On Thursday, November 19, at 3:45 p.m., the African American Alliance (AAA) invited the Sewanee community to stand in solidarity with Mizzou. Over 100 members of the community gathered at the Quad to support the black students at the University of Missouri, who recently reported heightened racism on campus. Four students from the University and the School of Theology delivered speeches about racism in higher education, including Ricardo Sheppard, (T’16), Taylor Yost (C’16), Kirk Murphy (C’17), and Arthur Jones (C’18). AAA president Brandon Iracks-Edelin (C’18), said, “AAA decided to do the Standing in Solidarity event because of the recent issues of discrimination occurring in higher education institutions across the nation. We wanted to let Mizzou and other students that are currently having these problems on their campus know that we stand in solidarity with them. The situation at Mizzou was a negative one, but it is a concrete example of how much power students can accumulate to make an impact on campus. AAA decided it would be great not only to stand in solidarity with students, but also empower students here at Sewanee. Empowering students is important, but it is also important to empower faculty, staff, and community members to show that we can work together to make Sewanee better.”
While the movement began with Mizzou, AAA’s Standing in Solidarity event addressed the consequences of racial discrimination in higher education on a national scale. Sheppard said, “I believe the national trend is an overflow of issues on race that have not been addressed by many colleges and universities. The University of the South is in a unique position because it recognizes the need to have a forum where students, faculty and staff can come together and work through some of the issues on campus. If this does not happen, Sewanee could become just like the other universities and colleges, a pot boiling over. Standing in solidarity with Mizzou was an opportunity to show our support for those students struggling to bring about change within their institutions. Also, to shine a light upon the ongoing struggle to bring about change in Sewanee.” During his speech, Sheppard pointed to this trend, quoting the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Yost transitioned to a passionate speech focusing on the discomfort of black students who are still expected to participate in everyday University activities, including class, despite the threats that they can be shot if seen on campus. Her account of racial discrimination at Mizzou recognizes the position of black students in a place where they no longer feel welcome to attend class and receive the same education as other students of a different ethnicity.
Murphy, who spoke next, brought the conflict to Sewanee. Murphy said, “Sewanee is a beautiful place and I love it to death. However, we always have… to act like nothing happens on this campus… I strongly believe this is because we do not act on problems until they become extremely huge and immediate. Everything that happened in Mizzou could easily happen to Sewanee.” A POSSE scholar, Murphy provides a stance that challenges racial activism on Sewanee’s campus. During his speech, Murphy coined a memorable phrase: “If it can happen at Mizzou, it can happen to you.” Finally, Jones contributed his thoughts and prayers to the conflicts at Mizzou, Princeton, and Yale, echoing Sheppard’s emphasis on the national trend. Jones said, “The recent solidarity gathering which happened on Sewanee’s campus at the Quad was a successful, well-attended event. It was incredible to see so much diversity in that crowd people from various socioeconomic backgrounds, systems of faith, ages, walks of life, national origin, and educational levels who came together to stand with students through the US who are fighting for social justice. As a black man living in America, social justice is a cause which is very near and dear to my heart.”
Student activism on Mizzou’s campus, including the protest of President Tim Wolfe’s leadership at the college, can be attributed predominantly to the voice of Concerned Student 1950, a student organization named for the first year the university admitted a black student. With AAA’s leadership, Sewanee contributed to the protest of racial discrimination on Mizzou’s campus and beyond. They plan to continue hosting events that educate and include the Sewanee community in making the campus more aware and ready to stand against anti-minority sentiment. At the end of the event, attendees gathered for a large photo, which was shared on multiple social media outlets.
On the following Monday, November 23, Dr. Chris McDonough moderated a conversation between faculty members who gathered for a discussion called “Sewanee Responds: Racial Discrimination in Higher Education.” The discussion was organized in part by Jinni Tran (C’16), whose enthusiasm sparked conversation between Professors Dr. Manuel Chinchilla (Spanish Department); Dr. Paige Schneider (Politics Department); Dr. Elizabeth Skomp (Russian Department and Associate Dean of the College); and Prakash Wright (Music). The group discussed what McDonough described as “privilege, structural racism, and marginalization” of colored students in colleges The discussion emphasized the questions of how safe spaces can be used negatively, Sewanee’s historical past with what Skomp described as “embedded hierarchies,” altering general education requirements to fulfill a more direct cross-cultural understanding, and the question of naming the university “The University the South.”
In the discussion of naming, Wright said, “It does bother me as a person of color to teach at the University of the South because of the name’s reverence for the losing side of the conflict (the Civil War).” He discussed the need for students to learn “transferable skills” in the classroom that could be applied to the real world, including cross-cultural communication and sensitivity. Schneider said Sewanee would benefit from “inviting white students to learning crosscultural understanding, which leads to positive change.” Chinchilla aptly pointed out the flaws in colleges viewing “young black males purely as athletes,” as “football players are not [viewed as] conventionally intellectuals.” He saw these misunderstandings and stereotypes as yet another example of “inequities in education opportunities.” By discussing sports and racial discrimination at Yale, Princeton, and Mizzou, the panelists addressed issues prominent on both a national and local scale. Wright said, “As for the discussion of safe space and free speech, you should have the right to say what’s on your mind… but be human enough to apologize [when the person does not agree or gets offended].”
Adding to the conversation on safe spaces and free speech, but more specifically pointing to the hate speech on Sewanee’s YikYak, Skomp said, “Free speech stops where hate speech begins.” The discussions that occurred regarding Mizzou and the racial issues beyond Missouri’s campus have allowed members of the Sewanee community to look inward at its own flaws and obstacles. As Jones said, “The University of the South could potentially be a model institution of racial harmony — but only if members of Sewanee’s community, faculty, staff, and students get serious about making that so. Racial diversity training for faculty and students here deserves serious consideration.”