At Southern Colleges, Students Challenge History and Tradition as They Demand Change

Student Keivy Cannon at the University of South Carolina's #2020Vision walkout this past November. Photo by Madison McDonald, The Daily Gamecock.

This student-written article is published in partnership with Generation Progress.

“So we’re really doing this.”

It was both a question and an answer that had been decided days earlier. My friend and classmate Karli and I stepped out of my old minivan—our activist headquarters for the past weekend—with black banners and copies of our demands for better gender identity and inclusiveness policies, which we would be presenting to our university administrators. We could’ve hopped back in the car and just driven away. But after a moment of anxious pause, we left the parking lot, and the thought, behind us.

An hour later, we were marching side by side in complete silence, carrying a banner painted with the University of South Carolina’s school motto, “Learning humanizes character and does not permit it to be cruel.” Beneath this was the hashtag #2020Vision. I stared straight ahead, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, as photographers ran ahead of us. A handful of students walking between classes stopped and stared at the spectacle. All I heard was the crinkle of butcher paper signs and the rhythm of synchronized footsteps as Karli and I led 150 students, faculty members, and staff clad in black and marching two by two through the campus to the Osborne Administrative Building. Outside of Osborne, the list of demands was passed from student to student as we read them aloud. When the paper reached me, I recited demand number four: “We demand that our university acknowledge gender identity and expression as protected classes under Title IX.” Scanning news coverage of the protest later that day, I read comment after comment from opinionated and often anonymous voices, one misguided commenter going as far as denying that USC has trans students at all.

The #2020Vision walkout in action. Photo by The Daily Gamecock.

It’s not easy being a minority student on a traditional Southern college campus. And it’s even harder to advocate actively for the marginalized populations at these schools when students, professors, and administrators continuously ignore and erase not only the needs but also the existences of some individuals on campus. Long weary of the old question, “If you don’t like it, then why don’t you just leave?,” young activists in the South trek on and fight the same battles as the seasoned rabble-rousers before us as well as new battles that continue to crop up. As a born-and-bred South Carolinian, the cause, along with all of its complicated and messy confrontations, is now mine to take on too.

For those of us torn between love for our home and the toxicity of “Southern pride,” rebellion is by no means new. Universities in the ‘60s and ‘70s were characterized by many as breeding grounds of civil unrest, and Southern campuses were no exception. Recently the annual American Freshman survey found that college students, specifically incoming students, are more likely to engage in activism now than at any other time in the past 50 years. This resurgence of student protesting began before the devastating announcement that Darren Wilson was not indicted, but the events in Ferguson, Missouri afterward were an indisputable catalyst for nationwide activism.

From Freedom U. Georgia's Facebook page: Four students participating in a non-violent protest in February calling for an end to the university's ban on admitting undocumented students.

On Southern college campuses the old adage “never the twain shall meet” isn’t applicable: the energized politics of youth meet the remnants of the Old South’s staid affairs. The new youth of the South, more likely to be highly educated than past generations, sometimes proud to don their Southernness and oftentimes embarrassed to take ownership of such a complicated and messy heritage, have a tendency to clash with the stoicism the region is known for. So what does Southern activism look like from millennials on college campuses? Just ask those at #DismantleDukePlantation, We Are Done, Concerned Student 1950, Louisiana’s budget cut protests, USC 2020 Vision, Appalachian State’s administration occupation, #UTDiversityMatters, and Georgia’s #UndocumentedUnafraid.

Across the country students are pushing for their colleges to be more equitable and inclusive in big, substantive ways. Statistics site FiveThirtyEight examined the demands racial justice student groups have made at 51 schools.

The most frequent demands for current student groups include increasing the diversity of professors, requiring diversity training, funding campus cultural centers, increasing student diversity, and keeping track of race-related offenses on campus. Protestors at some universities and colleges have also called for the renaming of campus buildings bearing the names of known racist figures, while other student groups have demanded explicit recognition of their schools’ oppressive histories. University of Alabama student activists presented the option for either solution in their list of demands: “Remove the names of white supremacists, klansmen, confederate generals, and eugenicists from classroom buildings or include a visual marker to indicate the history of racism that the building’s namesake was associated with.” A handful of schools have agreed to such name changes on university buildings while others continue to hold out despite rising tensions.

While the acquiescence of administrators is a tough battle to win as a student activist, convincing students that they have the power to stand up for what they believe in is even harder. Apathy from the student body can be exceptionally difficult to fight on campuses that traditionally have been dominated by middle- and upper-class white students. At the University of Alabama, Amanda Bennett, a senior English and African-American studies major and co-organizer of the We Are Done movement, says that much of that apathy and lack of involvement by minority students in leadership roles is driven by The Machine, a powerful secret society that has operated with the tacit backing of the Greek system for decades and continues to monopolize student government. Not coincidentally, We Are Done’s list of demands clearly specifies that the university administration and board of trustees recognize the existence of The Machine.

