David Duke Reminds Me of What Really Is Important

A candidate who will be speaking at Dillard isn’t as important as the impact Dillard has on the people and communities around it.

About a week ago I received the news that David Duke would be at Dillard University. I’m used to hosting controversial speakers, but this was not of my doing. We host a number of political debates each year, a practice I wholeheartedly support since the university can be a neutral place for citizens to engage those who want to represent them.

But this is David Duke, you know, former elected official despite being a former Klansman. The headlines wrote themselves- “Former Klansman to debate at historically Black university!” At first the buzz was just a local story over a weekend, but that following Monday, Rachel Maddow (love her!) sympathetically shared that we would have to host Duke. I was in Washington at the time and when she shared the news, my phone blew up!

A friend reached out to suggest maybe I comment on the event. Once we found out he would be on campus, we sent out a statement indicating that our venue was rented by Raycom so they could televise a debate to four cities across the state. We had no control over the participants or their selection. But there was a rising buzz on social media, with some folks taking shots at the university for not cancelling the event.

I only received a couple of concerned e-mails, nothing terrible, urging us to cancel the event. I felt that our statement was sufficient, but we sent out an updated statement as different people on campus heard feedback. I still didn’t think this was a big deal, but if I were to write about it, would it even matter to people who already had their minds made up?

We already indicated that we were not the sponsors of the debate, and that we routinely host debates. In fact, the Louis Martinet Legal Society, made up primarily of Black attorneys, hosted a debate on campus in September which included senate candidates. Local station WDSU will host a debate between the 2 runoff on campus November 29th. Dillard probably hosts more debates than any university in the city (maybe the most in the state), a great honor for an HBCU.

Mayoral debate held January 16, 2014 at Dillard University

I could tell people that hosting these kinds of events is the role of a university, to promote critical thinking, to explore a range of ideas. As the University of Chicago has struggled with issues of speech, their president recently indicated that most people are comfortable with their own speech and not with others’, and the job of the university is to help people learn that skill. I agree.

I could tell people that David Duke, the Klansman, spoke at Dillard in the mid 1970s. I found this out last year from an alum, a fact that Duke recently shared in an interview. Yes, an active Klansman spoke to a Black power, dashiki clad, afro wearing HBCU student body of about 1,500 students. He was not one of six; he was the only speaker.

I continued to wrestle with saying anything. As our urban studies professor Robert Collins so eloquently wrote this week in his blog, “(Duke) does not run to win. He runs to raise money. His business is based on gaining publicity, increasing his mailing list, scheduling paid speeches, and, of course, selling his books.” It is a shame that for the past 10 days the candidate with 5% polling has more press than the other five combined. He can’t win a runoff spot, but he was won with free publicity.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that Duke gave us an opportunity as well. When those search engines produce stories about his debate appearance, they will see Dillard University. Many won’t know much about us, but this unlikely association with a former Klansman provides a platform to share who we are, and what is important.

Important is a tradition of hosting a wide variety of guests on our campus. Last Thursday alone we had a victim of human sex trafficking keynote freshman convocation, followed by a forum with Green Party vice presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka, followed by an evening lecture by Dr. Christopher Emdin to discuss his new book, “For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood… and the rest of y’all too.”

Dr. Chris Emdin speaking for Brain Food: The Dillard University President’s Lecture Series, October 27, 2016

That afternoon I was hosting Harvard Fellow Dr. Dawn-Elissa Fischer in my class on hip hop, sex, gender and ethical behavior as she discussed the intersection of the sexual politics of hip hop and creating safe campuses in this new Title IX environment. Later that evening, led by our immediate past faculty senate president, a group of students including the group Sister To Sister participated in the city’s Take Back the Night March. Dillard has been active in this event for years, partnering with other city universities.

Members of Sister to Sister at Take Back the Night, October 27, 2016

Important is me taking my kids to Memphis to surprise our volleyball team in their Saturday matches. They asked if we came from New Orleans to see them, shocked that we would make that trip. They won the match, their second win of the day and 4th in three days.

Meanwhile my wife was with about 12 students attending a pre-law conference in Atlanta, making sure they have the information needed to be competitive while playing nurse to a student with an eye swollen shut due to an allergic reaction.

Important is a note from a student struggling because her sister was murdered that week, a case which made the local news. Important is another student who sends a note saying she needs a face to face meeting, and then shares a series of devastating challenges, any one alone could derail plans to graduate but the student just wants help to finish the degree.

Important was a meeting with the Governor who told the private college presidents that there is still a projected shortfall to the TOPS scholarship program, initially started to assist low income students of color to attend college, but now co-opted so that it primarily benefits middle to high income white students. Several hundred thousand dollars are at stake for Dillard students, money we’re going to try to replace through private donations, and while people are willing to write letters, vent on twitter or even plan to protest Duke, when I shared that this would happen last spring no action was taken. Forget Duke; help me keep students in school!

This is what’s important, not David Duke. What we do as a university each and every day is important. By November 9th, his candidacy will be over. However we will continue making the difference in the lives of people each and every day.

Thank you David Duke for reminding me of what is important. Hopefully others will be reminded as well.