The Civil Rights era is known by many of us as a time of awakening in America. Protests and disturbing events like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about a new wave of change across the country. The major topic of racial inequality started to boil in the American “melting pot,” especially throughout university campuses, as black students searched for a voice and presence in the campus community to represent them. Many schools, such as Luther College, needed an organization that would give that essential support to their students. In the winter of 1968, a group of Luther students worked together to create the student organization called the Black Student Union. This would create a support system for black students to celebrate their culture, accomplishments and work together with the community to stand against racial injustice. Many faculty, students and community members continue to recognize the commitment to change and activism BSU has provided for Luther College in building a more diverse campus community.
This year, Luther is celebrating the 50th anniversary of BSU with many different events acknowledging the work done by students and faculty, along with the commemoration of Luther BSU alumni. One of the main contributors of this celebration is Professor Guy Nave who has been teaching Religion and Africana Studies at Luther since 2001 and has been the faculty representative for the BSU almost every year since then. It is not a question that his commitment to the BSU and the Luther community is the reason why so many students are inspired to join in activism and dialogue on campus. Professor Nave, along with many members of the student body and faculty have created these anniversary events for just that reason; to bring people together and promote social justice on campus and in the Decorah community.
Brief History of the Luther BSU
As mentioned before, the Luther College Black Student Union was formed in 1968, led by its first leader Melvin Whitfield ‘69. The group immediately began to pull together different ideas for events in the Spring such as bringing in Harry Edwards, who led the Olympic Boycott of 1968, as a speaker on revolutions. They booked Val Green, a drama performer, and introduced Malcolm X in a memorial service commemorating his life. The organization quickly started to become known for creating these types of events that would bring new cross-cultural knowledge to the Luther campus, which focused mainly on its Norwegian culture and heritage. In the Fall of 1968, more black students joined Luther, which brought new leadership. Pictured below are the first official cabinet members of the BSU under the official ratified constitution. This group would continue the growth of this new and justice-hungry organization. Byron Dean ‘71 (seen pictured in the front) once wrote a statement in a Chips article from 1969 saying: “The B.S.U. of Luther is taking care of its own. We will do what we came to Luther intending to do--learn, learn about things everyone should know. We will recover the black world which is beautiful, but has been too long hidden and ignored. And perchance along the way, whites will benefit from our efforts -- because we want to ‘say it loud!’”(Vol. 86. Issue 18). So, the BSU became the main organization to start change on Luther’s campus by not only creating event opportunities for students, but by supporting each other with a space to talk about the issues of inequality in the world.
The Importance of Recognition
Why do you think it is important to recognize and celebrate the 50th anniversary of BSU? Many people would say it is because the history should be recognized. Even though it was only explained briefly above, the origin of BSU is important to pay attention to because of the current time period that it began and the people who were involved. It is right to acknowledge those who are now Luther alumni because they helped to build the organization and institution to what it is now. It is also good to think about what we should take away from the stories told by Luther alumni because we can do something with the legacy created by these inspiring people.
“I hope that alumni and students alike are encouraged to spearhead their own events inspired by the stories told and that Luther will take this opportunity to see how bringing students and alumni together can make a huge impact,” said Daniel Brown, a 2018 Luther graduate. Many of the stories told by alumni are still a reality for current students, so it is important for us to listen and try to understand the issues that are still very present at Luther. Fortunately, the anniversary has been an eye-opener for many students who did not realize how much power they truly have. If only all of Luther’s campus could see how much these types of events can help bring us together despite our differences. Sophomore Lydia Juma, commented on the anniversary, “My favorite event was Family Friday, because everyone just saw each other as people, without the divide between American students and international students.” As it shows, many students have taken advantage of these events, but the hope is that more will take advantage of the future events in the Spring too.
Summary of events in the Fall
If you happened to miss the events in the Fall, have no fear, because the 50th anniversary is a year-long celebration! Gospel Sunday, was the very first event on October 7th where Professor Guy Nave gave a sermon about the racial injustice that continues in our country. He reminded us of the things that have improved, but also of the many things that we still have to change. As we have seen at our very own college, institutional racism continues to impact the lives of students. “The demographics of higher education are radically changing. Most statistics show that in 2023, 40-50% of all graduating seniors in high school will be global majority students, or students of color. So the question becomes, what do institutions like Luther College, who have been predominantly dependent on white students, how do they survive in a culture that is changing?” exclaims Professor Guy Nave.
This would bring us to the second event that occured. The Agents of Change movie was shown on October 8, and will be shown again in the Spring as the very last event, April 27th. It is a movie about the stories of racial conditions on college campuses in the 1960s and the protests that occured because of unprepared institutions when the demands of black students were ignored. On October 25 there was a religion forum, lecture by Maggie (Steinberg) Hagen ‘15, talking about the untold history of the Luther BSU house being torn down and relocated, but eventually becoming a small office now known as the CIES (Center for Intercultural Engagement and Student Success). October 26th through the 28th was Homecoming, with events like the dinner reception for alumni, homecoming parade, and BSU alumni brunch where students were able to connect and share their stories. November 2nd was “Issues of Color : It’s more than black and white”, a dialogue led by students and professors, followed by the Price Lecture on November 27th.
These events would not have been possible without the strong leadership of the BSU students and faculty who gathered alumni sponsorships from various departments and brought alumni to campus. The college archivist, Hailey Jackson who provided many of the photos shown in this article, has created an amazing display in the library about the history of BSU with many historical photos and artifacts. Once again, many thanks to Professor Guy Nave, who was the head of organizing the 50th anniversary and continues to give inspiration to students who have been supportive of these events. It is also important to remember the people from the past and present that have done a lot of work to make Luther college a more inclusive community for everyone. Perhaps even more important though, is how much work we are willing to do for our future generations who want to be apart of this community. How can we live up to the legacy of the activists and heroes that came before us?
If you have not heard anything about the events to come, there will be more speakers and inspiring videos/movies that should not be missed! Check them out here: https://www.luther.edu/alumni/events/bsu/