WKU community remembers steps toward equality

President Dero Downing talks to students who rallied at the Adminstration Building to protest that two African-Americans be added to the university cheerleading squad on Sept. 8, 1972. 

Casey Downey

Saundra Ardrey was just 10 years old when she first marched in the streets of North Carolina.

“My Dad was involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” Ardrey said. “It was just part of what I did as a child.”

While activists in the South campaigned for equality in schools and fair use of public places and facilities, people up North fought for equal job and housing opportunities.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or race in hiring, promoting, and firing. President Lyndon Johnson signing the legislation was a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Movement officially began with the 1954 trial Brown v. Board of Education, where “separate but equal” clauses relating to the education system were ruled unconstitutional. The decision was a sign of change for schools in the South, but the process of desegregation was a slow-moving one for many states. Some public schools took as long as 10 years to begin the process.

Ardrey, head of the Political Science department and Director of WKU’s African-American Studies department, grew up in a segregated neighborhood. Her first experience in a desegregated school was at Ohio State University as a graduate student.

“I was the only woman and the only African-American in my class,” Ardrey said. “I had several teachers tell me why don’t I just go home and get married. And that made me stronger.

“It was the first time somebody told me I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t believe them because I knew it wasn’t true. There was never any doubt that I wouldn’t get my Ph.D.”

Reginald Glass for Vice President

WKU voluntarily desegregated in 1956, but African-Americans represented less than 4 percent of the student population by the time Reginald Glass enrolled in 1969.

“If you were African-American, you just kind of knew that you lived in two different worlds,” Glass said. “You didn’t let one world interfere with the other.

“There were still some symbols of segregation and racism in the school and community but you either avoided those or just accepted those and went on. Or you protested”

In 1970, Glass joined other students in holding a sit-in at the Administration Building, as a combination of Vietnam and racial protest.

“It was just kind of hard to disconnect social justice issues from each other at that point,” he said. “But you know, it was an exciting time, because we felt like we were part of a culture of change and improvement.”

By 1971, Glass decided he wanted to run for vice president of Student Government Association. If he won, he would be the first African-American member of WKU SGA.

Glass was determined to develop a “broad-based” appeal by talking to different groups around campus, promising he would bring campus speakers and entertainment that all social groups could enjoy at some point.

“There was one fraternity that had a house on College Street that had the (Confederate) battle flag on their front porch,” said Glass. “When I told some of my supporters that they had agreed to let me talk to them, they said ‘Man, you crazy.’

“I said, ‘yeah, why not? All they can say is no they won’t support you or throw you out.'”

Glass met with the fraternity, and explained his political agenda.

He told them he knew they were not a part of the in-crowd just like he wasn’t, and that he would speak for everyone.

“It was interesting because I was the only one talking,” said Glass. “No one asked any questions. No one.”

Glass thanked them and left.

Once election day arrived, Glass gathered with his supporters around Garrett Conference Center, where students came to vote.

“We were campaigning at the last minute, and you know, everybody was kind of down, saying, ‘We’re gonna get beat, we’re gonna get beat,'” he said. “Then we heard this crowd of people coming up the other side of the Hill. The first thing we saw were these Confederate flags. And everyone that was with me was groaning, ‘It’s all over now.’

“Low and behold,” Glass added, “behind the Confederate flags was a sign with my name on it. And I said, the race is won. And I did my best to keep my promise.”

The lost boys

Andrew Rosa, assistant professor of African-American studies, is a historian who specializes in the areas of African-American intellectual and social movement history.

Last semester, Rosa gave a lecture on the system of punishment and the aftermath, which focused on the problematic ratio of black men in prison, or “mass incarceration.”

He said over 2 million Americans are sent to prison for non-violent drug felonies and several million others connected to the system via probation.

Two years after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he signed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which granted money towards the expansion of local law enforcement and which provided funding for Ronald Raegan’s ‘War on Drugs’ that began in the 1980s- which in turn, led to America imprisoning more people than anywhere else in the world–mainly African-American males.

“It’s very interesting by looking at it from a present perspective at the Civil Right movements, for example, the meaning of democracy in this country,” said Rosa. “If you look from the perspective of African-Americans, in many real ways we’re reminded of how the story of freedom is one that is still unfolding.”

“Folks who are getting caught up in the prison-industrial system are denied those very rights, and having their rights to vote taken away from them,” said Rosa.

The system is further complicated by Zero-Tolerance policies in urban schools and the gerrymandering of “profitable prisons.”

Ardrey joined the WKU Political Science Department and African-American Studies Department in 1988. In 2003, she became the first African-American department head.

Ardrey has also conducted research on the alarming number of incarcerated African-American males.

“Theres research that many of our young, black men are lost in the 4th and 5th grade and that they become disciplinary problems,” said Ardrey. “We have the school-to-prison complex where they pretty much predict the numbers that will go into the prison, based on reading test scores.”

“There’s something not right with the judicial system with the laws,” said Ardrey. “And there’s something, as African-Americans, we are not doing in our community to give a positive change.”

Generation Y

Jarren Nixon was President of Omega Psi Phi fraternity from 2011-2013. The historically black fraternity was chartered at WKU in 1969.

“It turned out to be a great thing for me,” said Nixon. “Just because I didn’t really speak my mind too much, I guess you could say. Omega brought a lot out of me that I didn’t know that I had. We were all trying to make a contribution one way or another, and Omega kind of gave me that platform where I could do some of the things I wanted to do whether on campus or on the community.”

He said his grandfather would tell him some “tidbits” about the the way things used to be, but not much. Nixon learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school, like most other kids.

“Especially at a young age, you’re so worried about making friends and things like that, and then, come to find out, ‘Oh my God, we’re all seen to be so different,'” he said. “Some of my closest friends were different races and I never thought two ways about it. But to be kind of hit with this — uncontrollable to us, there’s a barrier there. Only a fool would believe we are living in a post-racial generation.”