In January, the night before alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, two members of the white supremacist group American Renaissance got in a fistfight with other young men after they were caught plastering trees and buildings around campus with posters that proclaimed, “Embrace white identity!”
In February, a spoofed faculty email address sent hundreds of University of Michigan students messages that threatened black and Jewish people, using the phrase “Heil Trump.” The emails, which the FBI is investigating, followed the appearance of racist flyers around campus the previous fall.
In the months after the election, as a wave of hate speech and harassment swept the nation, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recorded more than 150 reports of white nationalist flyers and recruitment materials on college campuses. Intended to frighten minority students as well as to persuade whites to join their causes, these orchestrated campaigns reveal that white nationalists see colleges as an important battleground in their war on a diverse and tolerant United States.
“White nationalists really enjoy campus activism,” says SPLC analyst Keegan Hankes. “They’re often trying to put an intellectual veneer on things, so it makes sense to peddle that on a college campus where you're dealing with people who may be just starting to form their ideas about the world.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that college students found themselves on the front lines in a fight over civil rights. During the 1960s, it was often students who rode buses through the Deep South for Freedom Rides, staged lunch counter sit-ins, marched against Jim Crow laws and integrated recalcitrant universities. And while today’s white supremacists believe young people are especially receptive to their ideology, many students are, instead, leading the resistance against hate as part of a new Southern Poverty Law Center program called SPLC on Campus.
“We were first inspired to create the program while witnessing a resurgence in student activism on college campuses a few years ago,” explains Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s Director of Outreach. “The Black Lives Matter movement, the effort to address sexual assault and the push by students from marginalized groups for safe and inclusive campuses — all this work sparked something that SPLC wanted to support.”
Since 2015, students on nearly 30 campuses in the South and across the country have started their own SPLC on Campus groups. Among them is P.J. Price, a senior at Clemson University in South Carolina, who founded a chapter on his campus in August 2016. With the presidential campaigns at full tilt, the new group spent the fall semester holding voter registration drives, co-sponsoring a political debate and building coalitions with other progressives on campus. But they discovered a new sense of urgency when white supremacist flyers began appearing around campus shortly before the election.
“Some people, when they think of the KKK and white supremacists, think of their history class, but this is something that is still thriving in many areas of our country, including near Clemson,” Price says. “That’s something that we've become increasingly cognizant of since the election.”
In the months since Inauguration Day, Price says, hundreds of Clemson students have turned out for events organized or co-organized by SPLC on Campus, including a demonstration against the so-called “Muslim Ban” in January and a rally for a student who had been unable to enter the United States because of it. While hate groups may be newly emboldened, Price and his classmates realized that those who support civil rights and equity are also newly determined to fight.
“People are rightfully indignant about things,” he says, “and they come to SPLC events to talk about them and express concern about them and say, ‘How can I get more involved?’”
At the University of Kentucky (UK), graduate student Leslie Davis was also looking for a way to get involved. After the election, she became alarmed by the nationwide rise in hate crimes and harassment. “I felt similarly to a lot of people in feeling really lost and wanting to do something drastic,” she says. “Once I was able to take a breath, I decided I should find something particular to my campus and try to make a difference through the community that I'm already a part of.”
Davis decided to create an SPLC on Campus chapter, which officially opened in March with about 30 members, after completing the university approval process. Davis hopes to partner with longstanding UK institutions like the Office of LGBTQ* Resources and the Martin Luther King Center, but she also sees her group as a nimbler, more independent organization that can react immediately to bias incidents and create counterprogramming to address hate and intolerance if it arises. “As a group that's run by students, I feel like we can be a bit more aggressive in our messaging,” she says.
While many SPLC on Campus groups are contending with the post-election atmosphere, others have taken on more entrenched injustices.
“I've always been a big fan of SPLC,” says University of Alabama (UA) senior Joshua Hillman, who has served as president of his SPLC on Campus chapter for a year. This school year, the focus for Hillman and his SPLC Chapter was on building names — he says that at least a dozen buildings on campus are tributes to historical figures with ties to segregation, the Confederacy or racist ideology. For instance, Nott Hall, named for physician Josiah Nott.
“Nott was one of the most virulent polygenists of the 1800s,” Hillman says. “He wrote an infamous work on the races being different species, yet you can't find that information unless you're looking for it. Just getting markers up by these buildings saying, this is what they were named for, this is what they were famous for and this is what we're remembering them for — that's really all we want.”
Hillman says he wanted to renew the conversation about how to address these names because addressing the past will have an impact on the future. He and other SPLC members figured starting a conversation among diverse groups could potentially lead to action down the road, so they brought together student groups and faculty members.
“We really wanted to focus on bringing in students from communities that don't normally talk about race,” Hillman says.
Despite growing enthusiasm for changing building names, progress has been slow. Hillman and fellow students are now seeking to put up markers that they say will at least make students and campus visitors aware of the back stories to these building names.
The work may be frustrating at times, but it is in keeping with SPLC’s mission to — as Lecia Brooks puts it — “encourage and support student activism in the tradition of the non-violent civil rights movement.” The hard work of that era carries a lesson for today’s activists: that creating lasting change is never immediate, and fighting injustice seldom easy.
“Over the last few years, students have changed some systems on some campuses,” Brooks says. “It will be more difficult now. Battling white nationalism both helps and hurts the cause. But I’m ever hopeful.”
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