MLK Party At Texas College Called Racist

Martin Luther King party beer generic CBS/AP

Known for its award-winning rodeo teams, Tarleton State University is a usually quiet campus nestled in the state's biggest dairy community.

But that wasn't the case Thursday, a day after more than 400 people attended a campus meeting to discuss a Martin Luther King Jr. party last week that many here found racially offensive.

Photographs that partygoers posted on Internet sites showed some fraternity members and others eating fried chicken, drinking malt liquor from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags and dressed in faux gang apparel.

From sidewalks to the student center, discussions about the party and what should happen to the participants were all over campus.

"It was rude and disrespectful," said Lindsay Springer, 21, a senior from Bronte, Texas, who is white. "I think it came off as a group of people trying to have a good time and not offend a particular race. I think things just got out of hand and turned into a bigger deal than they wanted."

Others were angered and said disciplining the students would send a message that racism will not be tolerated on the campus, which is about 10 percent black.

"They did it on Martin Luther King Day — if anything, that made me angry," said R.J. Chisum, 20, a football player and junior business marketing major from Dallas, who is black. "He's the reason I get to go to school here today. People may be raised like that and think it's nothing, but if nobody stops them, racism will never stop."

One picture shows a young white woman wearing a kerchief on her head and a red-and-white checkered apron and holding Aunt Jemima syrup. Another shows a young white man wearing a kerchief on his head and holding a pitcher and a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. Handwritten on his T-shirt is "I love chicken."

The pictures, posted on Facebook.com until a Lambda Chi Alpha member shown in some of the photographs removed them, are now displayed on www.thesmokinggun.com. The president of the school's Lambda Chi Alpha chapter, Devan Hanson, has said the party was at a member's home but was attended by members of several groups. He denied the fraternity had anything to do with the party.

The party highlights the need for diversity education on campus, said Donald Ray Elder, president of the school's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Laughing and joking openly or behind closed doors — especially pretending to honor a civil rights activist such as Dr. King — should not be tolerated anywhere," said Elder, a sophomore.

Of Tarleton State's 9,000 students in the spring semester, about 900 are black and 7,000 are white, according to the college.

Tarleton State is the second-largest university in the Texas A&M system. Tarleton rodeo teams have won the national championship six times — including in 2005, when the men's and women's teams both won — and have had 13 individual national champions since 1947.

It is a major employer in Stephenville, a 16,900-resident agricultural community about 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Erath County is the state's top dairy producer, according to the Texas Farm Bureau.

In October, a group of first-year law students at the University of Texas at Austin were chided by the dean for participating in a "Ghetto Fabulous"-themed costume party and posting pictures online. Partygoers carried 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and wore Afro wigs, necklaces with large medallions and name tags bearing historically black and Hispanic names.

State Rep. Garnet F. Coleman, D-Houston, said Thursday that he was outraged over news of a similar party at Tarleton State.

"If you look up the definitions for stereotype, bigot and prejudice, you will see they all mean the same thing. All those words are based on prejudging another class of people, which is exactly what Dr. King was fighting against," Coleman said in a statement. "What these students did and the day they did it on shows they were trying to be purposefully ignorant and prejudiced."

Many students and university officials said it seemed to be an isolated incident and that racism was not a problem at Tarleton State.

In an e-mail obtained by the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, one student in the photos apologized to Elder and said the MLK party tradition started "a few years back."

The university continues to investigate to determine if students will face disciplinary action, which could range from a warning to suspension, said Wanda Mercer, vice president of student life.

"We have to determine is this a violation of university rules or is it free speech?" Mercer said.
  • Sean Alfano

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