Washington — Reps. William Clay (Demo) and Louis Stokes (DOH) refused to share an award from the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) with former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) at a prescheduled Capitol Hill ceremony.
Clay and Stokes forced the cancellation of a luncheon honoring Thurmond during NAFEO’s annual conference here and refused to accept their awards. African-American lawmakers — all of whom were invited to attend the luncheon but none of whom did — responded that even a series of good works cannot atone for decades of bigotry, according to a report in Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) chose to boycott the awards luncheon. In a letter to, NAFEO interim president Wilma Roscoe, Thompson used the words of Mary McLeod Bethune to make his point: “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence.”
Thompson, a plaintiff in the college desegregation case, U.S. vs. Fordice, wrote: “I hope that the members of NAFEO sleep well knowing that they are betraying those who died fighting for their rights to have equal educational opportunities.” More than a week after the conference concluded, the award, which was never formally offered, continued to incite controversy. In a second missive to Roscoe, Clay compared his civil rights record to that of Thurmond’s and outlined appropriations bills aimed at helping HBCUs that have been opposed by Thurmond. Clay wrote: “If your rationale dictates it is necessary to recognize `change,’ as some of the [college] presidents have alleged, then in this case you are dealing with `chump change.'”
He added,” Some presidents point to Thurmond’s support of a resolution designating a week in honor of Black colleges as their excuse. In view of his deplorable past and present record in the field of civil rights, I find that explanation disgraceful and repulsive.”
Late last month, Clay said he was still awaiting a response from NAFEO officials to his letters. Dr. William Harris, president of Alabama State University and chairman of the NAFEO annual conference, said of Thurmond, “You have to look at the man by his life as a whole, and not by part of it. Senator Thurmond is a man who has seen the world change. God knows he lived long enough to see it change.”
Dr. Leonard Haynes III, former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education, defended NAFEO’s decision to honor Thurmond.
“I was surprised and disappointed by the reaction of the Congressional Black Caucus. I thought NAFEO made a wise and prudent decision to honor Strom Thurmond,” Haynes said. “[Thurmond] has been a strong supporter of the Black-college community. How many in the Black caucus can’ truly say that they support the Black colleges?”
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