Black Liberty students seek racial reconciliation and understanding
By Erin Covey
Milton Woolley had never experienced racial tension before he came to Lynchburg to attend Liberty University in 2013.
Woolley, who is a digital media performance major studying for a career in sports broadcasting, said that he grew up in the suburbs of Yorktown attending a predominantly white school.
One of his first experiences with racial conflict happened while he was driving his girlfriend on campus. While Woolley and his girlfriend were play fighting at a stoplight, someone reported to the Liberty University police department that he was abusing his girlfriend.
Woolley said that after he and his girlfriend went to the police department, they started questioning him as if he was already guilty.
“The thing the officer said that really drove me over the edge was, ‘Look at you. What are we supposed to think?’” Woolley said. “That was the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like that.”
Young black students like Woolley desire an environment at Liberty where they can discuss both their own experiences and the racial conflict that is happening across the United States.
In the past few years, a number of situations which have resulted in police officers fatally shooting black individuals have exposed racial tension and led to violent conflict. The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to the injustice that many black Americans feel.
America’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement is strongly divided across racial, political and religious lines. According to a study conducted by the Barna Group, only 13 percent of Evangelicals supported the message of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. However, this year the Pew Research Center reported that about 50 percent of blacks ages 18 to 29 strongly support the movement.
For young, black students at an evangelical university like Liberty, the disparity between their own beliefs and some of their peer’s beliefs can result in tension. Woolley said that he has to tread carefully when having conversations with some white students about race relations.
“Let’s say I go to a random Caucasian student,” Woolley said. “Going into that sort of conversation I definitely have to be well-spoken. I have noticed people will say, ‘You’re very well-spoken for how you look’.”
Woolley said he personally tries to view the current tension between the black community and police officers from both perspectives. He believes both sides of the conflict need to communicate respectfully to address the issue.
“The way to get to a solution in the situation is to not turn a blind eye toward an obvious problem,” Woolley said. “There is a problem in the African-American community as far as crime rates go and how they treat officers. But there is also a problem in the police force where it does seem like black people are targets now.”
Like Woolley, Will Collier said that he did not experience any racial tension before he started attending Liberty University.
“I didn’t really realize I was black until I got here,” said Collier, a 25-year-old journalism student. “It was just culture shock. There was a different environment here that I really wasn’t used to.”
Collier, who is from Jacksonville, Florida, said he had only been pulled over by police once at home, and that it had been for speeding. However, he has been pulled over about four times in Lynchburg and has felt like he was being racially profiled by the police.
“It has happened with my parents, with some friends, and with just me. To me, it didn’t seem very warranted,” Collier said. “One was because I had a taillight out, and they ended up searching the entire car.”
Collier, who said that he supports the overall message of the Black Lives Matter movement, believes that responding to fatal conflicts between police and black men by saying all lives matter is insensitive.
“The disparity between black guys getting shot by officers and white guys getting shot is large,” Collier said. “It is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the black lives matter movement is trying to address it. It’s sad and frustrating when people say all lives matter. That’s accurate but not applicable to the situation.”
As black students at Liberty wrestle with the racial issues that sometimes affect them personally, the Center for Multicultural Enrichment (Center4ME) seeks to provide a space and a voice for them.
According to the director of Center4ME Melany Pearl, 108 black students filled out a survey for Center4ME last month on how they perceive race relations.
Pearl said that about 80 percent of the students surveyed agreed that the university should facilitate more conversations about race relations.
“It’s a conversation that’s needed, and I think everyone is finally on board,” Pearl said. “Administration definitely is at a place where they see that the Center for Multicultural Enrichment doesn’t just need to be about food, fellowship and fun. We can talk about the heart of the matter.”
Pearl and Dr. Mark Hine, the senior vice president for student affairs, want to create an environment on campus where minority students can feel comfortable discussing these racial issues.
“Rather than just assume that everyone is happy, we’ve decided that we’re going to open up the dialogue and find out what our students think about race relations on this campus,” Hine said.
Hine also believes that Liberty’s foundation as a Christian university provides a unifying factor to this discussion.
“We’ve got an advantage in that Christ is the great unifier,” Hine said.
The Center4ME addressed these issues from a spiritual angle by hosting a prayer vigil for students October 25 on the steps of the Montview Student Center. The center emphasized unity as they prayed for the police officers and victims on both sides of the conflict.
“We are going to be specifically praying about the racial unrest,” Pearl said. “We’re not sitting on the sidelines. We’re going to be taking this to the throne of God.”
Pearl said she has personally had conversations with several black and minority students who have concerns about certain aspects about Liberty. However, she wants them to know that the administration does hear their voices.
“With race relations, I definitely want to let every student know that we are listening,” Pearl said. “We do want to hear you. And things are changing — for the better.”
While Woolley believes that race relations have improved in the past several decades, he still sees the need for sincere conversations about this issue that can lead to greater reconciliation at Liberty and across the nation.
“It takes a listening ear for there to be progress,” Woolley said. “When Martin Luther King was going through his movement, at that time he was probably the most hated person in America. But he put his message out there, and the right people were willing to listen to it. And that’s what needs to happen now.”