Colleges, universities nationwide honor Martin Luther King Day

By Jim Carrier

Had he lived, Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 89 years of age on Monday, January 15, 2018. His birthday is a federal holiday, originally approved by Congress and signed into law by a reluctant President Reagan in 1983. Only in 2000, when South Carolina finally approved the holiday, was King’s birthday observed in all 50 states.

Fifty years after his assassination, King’s legacy is both remarkable and incomplete. The past year, 2017, was filled with painful reminders that King’s goal of racial harmony remains a work in progress.

College campuses, where debates, demonstrations, and violence erupted over issues of racism, diversity and freedom of speech, are hosting dozens of MLK programs. Here is a sampling:

Yale University’s homage to King is “Chaos or Community: Fifty Years Later, Where Do We Go From Here?” With speeches, exhibits, and a “love march,” the school’s emphasis is on activism.  Keynote speaker is Bree Newsome, an artist and activist famous for climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina flagpole and removing the Confederate battle flag after the murder of nine black members of a Charleston church. Her action led, ultimately, to official removal of the flag, and became “a symbol of courage, resistance and empowerment of women.”

At the University of Tennessee, the focus is on student volunteers in Knoxville. Last year 400 students observed MLK Day by donating time to projects such as Keep Knoxville Beautiful, Reanimation Coalition, Water Angel Ministries and other organizations. “The most successful projects connect to the life and teaching of Dr. King, meet a pressing community need, and include time to reflect on his teachings,” said Natalie Frankel of the school’s Center for Leadership and Service.

“Dream Even Further” is the theme of MLK Day events at the University of Texas in Austin. Rallying at the MLK Jr. campus statue, participants will march to the state capitol. Past celebrations have drawn 15,000 people.

In Chapel Hill, NC, the University of North Carolina hosts events that range from a candlelight vigil to cross-cultural dialogue. The theme is “Voices. Power. Movement.”

W. Kamau Bell, the sociopolitical comedian and host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” will keynote an awards breakfast at Indiana University in Bloomington.  The event recognizes students, faculty, staff and members of the community with “Building Bridges Awards.”

For the 27th year, Arizona State University leads a “March on West” that recreates MLK Jr.’s famous 1963 March on Washington. Hundreds of middle school students march, carrying placards. The march climaxes with a re-creation of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, by Charles St. Clair, an Emmy-award director and faculty members.

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, a day-long “teach-in” at Western Michigan University will focus on a wide-range of issues that King preached, including environmental justice, health care, gun violence, women empowerment, and nonviolence. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the focus will be on gentrification in Detroit.

Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s Director of Outreach, will speak Monday on MLK’s contemporary relevance at Monmouth (Illinois) College’s MLK Day convocation and teach-in. On Jan 20, Brooks will deliver an MLK commemorate lecture at the Newark, N.J. public library entitled: “Nonviolent Peaceful Protest in the Tradition of Dr. King:  Still the Way to Counter Hate and Extremism.”


Provisions of the PROSPER Act are Not Prosperous

By Caitlin Beard

As I write this, higher education is being attacked. Taxes are not the issue this time, but accessibility and inclusion in university organizations. The ‘‘Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act,’’ (PROSPER Act) just released by the GOP contains language that could be used to withhold higher education funding from universities that do not provide all religious groups with the same universal rights across campus as all other organizations. Registered student organizations accept school funding and are thus required to adhere to the university code of conduct. Discrimination is often addressed and prohibited in these codes, but the PROSPER Act would change that.

Part of the collegiate experience is becoming involved in organizations and uniting with people sharing common interests. Most colleges have a variety of organizations to get involved with, from religious groups to intramural sports to social justice groups like SPLC on Campus. Camaraderie and inclusion are important aspects of college. But, sometimes, groups are not all-inclusive. When a group becomes unsafe for you, your campus no longer feels like home.

