Sunday, March 7th, 1965: Over 500 Americans crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and were met by law enforcement wielding knight sticks, tear gas, dogs and angry eyes. John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led the march towards the officers and was armed with an apple, a toothbrush and a book on government. The troopers shot the tear gas. They clubbed the peaceful protestors. The crowd never fought back. Over fifty people were injured and the day’s events were coined “Bloody Sunday.”
Fifty years later, the first Black President of the United States of America stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He approached Lewis, one of his heroes, and gave him a hug. As Lewis stepped away to take his seat, Obama kept applauding and as he finished his applause, he looked into the crowd of thousands gathered in Selma. He took a deep breath, nodded his head and opened his speech saying, “You know I love you back.”
How far has the United States come following “Bloody Sunday” 50 years ago? Pretty far, as illustrated by Obama’s 32-minute soulful speech. So how far has Boston College come since Selma? Are we working toward a more perfect BC?
Obama mentioned in his speech that there were moments when the destiny of the United States has been decided, including wars, buildings and landmarks. Selma served as one of those moments when it prompted a nation to respond. Twelve BC students and one professor were the first from BC to respond to the call to action for the civil rights of people of color. They were compromised of activists, Heights editors and volunteers who told themselves what occurred in Selma shouldn’t be the way people are treated. So they went to Selma. They marched and got arrested. But their efforts and the collective efforts brought about the Voting Rights Act. Since then, BC has seen enormous growth.
In 1968, then-president Fr. Michael P. Walsh, armed with $100,000 over four years, initiated the Negro Talent Search (NTS) to serve Black students. While the name was subsequently changed to Black Talent Program until 1975, it was BC’s first step in admitting more Black students to a campus that had only 10 Black undergraduates at the time of Selma. Not only did this initiative help admit Black students, but it gave Black students the opportunity to lead by facilitating the program. The following year, 45 Black undergraduates attended BC. By 1975, over 300 Black undergraduates attended BC.
In his speech, Obama said that, as a constant work in progress, the United States of America requires occasional disruption. In 1975, BC ended the Black Talent Program in an effort to create minority education and created the Minority Student Programs. But students didn’t believe in the term “minority.” They believed they were equal to their white counterparts, but also believed that those students of color on campus were united as individuals of color. They weren’t a minority because of the color of the skin; these students wanted to be judged on the content of their character. And so they fought. The students disrupted the flow of progress for better progress and in 1979, they triumphed. Led by Alfred Feliciano and Valerie Lewis-Mosley, the Board of Trustees approved changing Minority Student Programs to the Office of AHANA (African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American) Student Programs.
Following Selma in 1965, the first culture club of BC, The Black Student Forum, was created in 1970. From their efforts, there are now over 35 intercultural organizations celebrating and sharing their culture with the BC community. There is a division of diversity and inclusion in the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) that houses the AHANA Leadership Council and GLBTQ Leadership Council. Women began gaining admission to BC five years after Selma. Fifty years ago, none of this existed. Because of the efforts of students and administration, BC is what it is today.
But there is still more work to be done. Obama said, “Our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.” BC has increased admission of students of color, allowed for student organizations and administrative offices like the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center (formerly OASP) and the Women’s Center to exist. It is getting closer to a more perfect BC. But in order to do so, the university needs to admonish this “perfect” image it admires. BC isn’t perfect. No school is perfect. The U.S. isn’t perfect. But facing this reality allows for progress.
Intercultural organizations feel powerless, and students of color on campus feel voiceless because administrators don’t allow their voices to be heard. Why does African American history not count towards the History core requirement? Is the cultural diversity core even affective? Women develop a lower self-esteem at BC in their four years. GLTBQ students want love from the BC community. When something like Ferguson happens, students want their university to respond with acknowledgement of the event and assure students that their safety and their lives matter to BC. If disruption occurs at BC, why be like the officers at Selma and governmental officials who tried to silence these men and women marching peacefully and criticize the community for addressing a problem?
Progress has been made. Change has occurred. 2015 is different from 1965. The issues highlighted above are not just administration. They are not just the student body. It is a “we” effort. In order for us to move towards a better BC, as we have done the past 50 years, we must recognize BC’s imperfection and strive to improve. It is “we,” not “you” or “me” that will get BC there. We are BC at football games. Can we be BC all the time?