“I Believe in Campus Activism” | Cynthia Cummings, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, 2016
I saw my father cry for the first time when I was 17. It was May 4th 1970. Iwas just about to graduate from high school. I would enter college in September. What happened that day was unimaginable. Twenty-eight members of the Ohio National Guard fired 61 bullets into a crowd of Vietnam War protesters, killing four unarmed college students and injuring nine others on the campus of Kent State University. The nation was stunned. My father was devastated.
My family was well acquainted with protest and activism. We witnessed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. We saw dogs and fire hoses turned on black people who marched for basic rights such as access to public facilities and voting rights. My father, a Lincoln Republican, worked for fair housing and educational equity in Indianapolis. He negotiated a truce between the city and its black citizens that prevented the kind of riots that had erupted in Watts, Philadelphia, and Newark. My mother, an accomplished fundraiser, organized events that supported charities that served the black community. My little sister marched against hunger and, with our parents’ blessing, refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school to protest our country’s involvement in the war. We lived with the frustration, anger, and sadness that come with being members of an oppressed group. But we believed that we could make great changes in our society if we worked hard enough and long enough. We believed in the American system and held on to hope that the dream of “liberty and justice for all” would come true someday.
But on May 4, 1970, my father lost some of that hope. While we watched the reports of the Kent State shootings on TV, he shouted through his tears, “These are kids!” “These are white kids!” They are kids exercising their right to free speech!” And then he said, “If our government will silence white kids on a college campus, who won’t it silence?” In my bewilderment, I couldn’t respond. But somehow I knew that I would never let anyone silence me.
In September, I enrolled at Indiana University. The Bloomington campus had been a hotbed of protest and activism for several years. After Kent State, it became much quieter. While a student, I discovered feminism and worked for women’s and gay rights. I joined the Lesbian Liberation Organization. I spoke in classes and served on panels. I protested at events that objectified and demeaned women. As a Resident Assistant, I became immersed in the work of eliminating the “Isms”—racism, sexism, and heterosexism. In graduate school I studied College Student Personnel Administration specifically so that I could do “the work” with future generations of students.
After college for many years, I continued the work—reading, writing, speaking, marching, and representing in the name of equality for gay and lesbian folks. As a student affairs professional, I have advised many student activists and protesters. Students have organized Take Back the Night Marches, sit-ins to improve race relations, demonstrations against Apartheid, Days of Silence, Earth Day celebrations, and so much more. Recently, I have cheered as UMass Dartmouth students have insisted that “Black Lives Matter.”
I believe in campus activism. I believe that college campuses should serve as catalysts for social change. I believe that engaging in activism facilitates student learning, engagement, and development. If one of the roles of college is to develop civically-minded, socially responsible adults, then campus activism must be valued and supported. As educators, we have a responsibility to teach students to speak up and speak out. We must teach students the importance of engaging actively in the political process. We must teach them that when it comes to social change, as “kids on a college campus,” they must not be silenced.
This I believe.