Organizations have often turned people away for their immutable characteristics. This is nothing new, as exemplified by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon racist incidents or religious-based groups turning away LGBTQ+ members. However, most colleges have an anti-discrimination policy that prevents organizations from being able to exclude members based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Too often, people ostracize those who do not adhere to their own beliefs. This is especially true in a religious setting, unfortunately. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community practice a religion, as it is an inherently human custom. When these individuals wish to exercise their faith with like-minded individuals, they are often met with bigotry and exclusion for who they are.

Many of my classmates are applying to Ph.D. programs while I apply to law schools. But the game has changed, even since I began applying to undergraduate schools a few years ago. Universities are emphasizing diversity and inclusion. Many now include in the application process questions about what diverse qualities you’ll add to the community. The PROSPER Act comes at a time when people are encouraged to indicate their sexual orientation and gender identity on college applications to qualify for scholarships. But this same information, through this proposal, could be harmful. Checking boxes for certain categories could qualify for acceptance at a school whose clubs can discriminate against you. What happens if this bill is passed and your identity serves to keep you out of a group?

You may ask yourself, “Why would I want to be involved in an organization that discriminates against me?” You may not. Some do, however, when these organizations have other things that interest them. For example, a Christian, LGBTQ+ individual may want to join identity groups for each of these categories. But, as some Christian organizations such as the Alpha Iota Omega Christian fraternity at UNC, Chapel Hill have demonstrated, LGBTQ+ members do not fit into everyone’s religious narrative. But excluding members based on this is not permissible because they practice the same faith; as a couple coworkers today pointed out, doing this shifts the LGBTQ+ individual’s perception of their religion, thus making them feel excluded from their faith.

Many schools have come under fire within the last couple years because of their noncompliance with Title IV regulations. Specifically, religiously-affiliated higher education institutions. The PROSPER Act would prevent the government from punishing schools that practice LGBTQ+ discrimination. In short, schools could openly discriminate without fear of reprimand. If colleges cannot discipline groups that discriminate and states cannot do the same to their colleges, the future of discrimination is bright. College students must stand up against legislation that affects their rights to education—particularly safe education. We need to make sure campuses are safe for all. I, for one, want my campus to feel like home for all that attend. College is a place for all to prosper and build skills in order to join the workforce. Discrimination is not permitted or tolerated, as we have seen this season in the media through the brave #MeToo testimonies of victims and through the warm support for them. So why should we allow it in colleges—which are microcosms of society? This would only breed more discrimination. The anti-LGBTQ+ provisions of the bill should be removed. Discrimination has no place and this part of the PROSPER Act is not prosperous.

Caitlin Beard is a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an intern with SPLC on Campus.

Youth in juvenile justice system need help, not punishment or stigma

By Beth McDaniel

This post was originally published by The Montgomery Advertiser.

Mental health resources in Alabama schools, communities and particularly in our justice system are woefully lacking. Delinquent acts often indicate underlying problems that need attention, such as unmet mental and physical health needs, exposure to poverty, crime and other adverse experiences, or a lack of public services and educational opportunities that facilitate positive youth development. The Alabama justice system, however, is structured to punish the behaviors rather than to understand and treat the underlying issues the behaviors reflect.

Mental health — our psychological, emotional and social well-being — often influences our behaviors and responses to stress and conflict. Mental health problems can arise from experiences of trauma and abuse and from prolonged exposure to stress and adverse life experiences, and health disparities are more prominent among minority youth and youth living in low-resourced communities. Mental illness is a predictor of criminal behavior, and youth in the juvenile justice system often have underlying behavioral and emotional issues that manifest in poor decisions and regrettable, sometimes unlawful, actions.

The mental health needs of youth involved in the juvenile justice system are greater than in the general population of adolescents. About 80 percent of justice-involved youth meet criteria for two or more substance abuse or mental health disorders, and between 60 and 80 percent of justice-involved youth meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. 

