Blacks, UM officials defy racist threats

Victims of hate mail have shown courage, Mote tells rally

November 18, 1999|By Candus Thomson and Michael Hill | Candus Thomson and Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Several thousand students, faculty and administrators at the University of Maryland, College Park rallied yesterday in protest of the racist, threatening letter sent to African-American student leaders, an incident that prompted members of the university community to question the level of tolerance on the campus.

With his hand shaking, school President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. urged the crowd that spilled over the grassy Nyumburu Amphitheater behind the Stamp Student Union to "work together to stamp out this cancer on our community."

Mote said the victims of the hate mail have shown courage since receiving the letter through campus mail on Tuesday. "My heart goes out to them. The stress on them is tremendous and everyone on this campus must do everything we can to lighten their burden," he said.

Speaking to the crowd that braved a chilly breeze, one of the recipients of the letter, Juliana A. Njoku, president of the Student Government Association, addressed the author of the hate message.

"Your ignorant manifesto has only inspired the leadership on this campus," she said. "There will be more like me -- be afraid. I will not be silenced without a fight."

Wayne K. Curry, the Prince George's County executive and a UMCP alumnus, said the hate mail was "a frightening flashback" to the days before the civil rights movement.

"We will not tolerate this in my hometown," he said to broad applause.

Curry then pledged $5,000 to a reward fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. Started with $1,000 from Mote, it now stands at $10,500 as various university officials have contributed.

Dillon said the state police and the FBI are using their forensic resources in the investigation. He said the victims will be interviewed today, given emergency phones and, possibly, individual guards.

The note, apparently typed on a computer, included specific threats and vulgar, racist epithets. It was delivered to two black student leaders -- Njoku and Camille Adams of the Black Student Union -- as well as to the offices of the Black Student Union and the Department of African-American Studies.

Jeff Milem, a faculty member in the School of Education, said he canceled a class on school administration for graduate students so they could attend the rally.

"This is a teaching moment," Milem said. "They cannot only express their support for what's going on, but as future administrators, it's a wonderful opportunity for them to learn by doing."

Milem, who has written extensively on issues of diversity and affirmative action, said UMCP -- where nonwhite enrollment is 35 percent, almost half of that African-American -- has made great strides in this area.

"In terms of other universities in the country, Maryland is in some ways on the cutting edge," said Milem, who taught in Tennessee and California before coming to UMCP last year. "But if you look at race relations theory, when an institution becomes as diverse as Maryland, you expect precisely these sorts of incidents to occur. Conflict increases as underrepresented groups increase."

Christopher Hunt, a sophomore from Trinidad, said such incidents are not uncommon on campus. "It surprised me that it took so long to get attention," he said. "Slurs have been going around since this time last year. Now it has escalated."

Carla Peterson, a comparative literature professor who heads Africa in the Americas, an extra-curricular program, said she was heartened by the crowd of 200 people who crammed into an auditorium last week for a symposium on historical perspectives on race.

"The audience was incredibly diverse, asked great questions," she said. "I went home thinking, `This is really happening, we are making a difference.' But that was a preselected group of students."

She described the students who were targeted by the notes as "incredibly sensitive, hard-working young people."

Ira Berlin, a professor who specializes in the history of slavery, called the incident "very upsetting."

"We live in a very, very segregated society. There are only two institutions that are truly integrated -- one is the Army and the other is the university," said Berlin, who has taught at UMCP for 20 years. "For that reason, we are lightning rods for people out there who are unhappy with the kind of changes that are taking place. We've got to face up to these guys and let them know they will not deter us from what we are about."

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