The Eastcliff Gathering
MY ONGOING WORK AT THE UNIVERSITY helped to pull me through my grief at the loss of my daughter. On campus, African American students were continuing the struggle of the 1960s with special events that recognized progress and yet called attention to work still to be done. Activities during the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Black history month had become important expressions of agency for African American students on campus. Through efforts made by myself and others, university student groups were able to sponsor events and speakers, and they had the freedom to decide who they would feature.
In the first years after my return to Minneapolis, between 1988 and 1990, the Africana group presented three controversial speakers: Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam; Steve Cokely, aide to former Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer; and Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), the past prime minister of the Black Panther Party. The students’ primary motivations were to expand their political education and provide the community with opportunities to hear voices that were outside of conventional names connected to the civil rights movement. Little did we know how these choices would become fuel for a great animosity between Blacks and Jews in the university community.
The Africana student group brought in Farrakhan in May 1988. Inspired by his strong message of Black pride, independence, and economic power, the students believed his visit would be tremendously empowering to the Black community, both on and off campus. However, offensive and anti-Semitic remarks he had made in recent years caused the Jewish Community Relations Council/Anti-Defamation League of Minnesota and the Dakotas to protest. My friend Mahmoud El-Kati recalled a meeting with members of the Jewish community, which included rabbis, students, parents, and citizens at large who demanded that the Africana group be persuaded to cancel Farrakhan’s visit. Their attempts did not succeed.
Some two thousand individuals attended Farrakhan’s talk, and security, which included metal detectors and searches of personal property, was unusually tight. Farrakhan was more than an hour late, but when he stepped out onto the stage surrounded by eight bodyguards the audience erupted in cheers and resounding applause. The next day, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that while “a small entourage of picketers protested outside the auditorium, Farrakhan captivated the unexpectedly large audience using humor to incite the crowd with his messages on politics, racism and religion.”
The following year the student group sponsored a speech by Steve Cokely. His visit was not well received by either the university or outside community—nor were his views that Jewish doctors used the HIV/AIDS virus as an attempt to commit genocide against Africans. His visit further enraged the Jewish community.
And finally, in 1990, the group featured Kwame Ture as part of its Africana History Month lecture series. During his talk, titled “Zionism: White Supremacy, Imperialism, or Both?” Ture stated that Judaism as a religion must be respected. However, he denounced the political philosophy of Zionism, the modern movement calling for the return to a Jewish national home, saying that “Zionism should be destroyed” and charging that some Zionists worked hand in hand with the Nazis during World War II to strengthen sentiment for a Jewish homeland.
Ture’s speech was the last straw for the Jewish community. At this point, the Jewish Community Relations Council/Anti-Defamation League of Minnesota and the Dakotas requested a meeting with University President Nils Hasselmo. An article published in the Star Tribune following Ture’s speech stated that Morton Ryweck, then executive director of the group, asked President Hasselmo “to criticize bigoted incidents or speakers that come to the campus.” Ryweck also invited President Hasselmo to view a tape of the speech.
After viewing the tape, President Hasselmo met with members of the Africana group. He explained his vision of unity with diversity, a concept that meant that we all must listen to and learn from each other in order to make the university a safe, equitable, accessible institution for all—students, staff, and faculty. “We want to protect freedom of speech and your right to bring in who you want to bring in and we will protect that right,” he said. “But we must take whatever steps we can to minimize further these flare-ups of racial divisiveness before it turns into violence.” The group of students saw this comment as one more in a long line of attempts to stifle free speech and academic freedom at the university. The students then challenged pro–Zionist organizations to view the tape of Ture’s speech during five scheduled showings and to debate its contents. Citing Ture’s comment that Judaism as a religion must be respected, the group wanted to clarify that any debate they had was with Zionists and not with those who adhere to the Jewish religion.
Concern about relations between the Black and Jewish communities, coupled with his attitude of justice and fairness, led President Hasselmo to invite me to a meeting he had called with African American university personnel and a group of Jewish citizens. Nils and I had worked together on a number of projects throughout my years as senior fellow in both the College of Education and the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute (now the Humphrey School of Public Affairs), and he was very much aware of my conviction that Blacks and Jews have often been close because of the commonality of our issues. He wanted to find a way to heal relations between our two communities and was confident that I could help to find a way to accomplish that healing. Members of the Black Student Cultural Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council had agreed to form a Black–Jewish student group, but Hasselmo felt that the situation was still potentially volatile. I was thrilled with everyone’s willingness to discuss the issues—it was my dream that our two communities could continue to come together, as there was still much more to be done. I planned a second gathering and invited Black and Jewish faculty to talk together. I asked Hy Berman to work with me to recruit Jewish faculty. Dr. Berman was the first Jewish professor hired by the university and was highly respected by Jews at the school and in the community. His invitation would surely be taken seriously.
We thought an off-campus location—a warm and cozy environment with refreshments—would encourage connection and allow for discussion of the delicate issues of freedom of speech for African American students, their choice of speakers, and the Jewish community’s feelings. President Hasselmo kindly offered Eastcliff, the off-campus manor that serves as both the president’s residence and a gathering space for the university community.
Dr. Berman and I were pleased that some twenty faculty, staff, and students attended the late-afternoon gathering. The winter sun streamed through the large windows of the beautiful living room as though blessing this event, the first ever meeting of the University of Minnesota’s Black and Jewish communities. And as daylight turned to dusk, the lively discussion we had hoped for took place.