Detention centers may exacerbate a youth’s pre-existing problems and experiences of trauma. Rates of depression, alongside anxiety and mood disorders, are significantly higher among juvenile offenders than among non-justice-involved youth.

Despite the prevalence of mental illness in the juvenile justice system, resources to address it are limited, to say the least. Throughout Alabama’s 67 counties, only three juvenile courts focus on treatment and aim to divert youth from detention facilities. Due to the lack of available mental health services within the community, parents and educators often relinquish youth to the juvenile justice system to access mental health treatment. The lack of access to resources and services to support youth contribute to the harmful criminalization of mental illness. Alabama legislators should focus on expanding community mental health resources and fulfilling the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile justice system.

For youth involved in the juvenile justice system, we should increase efforts to:

  • Provide evidence-based mental health and substance abuse screening to youth committed to secure facilities, provide effective mental health treatment while in detention, and link youth to follow-up services upon release.
  • Divert youth from incarceration and facility commitment by investing in evidence-based programs as alternatives to incarceration, like Functional Family Therapy, Thinking for a Change and Aggression Replacement Training which, when implemented in Georgia, resulted in reduced juvenile commitment rates.
  • Implement community-based programs to prevent substance abuse and other mental health disorders.
  • Engage in restorative justice approaches that bring together the accused, the victim, and community members; such programs allow youth to consider the consequences of their actions and make amends.
  • Support children’s social and emotional development by providing parents and teachers with access to age-appropriate child development education. Such programs may also increase parental awareness of community resources that assist in meeting family needs.
  • Ensure schools are equipped with adequate mental health services and clinicians that can provide assessment, screening and counseling services and referrals to additional community resources.

The lives of our youth, and their health and wellbeing, are shaped and influenced by their environments. Some children are born into supportive and well-resourced circumstances that enable them to be healthy and successful, while others are less fortunate. None of these children, however, have a say in this matter, and the value attached to their lives should not be determined by these uncontrollable circumstances. Youth caught up in the justice system face significant stigma. We as a community often lose our ability to view them as a person and fail to consider the life experiences that may have led to their involvement. We no longer acknowledge their strengths, talents, or hopes for the future, but instead label them a “criminal” or “delinquent.” When we respond in this manner, we fail our youth and our society.

Engaged citizenship is critical to the healthy functioning of a democratic society, and it is in our collective interest to support our youth within their communities so that they become successful, invested, and engaged citizens. Ensuring that quality mental health services are available to at-risk youth may lower recidivism rates, contributing to their future success and the success of our communities.

Much more work is needed to ensure our juvenile justice system rehabilitates youth and allows them to develop into productive members of society. Reform efforts, like the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force and legislative language coming from this group, will require a multi-layered approach and must prioritize mental health services. Although these efforts may require up-front investments, the long-term benefits will outweigh the costs. We owe it to our youth to try. When the Alabama Legislature meets in January 2018, they must consider funding juvenile mental health services a priority.

Beth McDaniel is a graduate student in the Human Development and Family Studies Department at Auburn University, where she studies the development of compassion, social skills and positive social relationships, behavioral and physiological regulation when confronting stressors, cultural and racial sensitivity and civic responsibility and engagement.


Children’s mental health: Why is children’s mental health important? Statement on Reforming the Juvenile Justice System to Improve Children's Lives and Public Safety (2010).

The First Fourteen

“We were 14, 15, 16 years old…We didn’t have a clue we were making history, we were just trying to make some wrongs right.” ~Bette Mae Fikes

Bettie Mae Fikes walked arm in arm on March 7, 1965, with a group of 600 students and teachers to protest racial inequality in voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Not old enough to vote herself, she put her life on the line to fight for the right to do so. Although the group marched peacefully, they were violently mowed down by law enforcement, causing the day to be forever remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

Visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Alabama this past year, I watched the documentary Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot and viewed the expansive exhibit memorializing these protesters. Lecia Brooks, Outreach Director, and I discussed the obstacles that still impede equal access to voting. I left that meeting painfully aware that my own political involvement paled in comparison. I was embarrassed to acknowledge that the extent of my activism consisted of posting editorials on Facebook and ranting about politics to like-minded friends. I resolved that it was time to up my game, to do something.

