Thousands gathered in a sea of purple Tuesday at Kansas State University for a unity rally in the wake of racial tensions in and around campus of 23,000 students.
The bell at Anderson Hall tolled “God Bless America” during a light drizzle that did not deter students, faculty and staff from walking out of classrooms and offices to rally against racism on the administration building’s lawn.
Before anyone began speaking a group of black students spontaneously began to sing “Lift every voice and sing” of the Negro National Anthem, drawing the rapt attention of the culturally diverse gathering.
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K-State President Richard B. Myers along with Student Body President Jack Ayres, and the Black Student Union president, Darrell Reese Jr. called the 1:30 p.m. rally in response to a series of negative race-related incidents on or near the campus.
“This is overwhelming,” said Pat Bosco, vice president for student life. “It is amazing to me to see the K-State family like this. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. This is historic. It is emotional to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself.”
Tuesday was the first time in more than 100 years that the campus had suspended classes and shut down offices for an event that was not weather-related.
Chris Blaski, a senior journalism major from Leavenworth, was skeptical that the rally by itself could unite the campus.
“I think this is an interesting first step,” he said. “I’m kind of interested in seeing what happens after today.”
Kelsey Kendall, a senior journalism and anthropology major from Wichita, said the rally “shows exactly how much tension has been going on on campus around diversity, particularly racial tension.
“I feel it has to do with the people we have in office nationally,” she said. “I think what we are seeing is a national issue on a local scale.”
The university also announced Tuesday that Adrian Rodriguez had been hired to be the school’s first associate vice president for student life of diversity and multicultural student affairs. Since 2008 he has been vice president for student development services at Tarrant County College, Trinity River Campus, in Fort Worth.
“Adrian will serve a critical leadership role to promote a culture at Kansas State University where all students are able to thrive and be engaged,” Myers said in a statement announcing the hire, effective Dec. 4.
Myers posed questions of the crowd Tuesday.
“What do you want K-State to look like in the future?,” he asked. “What will you commit to do to make it that way?”
Tanya Gonzalez, an English professor, spoke from the podium Tuesday and reminded the crowd that K-State has a long history of welcoming people from all parts of the globe and the nation.
“We are here to recommit ourselves to stand against hate and discrimination in all its forms,” Gonzalez said.
Reese addressed the gathering as well, reminding everyone of the incidents that have “plagued” K-State. He mentioned the exchange of hateful slurs, incidents of black face last year, racial slurs on a car and a noose hanging on campus.
“These incidents directly affect our students,” Reese said. “We are hurt, discouraged and in pain. These incidents cause us to think we are not safe. Even though I’m hurting, I am hopeful. Even though I’m saddened, I have not lost my faith and you shouldn’t either.”
Reese spoke about the need for a multicultural center, more need-based scholarships and the development of a cultural competency course for students and faculty.
“We must continue to learn how we can dwell in unity,” he said.
The unity rally comes nearly two weeks after an incident near the Manhattan campus in which a 21-year-old black man defaced his own car with racist graffiti.
Law enforcement agencies including Riley County Police and the FBI originally looked into the case as a possible hate crime. They later learned the young man did it himself and described it to police as a Halloween prank that got out of hand. No charges were filed.
In July a noose was discovered hanging from a tree in the center of campus and, in a separate incident, fliers containing white supremacist messages were posted around the Manhattan campus.
The incidents triggered outrage from students and the administration who said they represented an attack on inclusion, diversity and equity on campus.
Ayres said the rally was called to give the campus community an opportunity to “press pause and come together to reaffirm our position on diversity.”
College campuses across the country have become more sensitive to racial intolerance since the nationally spotlighted protests that erupted from racial oppression claimed by black students at the University of Missouri.
The protests, a student hunger strike and a boycott threat from the Mizzou football team lead to the resignation of the University of Missouri System president and the chancellor of the Columbia campus.