"A country is only as good . . . a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me. I don't believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over."
This was the cover page of the March 14, 1969 issue of the Luther College Chips. The cover was most likely a product of the fact that the 1968-69 academic year was the founding year of the Luther College Black Student Union (BSU). Black Student Unions came into being across the United States because of the determination of student activists to "transform" higher education in the U.S.
The 2018-19 academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Luther College's BSU. 1968 was tumultuous time. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and race riots were occurring across the U.S. In this sea of racial turmoil, black students at Luther College took it upon themselves to create a student organization to help address and assuage the racial turbulence and anxiety experienced by black students at Luther College.
This past spring, an act of racial and ethnic hatred took place on the Luther College campus. Two symbols of hate, racism, and antisemitism—the letters "KKK" and a swastika—were stomped into the snow on the Luther College football field.
While the incident was upsetting, for some students it was not a surprise. As part of a Luther College Chips interview, Harleigh Boldridge ’18, the 2017-18 BSU president, stated, "I was shocked that I got the email but I was not shocked that something like this happened."
Boldridge went on to express a desire to see a strong institutional response. Boldridge stated, "When we as a college decided that sustainability was an issue, we threw money at the problem. We purchased compost bins for all of campus. We purchased a solar field. We have a farm. We have an entire major devoted to this. And we bought a wind turbine." Boldridge stated she would like to see these same efforts applied to issues of social justice on campus.
Referring to campus climate, Daniel Brown ’18, the BSU vice-president, stated "The climate on campus is not peachy-keen... It's not fine and dandy. We feel targeted. We don't feel safe."
I was on sabbatical for the 2017-18 academic year and away from campus for much of the year. Since returning to campus, I have talked with a number of students to get their thoughts about what took place on campus. Many students express frustration and disappointment. Many also express appreciation for the anti-racism training that began on campus last spring, and they look forward to ongoing training.
I also scrolled through Chips articles to see what students were thinking. In that process, a particular student editorial stood out. It reads in part,
"During the last few weeks, the usually serene face of Luther College has been disturbed by a rude awakening. In a series of incidents...racism and prejudice have come into the open with all their ugly results... No longer has Luther been an insulated community shut off from the more profound conflict that exists in this country. Our campus has become a mirror of the ugly state of society... The question that comes up now is, are we strong enough, do we have conviction enough to face the reality of racism and fight it with all that we have... Here and now it becomes the responsibility of every person connected with Luther and life to make a stand. We have looked into the mirror of society and seen all its repugnant aspects reflected right here. Society has demanded action for years and citizens have turned deaf ears allowing all that is degrading to thrive and grow."
I found myself both inspired and intrigued by the reflection of this Luther student. What I found most intriguing is that the student was reflecting upon events that had taken place during the spring semester of 1968.
In this 1968 editorial, the student referred to the desires of black students on campus to form a Black Student Union. The student wrote, "There is now a movement afoot to organize a black student union here at Luther. Such an organization can be beneficial for both the Negro students and the white. It can also be the cause of considerable conflict on campus."
The student's reference to "considerable conflicts on campus" is most likely an allusion to all of the black student protests occurring on college campuses across the United States at that time. The first Black Student Union was established in 1966 at San Francisco State University. It was formed as a college advocacy group committed to the promotion of racial equity and inclusion. San Francisco State University's BSU became a model for student activism on colleges (and high schools) across the nation.
Ibram X. Kendi—Luther College's scheduled 2019 Spring Distinguished Lecturer—shows in his award-winning book, "The Black Campus Movement," how black student activism during the late 1960s profoundly transformed campus culture and politics as well as the very character of American higher education. Black students at Luther College participated in this transformation by forming the Luther College Black Student Union.
This year we seek to honor those student activists and the ongoing contributions of the Luther College BSU to campus life at Luther College. In addition to lectures and performances, multiple campus screenings of the award-winning documentary "Agents of Change," and numerous other campuswide events, the BSU is collaborating with several academic departments and programs to bring black alumni to campus throughout the year to share their experiences and to engage and interact with students across campus.
These alumni visits will serve as a way of highlighting the presence, contributions, and achievements of black Luther College alums as well as a way of promoting campus dialogue and conversation regarding best ways of recruiting, retaining, and (most importantly) supporting racially underrepresented students at Luther College. Such conversations are especially important in light of the rapidly changing demographics of high school graduating seniors across the U.S.
Within a rapidly changing landscape of fewer high school graduating seniors and more racial and ethnic diversity within those numbers, Luther College has to ask itself, "As so-called 'minority' high school students move toward being an American 'majority' within the next decade, is Luther College fully prepared to support racial and ethnic diversity, student success, and programming oriented toward shifting populations?"
Luther College responded quickly to the hate incident that occurred on campus last spring. The college also continues to address the implications of the incident. We hope the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Luther College BSU can also provide opportunities throughout the year for members of the Luther community to discuss and reflect upon the ongoing work that needs to happen.
The yearlong commemoration will culminate with a campus/community-wide celebration, April 26-28. The celebration will bring alumni to campus to honor BSU founders, to commemorate 50 years of BSU presence at Luther College, and to discuss how Luther College can best continue the work of establishing racial equity and inclusion at Luther College.
As I reflect upon the founding of the Luther College Black Student Union, and how the black student movement of the 1960s functioned as a significant transformative educational movement, I close with a rewording of the opening quote from Baldwin:
“A college turns into what the people want it to become... We made the college we’re working at, and we have to make it over.”