Shortly thereafter, I dug in. I discovered that only half of the voter-eligible Millennials turned out in the 2016 presidential election, despite their 31% share of the electorate. The overall tally was also distressing: just 60% of all eligible voters participated in the Presidential election. These numbers inspired me to formulate a plan to bring my peers to the polls.

I decided to organize an event in Chicago, called “I Will Vote,” to raise awareness about the importance of voting. Recalling my conversation with Lecia, I invited the SPLC and a local organization called Chicago Votes to speak at my event.

Advertising the event to my friends, teammates, and classmates, I received enthusiastic, supportive responses. Optimistically, I reserved a theater large enough to hold 125 attendees to accommodate what was sure to be a huge turnout.

On the cold, rainy morning of the event, friends began to call, offering various excuses for their unavoidable absences. I panicked. What if no one showed up? Not only would I have failed to do something, but Lecia would have flown all the way from Alabama for nothing. The turnout only confirmed my worst fears. In total, only 14 people came: six family friends, six teammates, and two adults from a local conservative group who attended solely to argue with my co-host and me. Not even the Chicago Votes representatives bothered to show up. Responsible for spearheading the event, I was crushed by the failed attendance.

Nonetheless, Lecia gave her presentation as planned and opened the floor for discussion.  I stepped up as a facilitator to ensure that my peers were engaged in the discussion. We covered every topic imaginable: voting, affirmative action, police brutality, and the increasing division between political ideologies.

As the afternoon unfolded, I began to see value in the day despite the size of the crowd. Reduced attendance notwithstanding, the event was not a failure. I had reached outside of my comfort zone to act upon an issue which I cared deeply about. Although the conversation veered away from its intended purpose, I felt that each attendee walked away with some new kernel of knowledge. Even if they just posted their thoughts on Facebook or ranted to their friends, as I had—it was a start. And, if each of them found their own 14 new faces, we’d soon realize my dream of a packed auditorium.

Instead of discouraging me from further involvement, this experience underscored that I have my work cut out for me. The day made me stronger, secure in my resilience, and eager to try again. Next time, I will get 15 attendees, and one day, one of us will change the world.

Molly Gallagher, a high school senior in Chicago, wrote this essay as part of her college application. She was recently accepted by Middlebury College in Vermont.

What’s Up with the Alt-Right — the Legacy of Charlottesville

When President Trump was inaugurated, on January 20, 2017, young Republicans at the University of California at Berkeley were gleefully anticipating the arrival of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Their invitation portrayed him as “a man who bathes in sheer and unmitigated awesomeness” — a description loaded with sophomoric giddiness.

The speech was cancelled because of violent protests. But for months after, the appearance of alt-right speakers at college campuses created similar campus spectacles.

Then came Charlottesville, Virginia.

On August 11-12, violent clashes over removing a statue of Robert E. Lee led to the hit-and-run death of protester Heather Heyer, and the injury of 19 others. The event, called Unite the Right, shocked the nation, and tore away any pretense that the alt-right was an intellectual or entertaining segment of conservative politics. It was now seen as part and parcel of a dangerous, right-wing movement that included Klansmen, white nationalists, white supremacists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis and militia — elements present in Charlottesville.

“It seems like what might have been a little in the shadows has come into full sun, and now it’s out there and exposed for everyone to see,” said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators in an interview with the PBS Newshour, six days later.

For researchers who have followed the alt-right, from its days in the dark corners of the Internet, Charlottesville was a turning point.

The event sparked dozens of protests across the U.S. in support of diversity and tolerance.

