Something just didn’t add up — the union of a proud black university and a top Republican strategist and troublemaker credited with one of the most racist presidential campaign schemes of recent memory.
But there it was in news accounts carried across the nation: Howard University names Republican National Committee Chairman (“RNC”) Lee Atwater to its board of trustees. Atwater had just engineered the 1988 presidential victory of George H.W. Bush and had crafted the racist Willie Horton Ad that helped seal his win. …
The news hit the community like a ton of bricks. Black folks were already a little depressed that Bush won and would likely continue the backward politics of the Reagan administration. But why, would Howard University sell out and give Atwater a platform for his policies?
Luckily, the Howard student body came to the rescue. I’m not a Howard under-graduate, but instead a proud Howard Law graduate. I’m an Aggie and my Aggie pride spilled over to the main campus when the young Bisons took over the Admin Building to protest Atwater’s appointment.
The small protest of Atwater’s appointment turned into a firestorm as Howard students took over the school’s main administration building for a sit-in. After a tense four days, and with campus police threatening a violent takeover of the building, Atwater resigned.
Later that year, Howard President James E. Cheek, who hatched the failed Atwater appointment, also resigned.
In 1997, Cheeks was forced to take shelter in U.S. Bankruptcy Court when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) probed his role in the 1991 collapse of the university-owned United National Bank. Cheek was a member of its board of directors.
The FDIC charged Cheek with gross negligence, among other things, and won a $1.8 million judgement against him and his estate. Possessions of former Howard University President, including those from the period he served as head of the nation’s largest Black university, were put up for auction.
Dr. Cheek currently lives in Greensboro, NC.
Atwater died in 1991 of a brain tumor.
The Howard University Alumni will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the student protests March 26 and 27 at the Blackburn Center on the Howard University campus. And it is an event well worth remembering.
Those days reminded me of the civil rights protest of the 1960′s. Whether the issue was divestment of university holdings in apartheid South Africa or the appointment of a suspected racist to a leadership position at a black university, students wasted no time in making their voices heard.
The spirit continues today and is evident by the overwhelming support President Obama received on college campuses across the country. This burst of activism will no doubt ignite another wave of student action like the one that saved Howard University from Lee Atwater 20 years ago.
Incidently, Atwater held the same position that Michael Steele holds today. It’s not known how long Steele will remain in that position for there is a protest going on now within the Republican party as to whether he carries the confidence of the current Republican party that is led by Rush “Oxycotin” Limbaugh.
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