Fifty Years Later, A Silence That Still Echoes

Students camp out in the rain during the “Silent Vigil,” April 10, 1968. Images from Duke University Archives.

“I do not know if you realize the ultimate significance of what you’re doing. I haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve been involved in quite a few civil rights activities in my life, but I haven’t seen anything, anywhere, comparable to this. You would, of course, expect the victims of oppression to sacrifice, to take the hot sun, to take the rain, to sleep at night in the open and cold air, to expose their health, to do everything possible to remove the yoke of oppression and injustice. But you do not expect people born of privilege to undergo this harsh treatment. This is one of the things I think will help to redeem this country.”

– Samuel DuBois Cook, professor of political science and Duke’s first African American faculty member, addressing a crowd in front of Duke Chapel during the “Silent Vigil,” April 10, 1968

Samuel DuBois Cook had just returned from the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to find his campus—like much of the country—in mourning and embroiled in protest.

The day after King’s assassination, students sought to memorialize the civil rights leader by bringing about changes to Duke’s policies. More than 350 of them marched on the home of President Douglas M. Knight—who was then recovering from a bout of hepatitis—and presented him with a list of demands, chief among them being higher wages for the university’s predominantly African American non-academic employees.

WDBS recording at the “Silent Vigil.”

The students occupied Knight’s residence until the following morning, when they learned he had been isolated by his doctors. At that point the protestors moved to the West Campus quad, where they remained encamped in silent support of Duke’s employees, now on strike, for the next four days. Nearly 1,500 Duke students would participate in the massive demonstration, waiting in the rain in front of Duke Chapel until their demands were eventually met.

The “Silent Vigil” was one of the most defining—and best documented—moments in Duke’s history. The student-run radio station, WDBS, was on-scene through the entire event. They were an essential source of information for students, faculty, staff, and local community members as they broadcast round-the-clock interviews, speeches, press conferences, and behind-the-scenes strategy meetings that defined the campus-wide movement. The students who made up WDBS’s news staff knew they were documenting important historical events. It is thanks to their coverage that we know what Dr. Cook said that day. The station later donated copies of the broadcasts to the Duke Libraries.

Now, fifty years later, the Silent Vigil recordings have finally been digitized and are freely available on our website. Supplemented with line-by-line transcriptions, the broadcasts bring to life the events of that tumultuous spring in a way that no other kind of historical record can. There is singing and music throughout the recordings, as well as a sense of urgency in the speeches and community gatherings. The conflict and conviction are literally audible.

Samuel DuBois Cook, 1966

Dr. Cook’s address to the protestors, which took place on the final day of the Vigil, was one of its high points. Cook had come to Duke only two years earlier, becoming the first (and, at the time, only) African American to hold a regular faculty appointment at a predominantly white southern college or university. Though relatively new to campus, he was held in considerable esteem by the Duke community.

He had been a friend of King’s. They attended Morehouse College together, where Cook became student body president and founded the campus chapter of the NAACP. Later, as chair of Atlanta University’s political science department, he had moderated forums between civil rights leaders such as King and student activists.

At Duke, Cook’s influence among faculty and staff would eventually help move the university forward in its efforts at unity and progress, even after he left to become president of Dillard University in 1974. In 1981, he was named a member of the Duke Board of Trustees and later became a trustee emeritus. Numerous enterprises across campus have been established in his honor, including an endowed professorship, a postdoctoral fellowship, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, and the Samuel DuBois Cook Society, which celebrates the efforts of African American students, faculty, and staff at Duke.

Students, administrators, and trustees sing “We Shall Overcome” at the Silent Vigil, April 10, 1968.

So it is fitting that the digitization of the Silent Vigil recordings, including Cook’s memorable speech, coincides with another important addition to the historical record—Cook’s papers themselves. Before he passed away last year at the age of 88, Cook arranged to have them preserved at Duke. The papers document the storied career of a political scientist, scholar, educator, author, teacher, administrator, civil rights activist, and public servant who devoted more than sixty years of his life to higher education. This April, the first installment of papers made their final voyage from Cook’s home in Atlanta to the shelves of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where they will soon be processed and cataloged.

Whatever the next fifty years of racial progress look like in this country, they are sure to be informed by the sounds of the Silent Vigil and the life’s work of a beloved campus figure who never gave up the cause.