While the alt-right was not a lead organizer of the Charlottesville rally, leaders like Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach participated and exploited the massive news coverage to announce new rallies and campus initiatives. As a result, colleges braced for more attacks.

Campuses enjoyed a ten-day lull, but then the number of hate-filled flyers on campuses picked up dramatically, according to an analysis by SPLC’s Intelligence Project. One flyer, distributed by the alt-right, at Arizona State University at the start of the fall semester, read, “Welcome to College White Boys and Girls.”

Since mid-August SPLC has recorded 117 campus flyer campaigns by white nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-black groups.

Energized by Charlottesville’s notoriety, these groups also resumed their campus recruiting efforts — behind the banner of freedom of speech. In many cases, campus Republican groups extended invitations.

Milo Yiannopoulos touched off protests at California State University in Fullerton.

Right-wing blogger Lucian Wintrich was himself arrested at the University of Connecticut after students stole his speech.

The good news is that students were awakening to the threat of the far right, protesting speakers, reacting to hate incidents, holding faculty accountable for their beliefs and language, and holding rallies to promote tolerance and diversity.

One month after Charlottesville, when white nationalists returned, they were met by dozens of students and faculty of the University of Virginia in a peaceful counter-demonstration.

Cornell University, responding to student protests over the assault and racial attack on a black student, announced a series of steps “to be a more equitable, inclusive and welcoming university.”

At the University of Maryland, students demanded that faculty and staff undergo mandatory cultural competency training.

If measured in air time, security costs and hours of debate, we can only conclude that our work to expose and blunt the impact of the alt-right has just begun.

You can help. Read our guide to the Alt Right. Follow its advice. Try to prevent events from getting off the ground. But if a racist speaker comes to your campus, do not confront the speaker. Instead, organize a counter event, or series of events, to put their propaganda in context, and spread the truth. And let us know of your efforts.


Written by Jim Carrier 




Diversity, Defined

by Tara Subramaniam

“Community in Diversity.” One of Georgetown’s oft-touted Jesuit values, the phrase is often mentioned by the university to entice prospective students. Students may catch a glimpse of it on a banner around campus in their day-to-day hustle or in the university’s promotional materials.  

Behind the flashy catchphrase, the question remains: What does it actually mean to be a community in diversity?

From an admissions perspective, of the 1,633 students in the Class of 2021, 227 are Asian, 183 Hispanic and a record 172 are black. Together, they make up 35.6 percent of the class — while nearly two-thirds of students, 64.4 percent, are white. By comparison, white students make up 58 percent of all college students nationwide.

This disproportionality is not limited to race. According to a study by The Equality of Opportunity Project published by The New York Times in 2017, the median income for a parent of a student in Georgetown’s Class of 2013 was $229,100, the 8th highest of the 2,395 U.S. colleges surveyed. More students at Georgetown come from families in the top 1 percent of income earners than from the bottom 60 percent combined.

Despite the university’s efforts, challenges remain in promoting a true community in diversity — one that fosters a sense of inclusion for those of traditionally marginalized socio-economic, racial and sexual backgrounds. The numbers tell one story, but the students tell another.

Read the full blog post



Upcoming SPLC on Campus Webinars!

SPLC on Campus is continuing our webinar series in the month of October, with two new webinars. Here’s the schedule:

Wednesday, October 11 (1pm CT): Outreach and Organizing – Shay will lead this webinar, which will detail best practices for both general outreach and organizing on your campus and in your community. You can listen to this webinar by registering here.

Wednesday, October 25 (1pm CT): General Q & A – Daniel will lead this webinar, which is designed to answer all your questions, big or small! We’ll be taking past questions and submissions as well. Participate in this upcoming webinar by registering here.

Join us!

