The Silent Vigil, 1968

Students and Administrators at the Silent Vigil, 1968The largest student demonstration in Duke's history, which came down to be known as the "Silent Vigil," developed over the period from April 4 to 12, 1968. They were eight days that changed Duke forever.

Events began with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on Thursday, April 4, which created "a mixture of sadness, fear, guilt and frustration" on campus, said one contemporary account. As riots erupted across the country, student leaders, principally from campus religious groups, and a growing number of radicals, immediately began to discuss a campus response. One group called for a vigil in front of the chapel; another called for a protest march.

By Friday afternoon, students had decided to march to the faculty residential area of Duke Forest. The location was decided in part for safety reasons and for fear of fomenting a riot if other parts of the town were involved. Based on past campus protests, one leader expected about 20 students to participate. He was amazed when about 450 gathered to march on a rainy night to the home of President Douglas Knight.

As Knight greeted the marchers in the driveway, some students drifted into his house while he was talking, and the rest were then invited in by the president. Soon, pre-selected leaders presented four demands, and the atmosphere alternated between serious and boisterous. Not everyone entered the house, but many who did were emboldened by the speeches imploring action and by their sudden challenge to authority. Yet "tradition" prevailed when the women students requested Knight’s permission to call their dorms to sign out overnight. Knight stated that all students were guests in his house.

On the other hand, negotiations stalled when Knight did not agree to student demands. These included that: he sign a newspaper ad calling for a day of mourning and asking Durham citizens to work diligently to bring about racial equality; he resign from the segregated Hope Valley Country Club; a $1.60 minimum wage for non-academic workers at Duke become a priority; acceptance of collective bargaining for non-academic workers.

Students stayed overnight as invited or uninvited guests depending on one's interpretation of the events. On Saturday morning, a "crisis team" of seven administrators met to formulate a response to events. They determined that as long as moderation prevailed among the students, continued negotiation was preferable to the probability of a violent confrontation if they were evicted from the house.

Knight agreed and he conducted a memorial service in the chapel for King Saturday afternoon. However, as the continued presence of students in the president’s house became known, opposition to the students grew. The chairman of the board of trustees, Wright Tisdale, flew to Durham, expressing the opinion that the "occupation" was unacceptable and the students should be evicted. Alumni began to flood the administration with complaints. An intense internal debate over a plan of action ensued.

A surprise turn occurred when Knight's physician removed him from the negotiations citing his real fear of complications in the president's recovery from hepatitis. With the president removed, an intense debate over tactics ensued among the students in the house as well. The focus shifted dramatically Sunday morning when the protest moved to the main quadrangle in front of the Chapel. A very public, carefully controlled demonstration began that became known as the Silent Vigil. Leaders exercised rigid discipline over lines of silent students who were permitted to talk and socialize only to announce intervals for breaks and meals.

Students wrote letters, mostly to university administrators but also to parents and contacts across the country, explaining why they were demonstrating. The rallying cry in support for an increase focus on the wages and call for collective bargaining for non-academic Duke employees became, "We are non-violent, but we will not be moved."

Dramatically, the numbers in the quad grew from 546 Sunday night to 1,046 Monday night; 1, 457 Tuesday night; and 2,000 to hear Tisdale deliver the administrator's response Wednesday evening. The numbers of participants grew in response to the seeming inaction of the administration. In reality, a moderate path was gaining strength within the administrative team. Quick action evicting the students from the president's house was averted when the chair of the board of trustees called a meeting of the executive committee of the board. Then he, in an apparent about face, persuaded the executive committee to use caution.

The official response was to phase in increases in wages and appoint two committees to study the university's relationship with its non-academic employees. A widely-circulated photograph (above) shows trustees, administrators, faculty and students holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome," the rallying cry of the civil rights movement. However, claiming the protest had won nothing of consequence, a coterie of radicals wanted to take over Allen Building but they had few followers.

The motivations of participants were varied and complex. Some were frustrated and wanted to demonstrate some sort of action. Many acted out of idealism: Professor Sam Cook's speech to the demonstrators after his return from King’s funeral in Atlanta was the most eloquent moment of the vigil. Others disliked administrative authority, particularly the style of President Knight. Some, frankly, were on a lark defying university regulations.

From the letters, interviews and recollections of the participants and others in the Duke community, it is clear the event was a moment of conscience for many. The perceptions of the Silent Vigil were varied and complex as well. Many saw it as a contest over authority. Those away from campus often failed to differentiate the nonviolent Duke response from the more violent responses to the assassination of King vividly portrayed on television. In fact, the moderate student leadership kept the focus local and under control. One example was the rebuff of folksinger Joan Baez when, at her appearance, she implored everyone to join in protesting at the ills of society, especially the war in Vietnam. On the other hand, some alumni appreciated the non-violent effort and wrote the administration in support of the vigil.

The large protest had a profound impact on the university. Duke students demonstrated, along with their colleagues nationwide, that they had power to bring about change and that university governance would never be the same. Trustees and administrators became aware that their authority would rarely go unchallenged again.

It marked the beginning of the end of Knight's tenure as president. Other splits occurred as well. Colleagueship eroded. Departments divided, often along generational lines, and a graduate student was told by his mentor that if he were seen participating in the vigil his dissertation would not be signed. Many alumni reacted and complained that the lack of forceful action by the administration failed to keep the students in their place. Financial contributions to the university declined for a period of time.

But student leaders and participants were proud of the fact that the Duke demonstration was nonviolent. One leader noted that watching the nation's capitol burn on television intensified his determination to make the system work. Many students accepted the pledges of the administration in good faith believing, in the world of one participant, that "Duke administrators were good men in bad positions who just needed to be educated."

But to Theodore Segal, who wrote an analysis of the Silent Vigil as a history honors thesis in 1977, its greatest significance lay in the choice it delineated for those living in the tumultuous year of 1968. The old order clearly was changing. Did one react by supporting traditional values and the status quo or did one grasp at growth and change? Most of the surprising number of 1,500 – 2,000 participants considered the decision to take a stand in the main quad to be a momentous act of personal courage. In the last analysis, perhaps the lasting consequences of the Silent Vigil were more intangible than tangible.


Related Resources

  • Segal, Theodore. "'A New Genesis': The 'Silent Vigil' at Duke University, April 5th-12th, 1968." Duke University Senior Honors Paper, 1977. (catalog record)
  • Duke Vigil Collection, 1968-1988 (view this collection guide)

© 1997. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.