Letter from the Design Editor: Breaking Historical Patterns | Guest columns

Black History Month is an opportunity to highlight and honor activists who have worked diligently to secure civil rights for the black community. While public figures like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman have spearheaded the fight for equality, the black community works for freedom every day.

Although February is a time to recognize accomplishments while celebrating black culture, black pride shouldn’t start and end in February. The movement towards equity and inclusion is eternal. Stay informed on how to be a better citizen, a better peer and a better friend.

Being biracial and growing up in Atlanta — a hub of the civil rights movement, while still being in Georgia, a Confederate state — I saw both sides of the spectrum. I have seen how polarizing race can be in contrast to the harmony created when put together.

Growing up biracial, it’s hard to find your identity in each race, torn between the ignorance I personally experienced and the ignorant remarks I made toward my black peers. I acknowledge my privilege. Being mixed-race gives a unique outlook on life – knowing when to call out someone for their racism, constantly educating yourself on how to be a bridge between communities, and knowing when to downplay your voice to amplify the black voice.

Throughout this month, The Daily Beacon will publish a series called “Amplifying Black Voices” to show how students and public figures are using their voices to effect change.

When I read The Daily Beacon’s past publications researching black history, I quickly realized that UT had done very little to report on the civil rights movement or the university integration. Boycotts, marches and protests were taking place in and around Tennessee, but UT — and The Daily Beacon — chose to say little or nothing.

It’s no surprise that the university and The Daily Beacon chose to remain silent during the civil rights movement. We are in the deep south, but that does not excuse the behavior.

Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in Knoxville in 1960, and there are few memories due to faulty journalism. Theotis Robinson was the first black student enrolled in the undergraduate program here at UT. His perseverance and courage led him to be a pioneer of black excellence. His enrollment was a monumental milestone for the university and should have been celebrated.

Despite the school’s integration receiving little backlash, UT chose to downplay the significance of this event by remaining silent. It wasn’t until Robinson’s 14-year career as vice president of equity and diversity that he was honored with an alumni award. Robinson wasn’t alone when he entered the school. Willie Mae Gillespie was the first black woman to be enrolled in college. After being disappointed with the lack of archival reports, I was also enraged and humiliated.

It is very difficult for current students of color to put down roots when there are no past examples of past excellence.

UT needs to do a better job of supporting the black community. The university’s reputation tarnishes the longer they remain silent. This year’s Black History Month special issue received the least ad funding. We talk about black excellence, but it is not financially supported. Knoxville businesses avoided a specific demographic for not having their name associated with black history. This is a clear example of how the black community has been treated poorly for generations.

Whether it’s black women getting 48 cents on the white man’s dollar or black neighborhoods being evicted due to gentrification, the black community is underfunded.

Culture is built over generations and it is difficult for a current student of color to feel comfortable in college when there is no positive historical evidence of black pride. Many pioneers went through adversity and racism to succeed. UT needs to celebrate these people the way Peyton Manning is celebrated – constantly and abundantly.

History cannot be rewritten, but historical patterns can be broken in the present. In this issue, you’ll find selected organizations on campus and in Knoxville that are raising the voice of the Black community. Tennessee has made improvements to support for the black community, but the movement isn’t over yet.

Use this month to celebrate black culture and learn to be a better ally. Small actions of advocacy and validation will lead to a welcoming campus to elevate black power.

Daily Beacon columns and letters are the opinions of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Beacon or The Beacon editorial team.

Abdul J. Gaspar