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Dear University: Community activists write open letters on being black at OU, effecting change

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CQ Dear University

Minority communities on OU’s campus live their lives with extra burdens — judgment, discrimination and aggression based on the color of their skin. Just a few weeks into spring 2019, multiple public incidents of racism, online and in person, occurred on campus. Crimson Quarterly solicited letters from a campus leader who has seen students deal with this burden through the decades and a student leader who is dealing with it now to share their thoughts.

Professor Emeritus George Henderson, a civil rights activist and long-time faculty member at OU, writes to community members about the activism he’s seen on OU’s campus through the years. Jamelia Reed, an industrial and systems engineering sophomore and co-director of the Black Student Association’s Black Emergency Response Team, writes on what it is like to be a black student at OU.

Read their letters below: 

“To community activists, bystanders and naysayers,

When I came to the University of Oklahoma in 1967, there were only a few courses that focused on racial minority populations in general and there were none that focused on African Americans in particular. Campus life for minority group students mirrored this neglect.  Put simply, compared to white members of the University, legally protected class students were neglected, underrepresented and lived separate and unequal lives. Daily acts of overt racism, including verbal and physical abuse, were commonplace. After the black students formed the Afro-American Student Union in 1967, they immediately established an alliance with empathetic white students. Together, with my support and guidance along with Melvin B. Tolson Jr. and Lennie Marie-Toliver, those students carried out a civil rights movement at the University of Oklahoma. It was the first such movement on a college campus in Oklahoma or anywhere else in the Southwest.

Although all of the campus race relations battles at OU were civil and nonviolent on own part, they were anything but civil or nonviolent on the part of our adversaries. While there were few physical casualties, countless psyches of the black students and their allies were irreparably scarred. It was not easy for us to remain nonviolent while racial bigots publicly demonized us and tried to goad us into fighting back with our words and fists. Our self-imposed code of conduct required us to not respond to hateful words, pictures and behaviors in kind. Our end goal was to peacefully change specific, not general, oppressive University people, rules, regulations and procedures, which we spelled out to the appropriate administrators.

Most of the student members of the OU civil rights movement were only involved in public meetings and marches around various campus venues. They did not do the hard work of clearly defining race-related University problems, researching the facts pertaining to the problems, devising strategies for abating or preventing specific problems, and working together to carry out various initiatives. The student leaders did those things. They did their planning in closed meetings with me and Professors Tolson and Toliver, not in community forums.

We student mentors, leaders and followers quickly came to understand the fragile nature of our community activism. Despite careful preparation, our efforts to unilaterally combat racism most often fermented, fractured, rebounded, and failed again. There was no fail proof way for us to unilaterally achieve meaningful campus-wide changes. We needed and finally got a critical mass of University administrators to support us. During this process, we learned that publicly calling administrators “racists” did not garner their support. Nor was it helpful when we publicly blamed administrators for oppressive things that occurred before they were appointed. And it was certainly counterproductive when we publicly minimized or belittled the good things administrators did after they were appointed.

History does not repeat but historical lessons can inform us of helpful and oppressive behaviors. Looking back at my behaviors during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I say to current OU student activists, bystanders, and naysayers: If you are not a sociopath or psychopath, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I believe that the only race of any significance is the human race. And the only human behavior that is not oppressive is humane behavior."

- George Henderson

 

“To be black and attend the University of Oklahoma,

Houston, Texas is well known for its diverse culture and great food. When I chose to come to OU, it was a hard decision. I had to decide to leave everything familiar to go to a place eight hours away in the middle of nowhere. My father was adamant about me going so far, especially to a place where racial incidents had made it to national news. After weeks of influential rhetoric and compromise, I was able to attend the University of Oklahoma. I was never discouraged from pursuing my degree although I did have prior knowledge of racist incidents. Yet, I had faith in the administration to handle it properly. It has been two years since I committed to OU and, if you were to ask me that same question, my answer would be different.

To be black and attend the University of Oklahoma is to constantly work your hardest to excel academically and then have your credibility questioned. To be black and attend the University of Oklahoma is to have the constant inner battle of deciding to fight the oppression and have racial battle fatigue or to remain silent and conserve sanity for another day. To be black and attend the University of Oklahoma is to pay an institution to slap you in the face because they cannot properly handle a racial incident. To be black and attend the University of Oklahoma is to watch your university constantly stumble in making statements against racism. To be black at the University of Oklahoma is to become part of a rich and powerful history of black leaders and innovators whose progress is challenged by ignorance constantly. To be black at the University of Oklahoma is to be part of a community full of magic and joy who will fight to the ends of the earth for the basic right and respect we all deserve and endowed by our creator (with respect to all religions and beliefs to who and what “the creator” is and is not).

In my greatest experience and knowledge, to create and continue effective change, we must change the institution and culture. In addition, it is not the job of the minority, it is that of the majority. We as minority students cannot do this alone, neither can the responsibility bear on us solely. Those who can ignore the issue and not be impacted are the ones who are most responsible for the problem. The fight and progress can not be the action of few. In the spaces we are absent, our interest should be present and respected by all.

Although my generation may never see the change we have initiated, we are content that our actions have caused them to come. My advice to the next generation is to continue the fight and to not settle for less than what you deserve. Many generations before me have fought for us to be equal and ask that you will do the same. You are more than the color of your skin. You came here to get an education and by all means obtain it. You belong here. What we do today, depicts our tomorrow.You are a part of the OU family.”

- Jamelia Reed

Kayla Branch is a journalism senior and The Daily's enterprise editor. Previously, she has been the editor-in-chief, a news editor and covered the student government as a reporter.

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