February is Black History Month, diversity activism still thriving in local community
Tinisha Sharp never thought it would happen to her. One Thursday morning in late September 2011, the interdisciplinary studies in social science sophomore performed her normal routine to get ready for class in her Akers Hall room.
Slinging her backpack over her shoulder and a hoodie over her arm, she left the room en route to her chemistry class.
As she searched through her pockets to find her keys to lock her door, she habitually looked up at the dry-erase board on the outside of her door. But this time she found something far different from anything she had read on it before — “No Ni***rs Please.”
Her stomach dropped, and a wave of nervous anxiety surged through her as she looked from left to right.
“I felt so alone looking at that note by myself,” she said, reflecting back on the moment. “I couldn’t believe that I saw this message. I didn’t think discrimination was still alive today to where I could actually see it physically right in front of my face.”
The incident sparked a wave of protest against discrimination on campus last fall — one similar to those that have happened throughout the civil rights movement in the U.S. — contributing to a legacy of black student activism on campus.
And as Black History month runs throughout February, many students and officials on campus are still in the fight for racial understanding.
Reflecting on the recent surge of black student activism at MSU, Lee June, a psychology professor and former vice president for student affairs and services, said activism is a natural progression to confront social issues.
“My belief is that with every generation, there are a set of issues and concerns that need to be pointed out in order to make the world a better place,” he said.
Some of the campus demonstrations throughout the years have mirrored those of historic black figures, June said.
June said Martin Luther King Jr. had a four-step strategy to resolving problems at the beginning of the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s. He would analyze the situation to see what needed to happen, attempt to negotiate with those in power, call for self-purification to equip for protesting and initiate nonviolent, direct action to bring issues to the attention of larger populations, he said.
Since June’s arrival on campus in 1973, he said he’s noticed student activists for civil rights taking King’s approach.
“Some of the things even you see (happening) today have happened in the past,” he said. “When there have been racial slurs or (negative) depictions of African Americans in the university environment, students have spoken up. Many times the activities on campus are parallel with some of the things that were happening in the nation.”
The need for activism on campus this past year grew after Mario Lemons, president of the Black Student Alliance, or BSA, said his group documented 10 racial incidents occurring in the first six weeks of the academic year — including a black doll found hanging by a noose in a classroom — and several more events have taken place since then.
Sharp said she can empathize how other students must have felt — scared and targeted.
“I feel just as hurt as they do, and I really do understand their pain,” she said. “It’s bad enough I have to deal with the pressure of classes and final exams, I have to deal with begin called out for my skin color.”
President Lou Anna K. Simon sent two campuswide emails after the incidents denouncing racism at MSU.
Residential College in the Arts and Humanities assistant professor Austin Jackson said with more of the state’s black population living in cities and more white communities in rural or suburban areas in Michigan, he wasn’t surprised by the lack of racial understanding that caused the incidents.
The incidents could be a result of students who come from communities where racism exists and have never been exposed to diversity lashing out, he said.
“It’s a very segregated state,” he said. “I’d be more surprised if such incidents don’t happen.”
Keeping the legacy
Lemons said the key to finding effective approaches to persuade change and end the racial incidents is by studying the history of civil rights activism.
“We did tons of research to see what has been very effective in the past to see what we can do in the present to impact our future,” he said.
Lemons said one of the events his group studied was the 1989 sit-in.
According to a May 1989 edition of The State News, about 300 students held a sit-in inside the Administration Building after the doors were locked and refused to move until a list of demands was met, including a demand for an increase of tenured black faculty.
In that edition of the newspaper, Darius Peyton, spokesman for the protestors, quoted the Malcolm X slogan on many of the students’ T-shirts.
“‘By any means necessary,’ we are going to deal with these issues on campus,” Peyton said.
Rather than hosting a sit-in, the BSA and Iota Phi Theta fraternity chose to conduct a silent march in 2011 from Brody Square to the field behind Akers Hall, past the Hannah Administration Building and through the CATA Bus Station. Without a single word, students held signs and protested the administration’s lack of action to the racial incidents.
The BSA followed suit from the 1989 protestors and created their own list of demands. These include an ongoing investigation of racism on campus by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, the establishment of a university-funded Multicultural Center, an increase in black students, faculty and staff, greater diversity of students in all residence halls; and the institutionalization of African American and African Studies as a major.
“These are a list of things that we believe will make life better for the student body, specifically black students,” Lemons said.
Jackson said after watching the BSA and other student groups peacefully stand up for their rights, he commends the students for their efforts.
“I think that they are following in some pretty rich footsteps of the legacy of the ’89 sit-in,” he said.“In terms of racism awareness, they’re doing a comparable job.”
Since the BSA first proposed the demands in October 2011, it has met with members of the administration every other week, Lemons said.
Although the group’s initial meeting with Simon and other administrators became heated, Lemons said negotiations now are more peaceful, and progress is being made. The demands were categorized, and so far, policy demands have been changed, and the work on education demands has began, Lemons said.
“(President Simon) specifically wrote that our demands are a priority,” he said. “They’ve definitely stood true to their word.”
Throughout the BSA’s movement, Sharp said she attended the town hall meeting, the march, an initial meeting with administrators and every other event to support their activism.
“I was very proud to see that my situation wasn’t just swept under the rug, and things came from it,” she said.
Sharp said she feels speaking out against injustices such as the one she experienced proves to future victims it is important to share their testimonies.
“If they go through a similar situation, it helps them to speak up as well,” she said. “Things actually do happen when you speak up, and being quiet about it only helps the negative situation.”
After all the protests and meetings, Lemons said sometimes his group jokes about feeling like members of the Black Panther Party, which was a black revolutionary organization in the U.S. in the 1960s, who are often painted as radicals, Lemons said.
“At MSU student activism is so quiet, us coming up and demanding things has been perceived as this radical thing,” he said. “But at other universities it’s normal to speak up and advocate for our rights.”
Paving the way
One of the ways students can grow in racial understanding is by attending some of the BSA events and immersing themselves in new cultural experiences, Lemons said. Although some white students might feel uncomfortable as a racial minority at BSA events, Lemons said he encourages students to realize black students are in the minority in most of their classes.
June said if students dedicate themselves to understanding, the likelihood of racial incidents might decrease.
“I’m not sure given the nature of human beings that we’ll have a society where those things never happen,” he said. “But what we can change is the institution and how they respond when they do it.”
Somewhere down the road, Lemons said he hopes his group’s student activism is recognized, and someday future leaders will follow in their footsteps.
“I believe they will come across our names and our year and study us just as we did other ones before us,” he said. “People are going to be able to look back and see we’ve done something here. We’re not super famous, but we’re here to serve the community and (it could start) a ripple effect.”
Sharp said if she were to meet the person who wrote the racial slur on her dry erase board last September, she would not be angry, saying the fight would not be worth it.
“I still think about it today,” she said. “That’s their own issue, that’s not my issue. There wouldn’t be anything I could say.”