Hundreds of Elon University students, faculty and staff gathered in front of Moseley Center on Tuesday to speak out against acts of bias and discrimination that harm the community and devalue the lives of black students.
It was not a beginning nor an end, but rather a specific moment in an ongoing campus dialogue about race, privilege, bias and community.
There were no solutions. There was no sugarcoating. Instead, there was honesty. There were tears. There were calls to action and a stated commitment to continue the conversation when Elon University students return for the fall semester.
For the organizers of the student-led Rally for Respect and Racial Equality on Tuesday afternoon in front of Moseley Center, where hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds gathered to show support for their friends and classmates, one overarching theme defined the day: get involved.
Get involved by standing up to hateful speech, by talking about race, and by building relationships across racial lines.
The rally on May 12, 2015, took place at the end of the last day of classes for the spring semester and included remarks from top Elon leaders, including Black Student Union President Alex Bohannon, Student Government Association President Avery Steadman, Interfraternity Council President Nate May and Elon University President Leo M. Lambert.
“We need to get involved. We need to speak up,” Steadman said.
Eleven students addressed the large crowd on issues of privilege, taking responsibility, serving as an effective ally, and the need to keep talking about topics of race and inequality “even when uncomfortable.”
Dozens of black students stood on the steps of Moseley Center for much of the rally. They wore T-shirts that read “My Black is Solid” and, for the first several minutes, had pieces of paper taped to their backs with the n-word printed in bold letters.
The students also held up signs with messages such as “Do I look suspicious?” and “Your ‘black friend’ does not speak for the collective black experience.”
It wasn’t until Bohannon spoke to the crowd that the students ripped the paper from their bodies, crumbled the sheets and tossed them to the ground. “The n-word is vulgar,” he said. “It’s time to tear down the bigotry and hatred.”
Elon freshman Kaelyn Green, a member of the university’s dance team, spoke of her own experience dealing with a racial slur and feeling like a campus outcast.
“Elon is the first place where I’ve ever felt so separated,” she said. “There are no words to describe how I felt to have someone say that to me.
President Lambert delivered a pointed and poignant message to students gathered before him with the observation that changing the student culture is never complete because Elon renews itself each August with 1,500 new members of the community arriving to begin their college education.
“Students, you are the most powerful shapers of the campus climate,” Lambert said. “Our ongoing conversation, and the point of our gathering here, is not about moments like this when we stand unified, when it is easy to agree about respect and equality.
“Rather, our ongoing work is about the moments when members of our community laugh to get along; do not stand up to biased or harmful behavior; or decide it is safer or cooler to be part of a crowd that is acting disrespectfully. Students, you have the power to change this.”
The rally follows large protests in Baltimore, Maryland, over the death of a 25-year-old black man in police custody, and closer to campus, a racial slur heard by an African-American student that led to a Student Life investigation and another Elon student accepting responsibility for making the remark.
The event concluded with attendees signing a #BlackLivesMatter banner as their pledge to speak out against acts of bias and to value the dignity of everyone they meet – regardless of color, creed or gender.