Everyone felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts and feelings. Jewish attendees were outraged by Kwame Ture’s views on Zionism and found Minister Farrakhan’s characterization of Judaism as a “gutter religion” and Israel as “a wicked hypocrisy” extremely offensive. To make matters worse, Farrakhan’s speech was held on an important Jewish holiday, Shavuot, the day that marks the establishment of the covenant at Sinai between God and Israel and the revelation of the Ten Commandments. The African Americans explained that they understood why the student group believed Farrakhan and Kwame Ture were appropriate speakers for the university. Black students felt inspired and empowered by the messages these men offered and believed that the large audiences they generated were proof that many Blacks both at the university and in the community at large also considered them important figures. Further, the students explained that rather than calling Judaism itself a “dirty religion,” Farrakhan was referring to how some have used it to do dirty work. They pointed out that his speech also lashed out at Christians and Muslims for their hypocrisy; they reiterated that though Ture denounced Zionism, he defended Judaism as a religion that must be respected. By the end of the discussion, we all believed we had made significant strides in repairing the rift that had occurred as a result of having these speakers.
One of the early outcomes of the Eastcliff gathering was that Rose Brewer, chair of African American Studies, and Riv-Ellen Prell, a Jewish associate professor in the Department of American Studies, developed and team-taught an experimental course that they offered in the women’s studies program. It was a powerful course designed to look at the historical roles and patterns that had evolved among African American and Jewish people in America.
Pleased as I was with the restoration of the relationships, my thoughts moved far beyond what was accomplished that day. I had been involved with the university for thirty-two years at that point and was very familiar with how the politics and attempts to achieve diversity in terms of race, color, ethnicity, and cultural orientation had evolved over time, even before the mid-1950s, when I first set foot on campus. When I looked back, it was clear that time and again committees and task forces had been formed, studies had been conducted, and reports with recommendations had been written in efforts to bring about change. A few good examples were the commitment made in 1969 to increase access for African Americans through scholarships, counseling, and advising; similar commitments to Chicano students in 1970; and the development of the African American Studies Department following the 1969 Black student occupation of Morrill Hall.
There was also the twenty-one-member Minority Advisory Committee that President Kenneth Keller appointed in 1985, which Nils Hasselmo continued when he became president. Initially, the Minority Advisory Committee met four times a year and adopted these two central purposes: to involve community groups in monitoring progress and achieving specific goals to strengthen diversity; and to enlist community support in the university’s state and national legislative efforts to increase resources for students and faculty of color. However, shortly after its inception, President Keller gave them the additional task of preparing an in-depth response to the recommendations to the Commitment to Focus, a project instituted by the Higher Education Coordinating Board.
In May 1987, the Minority Advisory Committee, chaired by Dr. John Taborn, associate professor of African American studies and psychology, submitted its Final Report of the Special Committee on Minority Programs in Support of Commitment to Focus. In the report, commonly known as the Taborn Report, the task force offered twenty-two detailed recommendations, some of which included: to expand minority student and faculty recruitment and retention efforts; to create staff development plans and graduate education for minorities; to engage majority faculty and staff in courses and programs to upgrade their awareness, understanding, and communication skills with minority students; to provide the Office of Equal Opportunity with an associate dean to develop and implement initiatives for recruitment, retention, and graduation of minority undergraduate and graduate students; and to fund the implementation of the recommendations. Attempts were made to implement those recommendations, including making academic and counseling programs available to minority middle and high school students; creating research stipends that allowed minority students to work on research topics of their choice; and founding the Bridge Fund program, which provided funding for recruitment and appointment of faculty of color.
In looking back across the history of the university, it was very clear to me that, on the one hand, a historical pattern of intolerant behavior existed, and on the other, there was a history of sincere efforts to address those behaviors. But earnest as the efforts were, they only had had limited success. I believed that something different needed to be done.
My key feeling was that as a research institution based in the middle of a major city, this university had both a unique opportunity and a responsibility to respond to the academic and social needs of our state in solid and lasting ways. My vision had always been of a university that recognized and honored the value of the town/gown relationship—in other words, a university that utilized the skills of its faculty, its students, its location, and its research to respond to troubling issues that needed to be addressed in our community. Such issues included the academic gap between majority and minority students in the public schools, minority health challenges, and the need to review government policies that negatively impacted the quality of life for Minnesota citizens. I wanted diversity to be integrated into the total system of the university’s funding, promotion, hiring, recruitment, and retention of faculty, staff, and students.
In my report to President Hasselmo that followed our Eastcliff gathering, I declared my belief that in order to achieve his vision of unity with diversity, we must look beyond the university’s African American and Jewish communities. The discussions that had taken place among Black and Jewish faculty, staff, and students provided the university with a unique window of opportunity to create a new paradigm that I believed could fulfill the president’s commitment to encouraging and promoting an environment that respected cultural differences and enhanced full participation of all members of the university community. The important information we gleaned from the two groups caused me to believe we could learn even more from other minority groups—Native American, Chicano/Latino, and Asian faculty, staff, and students.
I didn’t believe we could continue down the same path as the past, however. We needed to intentionally adopt a new approach. Also, though we needed to find out how other minority groups within the university community viewed us, we couldn’t stop there. We needed to reach out beyond our ivory tower and take the risk of learning how we were seen by individuals outside of the university. Then, armed with solid information, we could develop projects and programs that were far more likely to effect lasting change. With that in mind, my report to President Hasselmo and his cabinet included a proposal for the development of an African American–Jewish Relations conference and for an all-university forum on diversity to explore the causes of the conflicts. I believed that without efforts to address the reasons why these issues were emerging, our university would be at risk for ongoing problems.
My research methods as a senior fellow in the College of Education and the Humphrey Institute included conducting meetings with community members, such as educators and parents, to get their input on how the university could help them achieve better educational outcomes—and to mentor them toward more positive parenting skills and achievement of stronger educational outcomes. My proposal included expanding this town/gown–gown/town approach to help us find out how other groups viewed us. Those groups would include legislators, local officials, educators, the media, people from various communities of color, the arts, and other segments of society.