RESPONSE: On the So-Called "PC Culture"

Jonah Dratfield’s recent opinion piece in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian questions the idea that what he calls “PC culture” is consistent with liberal values. Modern American liberalism has certainly been focused on social issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice in the most recent election cycles, but the ideology has also been identified with goals of civil liberties, equality, and social justice more generally. Dratfield readily states that “protection of basic human rights” is the defining liberal value, but he appears to misunderstand what it means to be “politically correct”; that is to say, he pushes the recurring idea that liberals and young progressives have taken political correctness too far and seek to censor those whose ideas are different or challenging. This perspective scares up images of students in safe spaces with their fingers in their ears, rejecting criticism or violently lashing out against people with different values.

I couldn’t disagree more.

In my view, what has been called “PC culture” is a backlash from those with privilege who are being called out or facing consequences for racism, hate speech, cultural appropriation, and exclusion. These issues come to the forefront on college campuses, where many young students face diverse communities for the first time. As the United States becomes less white and less dominated by European cultural norms and values, many activists, academics, and students have taken the lead in finding new ways of discussing issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the ways that systematic oppression pervades all corners of our society. It’s a broad conversation that needs to happen everywhere, and that conversation involves new language that is not historically oppressive.

SPLC on Campus, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s program for college students, empowers student activists to discuss such issues on their campuses and work for social justice in their communities. There is currently no SPLC on Campus club at UMass (Dratfield erroneously states otherwise, linking instead to the UMass Amherst Community Campaign, where UMass faculty and staff, in support of #UMassCares, can donate to the nonprofit of their choice). We do, however, have about 50 SPLC on Campus clubs around the country that are dedicated to student activism, voting rights, and speaking out against hate on campus.

Dratfield himself says that “criticizing what one views as unethical is not only a right, it is a civic responsibility.” The government and publically-funded colleges cannot infringe on one’s freedom of speech, but that does not mean that extremists and people using hate speech are above criticism or face no consequences. It is unethical and wrong for those with privilege to use violent and oppressive rhetoric to keep historically marginalized communities down, and it is wrong for them to keep silent in the face of oppression. As long as communities worldwide suffer the ongoing results of European colonialism, communities remain segregated, black and brown people in the United States are disproportionately targeted by an unfair criminal justice system, and trans people are victims of violence, there will be a need for liberals and others to have a way to discuss these oppressive systems and also a way to speak out against them.

Upcoming: National Voter Registration Day, September 26th!


It’s been a little over four years since the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for decades has upheld voting rights in the name of protecting Americans from racial discrimination. One of the primary results of this ruling was that states had far more power to enact voting restrictions without any federal oversight or any thought to their past history of voter suppression. As the passage of voter ID laws, restricted polling hours, and the number of closures of state DMVs that issued voter IDs have all been on the rise, it is extremely important that we come together and work so that friends, fellow students, and neighbors can get registered to vote.

Focusing on voting as essential to our democracy, National Voter Registration Day was first observed in 2012 and has only gotten more popular over the years. On Tuesday, September 26th, volunteers and organizations all over the country will be hosting events or going out as individuals to register people to vote. Last year over 750,000 new voters were registered as a result of National Voter Registration Day, and SPLC on Campus has again signed on as an official partner for this year’s event.

Go to their website to look for a National Voter Registration Day event near you, and don’t forget to register here for our upcoming webinar, “The How-To’s of Voter Registration,” which will be held on Wednesday, September 20th!

SPLC on Campus is going to UC Berkeley!

altrightguide cover.png

Last month, it was announced that Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos will be coming to the University of California at Berkeley for a planned "Free Speech Week" from September 24-27.

Ahead of the week's events, SPLC on Campus has been working with Berkeley's Gender Equity Resource Center and has planned an event named for our guide to the Alt-Right movement, "The Alt-Right on Campus: What Students Need to Know." The event will be held in Berkeley's Multicultural Center at 6pm on September 19th, and the speaker will be Ryan Lenz, Senior Investigative Reporter with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. Lenz will share information on an orchestrated campaign by white nationalists to make college campuses their battleground and how students can effectively respond.

For more information, check out the event's Facebook event here.