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Cassidy Ellis, a master’s student in communication studies at the University of Alabama, says, “In my many years at UA, it has often felt as though the issues that concern minoritarian groups—women, POC, LGBTQ+ students, differently abled students—are an afterthought. I think these issues are slowly becoming more salient in the minds of students, faculty/staff, and the administration, but I’d like to feel as though the issues we face are being addressed proactively.”

While it may lack the name and storied history of Alabama’s Machine, the University of Missouri, which is arguably the heart of recent student activism, has its own Southern tradition of stifling the concerns of minority students. Senior English and political science major Samantha Franks remembers how hard it was to be supportive of Concerned Student 1950 while also holding office as an executive in student government. Concerned Student 1950 is an activist group focused on racial justice at Mizzou whose name pays tribute to the year the university admitted its first black student. The group set off a wave of student coalitions across the United States protesting and presenting demands to university administrations.  “Anything I said or did would be seen as a representation of that government and not necessarily just of my beliefs,” Franks says. “As such, when CS1950 first emerged, I—and the rest of my Cabinet—were really cautious. That changed during homecoming. At that point, CS1950 stopped the parade to protest the failings of the administration. As a member of the homecoming court royalty, I was in the car behind [then-]President [Tim] Wolfe. I watched him ignore the students. I watched the police threaten them. I was utterly helpless and useless in that moment, and that’s never been a position I’m comfortable with. It was a seismic shift, then, for me.” Mizzou has now lost $2 million in donations over tensions on campus, so the institution is wedged between a rock and a hard place in light of the Concerned Student 1950 demonstrations.

Concerned Students 1950 interrupted the Mizzou homecoming parade in October. Video by the Columbia Missourian.

It’s not news to anyone that things move slower down South. Words come in drawls, and the heat and humidity can be suffocating, making days crawl on like molasses; in similar fashion, Southern politics and activism traditionally have lagged behind the progressivism exhibited in other state governments. Few truly know the cult of “heritage” like Southerners do. “Heritage” has long been a word designed to bring us all together at the table—one built on racism, homophobia,transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia, violence, and a strong tradition of sweeping things that just ain’t “polite dinner conversation” under the rug. This stereotype denies the South its diversity; a veritable motley crew, Southerners call a region that’s a colorful medley of experience and identity home. But still, that narrative is often replaced by a national stereotype that dismisses the South as a shameful stain on the fabric of America.

Nicole McCauley, Virginia native and first-year graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, participated in the Ford Hall 2015 sit-in, in which students issued a list of 13 demands and occupied the administrative building on campus for 12 days, including Thanksgiving Day. McCauley says that she didn’t come into her activism until heading to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, but she expects that it will bring her South again one day: “I think activism is necessary in the South simply because of this country's history with Southern individuals: how they were treated, how they are still treated, and how strong traditions play a role in continuing to make certain Southern spaces still racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive.”

But the “South” isn’t relegated to the southeastern region of the United States. At Pennsylvania college Bryn Mawr, two young women faced backlash after hanging a Confederate flag in their residence hall, citing “Southern pride” as the reason for ignoring the requests of their peers to remove the symbol of hate from their common living area. “The South is full of traditionalists and conservatives, which can make it especially difficult to navigate as an activist looking to make progressive change,” says McCauley. “This is not to say, however, that the North is not racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive; I think the South gets the brunt of this reputation unfairly…there is, after all, no border that exists to keep oppression bound to one geographical location only.”

University of South Carolina senior psychology major, spoken-word artist, and queer black activist Joseph Sewell also takes issue with the notion that other regions of the United States are absent of oppression when compared to the “narrow-minded” South. Sewell, a Philly native, Floridian, and participant in the USC 2020 Vision walkout last November, says, “We have this pervasive belief that the South is the last bastion of bigotry in the United States. And as someone who isn’t Southern, I can see that…these problems are American problems, not just Southern problems.” The South may make itself an easy target, but it isn’t a vacuum of intolerance.

Despite everything, for some of us, the South is still home. The millennials who have often begrudgingly taken on numerous battles to make where they live truly home make up a new generation of fighters with new tactics, messages, and ideals for the South.

I believe the feeling can be summed up by Ellis’s words: “For a long time I couldn’t wait to leave the South. I was excited to move somewhere else and abandon this region. But then I realized that if everyone who were trying to make change here [left], who were trying to make this region a better and more hospitable place for everyone to live, then nothing would ever change. I think it’s especially important for Southern-identified people to work to change the region, because if we don’t, who will?”

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Student at the University of South Carolina.
Born-and-bred progressive southerner.
I say y'all as a conscious gender-neutral term.

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