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Civil Disobedience at Boise State University

In January of 1989, a week before school was set to start for the spring semester, Eric Love realized that the first day of classes would fall on Martin Luther King’s birthday. He told his boss he wouldn’t be at work or go to school that next Monday because he’d be attending a program honoring King at the state capitol. Then fellow student Dave Hall called to discuss the unobserved holiday. He asked, “Why don’t we exercise our right to civil responsibility?”

Hall and Love asked their student organization, the Black Student Union, to sponsor a protest to persuade the university to honor King’s birthday. After some debate, because some members feared risking negative publicity, they, along with Joel Sanda and club treasurer Reunique Lowery, began planning a peaceful event. They passed out flyers and contacted the local media. By the end of the week, TV, radio and newspaper quickly spread the message: If the federal government was recognizing King’s birthday as a national holiday, then so should Boise State University, and so should the state of Idaho.

Taking the First Steps

On Monday morning, 200 people gathered on the plaza in front of the Business Building, and at least 100 joined the march to the statehouse. Love said, “The idea behind the protest was to let the administration know that there were students who felt that Martin Luther King’s ideas were important enough to celebrate as a holiday.”

University President John Keiser spoke to the crowd and promised them that he would help form a committee to establish a program about human rights for the following school year. He wasn’t in a position to declare a holiday like so many people thought, and he wasn’t “in a fight” with Eric Love either, another public misconception. In fact, Keiser had always supported the students, but there needed to be opportunities at Boise State to honor King or it would be just another day.

Keiser was convinced that people would celebrate a day off rather than focus on King and his legacy. In a 1990-videotaped interview, he said, “A university’s responsibility is that, regardless of what happens, you can’t forget the man; you can’t forget the issues. You’ve got to construct the educational kinds of opportunities for large numbers of people to say ‘because of this occasion don’t go skiing.’” Having a structured program would make a difference.

Love co-chaired the newly formed committee, which met with Keiser throughout the summer and the fall semester. A survey was also distributed to garner feedback from students, faculty, staff and local community members for developing lectures, workshops and presentations. It was also decided that Martin Luther King III would be the keynote speaker. Eventually, however, like so many programs, all the planning and organizing came down to one thing: having enough money to produce a three-day program.

The Bottom Line

According to Love, raising the money “wasn’t easy,” but once it started kicking in, “the money was coming in from everywhere.” The Black Student Union and the Student Programs Board, for example, each donated $1,000. Then the committee met with ASBSU President Pat Reilly, who, after seeing the outline for the program, gave full support.

Reilly and Karen Scheffer, an ASBSU senator, drafted a bill to allocate $1,500 to the Martin Luther King committee. When the bill went to the budget and finance committee, it met substantial opposition. It would take three hearings and “a lot of heated hours of debate that got pretty ugly” before the bill passed. (Later, during 2003-04 school year, the State Board of Education would approve a $1.50 student fee to provide ongoing support for the celebration.)

Finally, it was time to broadcast the news that Boise State University would be honoring the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for the first time. A widespread promotional campaign included posters, brochures and coverage in the Idaho Statesman.

The First Celebration

It was January 1990. The crowd gathered downstairs in the SUB dining room. “The Student Union staff provided megaphones and put out refreshments and quietly supported what we were doing,” Love said, “even when we were protesting the university.” Taking up the signs and banners they had made, the students moved to the soccer field where they would begin their march to the capitol building. Classes weren’t canceled that day, but a campus-wide announcement made it clear that anyone choosing to participate would be excused.

For the next three days, students, faculty, staff and community members could attend any number of events focused on human rights. Governor Cecil Andrus gave a presentation. The Minnie Rae Gospel Singers performed, and art was displayed in the Special Events Center. To help breakdown stereotypes, Love assembled a Diversity Panel made up of mostly students who shared their own experiences about being typecast. Martin Luther King III drew a crowd of 900.

Later that semester, on April 10, the governor signed a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Day as a statewide holiday on the third Monday of January, making Idaho 47th in the nation to honor the slain civil rights leader.

The annual event, now known as the MLK Living Legacy Celebration, has expanded from three days to one week. Between 1992 and 1999, the celebration won two Bronze Awards and one Gold Award for outstanding student involvement programs from the Council for the Advancement & Standards in Education.

High profile civil rights activists Angela Davis, Desmond Tutu, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rosa Parks are just a few of the many distinguished speakers who have appeared throughout the years to deliver the keynote address. In 2003, Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher addressed an audience of 2,500 people in the Pavilion (now the Taco Bell Arena).

Each year the celebration continues to underscore Boise State University’s commitment to upholding the values of respect and civility, encouraging all citizens to be responsible and fair. From workshops, films and lectures to exhibits and political demonstrations, educational programs continue to help raise awareness and promote human rights, calling for people everywhere to exercise their right to civil responsibility.

A Man Making History

Eric Love went on to become the first African-American student body president at Boise State during the spring of 1990. That same year he was the Idaho Statesman’s Distinguished Citizen for the month of September; a national finalist for the Jefferson Award for outstanding community service in promoting diversity; and the winner of the President’s Award for outstanding service to Boise State. In 1991, he was given the Silver Medallion Award, Boise State’s equivalent to an honorary doctorate. After graduating, he attended the University of Idaho, where he earned his master’s degree in counseling, with an emphasis in student affairs.

He returned to the Boise State campus in January 2011 to present a Unity Summit as part of Diversity Week. He is the director for the Office of Diversity Education at Indiana University in Bloomington. He counts among his greatest accomplishments his role in persuading Boise State University and the state of Idaho to officially recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.