duke students assembled on what is now Abele Quad. This was the first day of the Silent Vigil, organized in response to the assassination of King a few days before. The students had decamped from President Douglas M. Knight’s house in Duke Forest, which they had occupied since the evening of April 5.

This local response to a national tragedy was recorded and broadcast, too, by then-campus radio station WDBS. The station broadcast live and around the clock starting with King’s assassination on April 4 and ending on April 10, the final day on the quad. The staff of WDBS were acutely aware that their coverage was the most comprehensive, the most objective, and—at times—the only coverage of what Paul R. Conroy ’68, A.M. ’70, WDBS’s program director for 1967-68, called the “most far reaching event in Duke history.”

One month later, WDBS’s station manager gave copies of the broadcasts to the Duke University Libraries, knowing that the tapes would be essential to any future research on the vigil. These recordings, now part of the Duke University Archives Collections, have recently been digitized and made available online.

This aural history of the vigil begins on April 5. As students and faculty begin to respond to King’s assassination, the recordings reveal differing courses of action and differing opinions resolving into one action: a march, on a rainy, cold evening, to Knight’s house with a list of demands and a commitment to stay until those demands were met. WDBS carried political science professor John Strange’s plea “that we remain together, and that we stand and let this moment be a witness to the fact that we are concerned, that we take every step possible to end discrimination at this university, and in this town, and in this country.”

The discipline and organization were intentional: These were tips passed on by Duke’s Afro-American Society, whose carefully executed study-in at Knight’s office had taken place in November 1967. They showed a body of activists who were serious, respectful, and determined.

On that first day, protesters refined and tightened their demands (including an upgraded minimum raise for Duke employees and Knight’s resignation from the segregated Hope Valley Country Club), and requested critical support for campus workers, who were planning to strike. Between 200 and 300 students marched to and entered Knight’s house. The first night of negotiations with Knight ended around 1 a.m., without much progress. A WDBS reporter described the scene: “Although this is a very, very large house, last night when people finally went to sleep, they were sleeping everywhere, sleeping on the stairs, sleeping on the hard rock, and everything else.”

The following day, Knight spoke at a memorial service for King at Duke Chapel—and returned home with an escort of 350 more students ready to join the cause. With overwhelming numbers of supporters (Knight’s house was full) and Knight nearing a health crisis and unable to negotiate, the students reconsidered their strategy and moved— with some dissent—to the West Campus quad.

On the quad, students studied or read silently for fifty minutes of each hour, followed by a ten-minute break; a class boycott was called. Food was provided by committee, since the students were boycotting Duke’s dining halls in support of the striking workers. The crowd grew from around 500 on April 7 to 1,046 on April 8 to 1,427 on April 9.

Speakers—among them political science professor Samuel DuBois Cook, Duke’s first (and, at the time, only) African-American faculty member—visited the quad to bolster the demonstrators’ spirits. When Cook spoke on April 10, he had just returned from representing Duke at King’s funeral. His speech, recorded by WDBS, was one of the vigil’s high points: “I was uplifted by the fact that you had made his mission your very own, and I’m sure that Martin Luther King would be proud, mighty proud of you. Your vigil here wiped my tears and helped to sustain me and provided even at a tragic moment roses for my soul.”

The WDBS broadcast features singing and music. The students sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” at Knight’s house. On the quad, daily rallies before negotiations with the administration resumed included “Kumbaya” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Even singer Joan Baez—scheduled for a concert in Baldwin Auditorium— stopped by to take questions from the demonstrators. Toward the end of the day on April 10, Wright Tisdale J.D. ’71, chair of the board of trustees, shared a statement addressing the vigil’s two labor-related demands and then joined hands with the students to sing “We Shall Overcome.” The next day, the demonstrators voted to end their vigil on the quad, though with a promise and a plan to ensure that Duke would, in the words of religion professor John D. Sullivan, not go “back to the university that was on April 3.”

Listen to WDBS's recording of the 1968 Silent Vigil.