It was the Civil Rights movement. It was the end of Jim Crow. It was a time of love, hate and everything in between. The year was 1968, and that April, on the second floor balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As the nation grieved, a group of students at MU decided to organize, and the Legion of Black Collegians was formed. For the African-American students on campus, the organization acted as an anchor in the middle of a political storm. A few years later, it held its first Black Homecoming celebration. Today, that tradition continues. Vox spoke with Whitney Williams, a senior at MU and president of the Legion of Black Collegians, to find out why, more than 40 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, MU still has two Homecomings and how the campus has progressed since then.
How did Black Homecoming begin?
African-American students used to have to climb over fences to watch the game. And then, if they wanted to buy something from the concession stand, they had to throw their money down and have their food thrown back up to them. They were subjected to watching the Homecoming football games while sitting on a fence or standing behind a fence. If we couldn’t do it with the rest of the student body, then we were going to do it on our own.
Is there still that tension?
Now, it’s not so much of a social divide. There’s less of a wall than there used to be. It’s more like sheer curtains; we can watch it, but it’s not all-inclusive to us just yet.
Why is there the need for a separate Homecoming?
African-Americans on campus are just not being reached out to, and we don’t feel like we should have to go above and beyond to be involved in a Homecoming that is equally ours. As president of the Legion of Black Collegians, I’ve yet to receive an email from anyone telling me anything that’s going on with Homecoming. How can you expect non-Greek and African-American students to get involved with a Homecoming that is mostly Greek and mostly white when, as a leader on campus, I’m not even receiving that information?
Do you see Black Homecoming as a celebratory option for all non-Greeks, regardless of race?
I think it could be. If students can’t be a part of the blood drive, or they can’t get involved with the parade, Black Homecoming is there. It incorporates things everyone can be involved with, such as voting for royalty, guest speakers and the ball.
Historically, what is the involvement of Greek African-American organizations in Homecoming?
This year, the National Pan-Hellenic Council chapters were asked to do the in-between acts during the skit portion of Homecoming. I thought that was kind of odd. They shouldn’t just be in-between acts. Stepping and strolling isn’t just meant to be entertainment. It has to do with sharing a bond. When our NPHC organizations step, they do it from the heart. Whereas the other Greek organizations see it and are like, “Oh, look at them! Look at what they can do! Look how much rhythm they have!” They don’t want to showcase NPHC’s scholarship and service, they want to showcase the songs that they sing and the dances they do.
How do you feel about diversity at MU in general?
There’s a distinct separation on campus, and I feel like it’s obvious. For the past two Februarys, people have committed racially charged acts. And it’s not just because students are going out drinking and then being dumb. Students go out drinking every day, and yet it’s only during Black History Month that this happens. African-American students aren’t comfortable on this campus just yet.
What are some of the goals for this year’s Homecoming centennial?
We still feel that most aspects of Homecoming are part of our Homecoming, and it’s part of us as students, as Tigers. We wouldn’t ever want to segregate ourselves from that. What we’ve tried to do in the past couple of years is to reach out to other student organizations to diversify what we’re doing. The Legion of Black Collegians are encouraging our umbrella organizations to get involved with general Homecoming. This year, we’re decorating cars for the parade, and our royalty will be in the parade, too. I think that this Homecoming is going to be the first time that everything we want to happen will happen. On Oct. 15, we will be there.