With Nation’s New President, Promise and ‘No Excuses’ for Black Students

WASHINGTON, DC – Less than 15 minutes into his presidency, President Barack Obama uttered the words “we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”

Retired schoolteacher Judy Brooks, 64, of Amherst, Mass., yelled out a “Yes!”

“He’s going to be the man to change our future,” Brooks later told Diverse.   

In some ways, Obama already had. Brooks and her husband, Barry Brooks, 67, a retired school guidance counselor, had one of their first dates on Aug. 28, 1963, at the other end of the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial. There, they listened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We saw him say the words, ‘I have a dream,’’’ said Brooks, who Tuesday, more than 45 years later, sat with cane in hand at the opposite end of the Mall near the U.S. Capitol to witness the inauguration of the nation’s first Black president. “We now have overcome.”

Education and civil rights advocates from across the country were out in force for the nation’s largest inauguration in history. Presidents of historically Black colleges came, as did the president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Schoolteachers and professors made their way to the event to celebrate the man who was once one of them – as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. And, of course, college students from every corner of the country came to witness the historic occasion firsthand.

Nameka Bates and Will Patterson, the director and associate director, respectively, of the African-American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, brought 38 students for the weekend as part of the center’s trips to enhance their education. The group joined thousands of others in the opening ceremonies on Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial and helped serve food and hand out clothing to Washington, D.C.’s needy as part of a national day of service on Monday.

During Tuesday’s inaugural ceremony, Patterson held up a video camera and told the students to tell their unborn children about the experience.

“It’s my first time voting, and I’m voting for a Black president!” Keenan Thompson, a 20-year-old sophomore studying communications said to the camera.

The students ended their trip by watching the president’s inauguration on jumbo screens, midway between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. They were part of a sea of others who filled the Mall, waving hundreds of thousands of flags and roaring at every sighting of Obama on the screen.

College students across the country celebrated the inauguration in similar ways – even if they could not make the trip to Washington, D.C.

At Columbia University, Obama’s alma mater, hundreds of students packed the quad to watch Obama take the oath of office on a giant television screen.  

“This is all pretty inspiring,” said Jeremy Myers, a graduate student. “I think that this signals a change in the direction of our country.”

Obama attended the university’s Columbia College from 1981 to 1983, the last two years of his undergraduate studies, majoring in political science with a specialization in international relations.

Back in the nation’s capital, Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, joined the audience near the Capitol – heavily bundled but not feeling the cold temperatures, which dipped well below freezing.

“Once the juices were flowing, as far as the emotion of what happened there, you forget about that,” said Flores, who was encouraged by Obama’s vow not to compromise the nation’s ideals for the sake of security – and by his promise to help the world’s poor countries heal.

Flores said he also liked Obama’s brief mention of education. But he took greater joy in Obama’s stimulus proposal, which would devote large sums targeted for domestic programs to education.

“It’s not just what he said, but what he is already doing,” Flores said. “For higher education in particular and specifically for minority-serving institutions,” he added. “With the sensitivity of his own upbringing and concern for equal opportunity for all … obviously that sets the framework for his domestic policy in terms of looking at where the real needs are in the community and society as a whole.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told Diverse as he left the inauguration that he hopes Obama’s presidency, as it tackles the economic crisis, will help out college students along the way. “My hope is the students will get the same deal that the banks have. We should have a bailout for students, giving them 1 percent (student loan) interest, instead of 7 to 20 percent,” Jackson said.

Black college leaders and advocates are hopeful that federal dollars will reach their campuses through stimulus package funding, which will direct federal spending toward revitalizing the ailing economy. “I think in so many respects, the Obama presidency represents an extraordinary opportunity for HBCUs to expand and develop their infrastructure,” said William “Bud” Blakey, the Washington counsel for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.   

The night prior to the inauguration, the trio of UNCF (United Negro College Fund), the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the three leading Black college advocacy organizations, hosted the 2009 Historically Black Colleges and Universities Presidential Gala where several hundred people, including HBCU presidents, gathered to celebrate near the U.S. Capitol. 

In addition to the HBCU gala, Dr. Robert Franklin, president of Morehouse College, and others participated in a Monday event that celebrated what would have been on Jan. 15, 2009, the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Panelists, including the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, the president of State University of New York at Old Westbury and a Morehouse alumnus, discussed Obama and Dr. King’s legacy during a session titled “The Dream Realized: Where Do We Go From Here?”

Franklin told Diverse that the Obama presidency demands a strong response from the HBCU community, particularly as institutions that can spark transformative social change among African-Americans across the United States.

“The most exciting message I’ve heard from students, having worked to help elect Obama, can be summarized in two words: no excuses,” said Franklin. “After this election, there will be no excuses for our academic underperformance, no excuses with disrespect to women, and no excuses for bad behavior. And so we hope to leverage the Obama factor to transform all Black boys and ultimately lead the renaissance of the entire Black community.”

Jamal E. Watson contributed to this report from New York

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