Domestic terrorists who recently threatened to bomb nearly 20 historically Black colleges and universities utterly failed if their goal was to shake student commitment to their schools and to each other, institutional leaders said Feb. 8.
“They are disappointed. They are traumatized. But they are resilient, and they are resolved to move forward,” said Felecia M. Nave, president of Alcorn State University, one of four Mississippi HBCUs to receive bomb threats Feb. 1.
Nave’s comments, and those of three other Historically Black College and University leaders, came during “America’s HBCUs Under the Threat of Attack,” a virtual roundtable hosted by the Southern Poverty Law Center to discuss the impact and meaning of bomb threats which, for at least a dozen of the targeted schools nationally, coincided with the beginning of Black History Month.
The Feb. 1 bombing and shooting threat directed at Edward Waters University in Jacksonville, Fla., improved the institution’s relationship with police, enhanced its security protocols and inspired students to double down on their commitment to civil rights, said President A. Zachary Faison Jr.
“On our campus now, our students are emboldened. They have more resolve around their identity as students at an HBCU,” he said.
Yet officials said they have taken the incidents very seriously and are in the process of stepping up security measures, in some cases with the help of the federal government.
“This is terrorism. These are acts of terrorism,” said Anne McCall, senior vice president and provost at Xavier University of Louisiana, an HBCU located in New Orleans that was threatened with a bombing and shooting attack Jan. 4. “The fact they have not yet led to an explosion — thank God — does not mean they are not acts of terrorism.”
The statement behind the threats is intended as a clear violation of the sanctity and community students feel on their campuses, McCall said. “Is to say, ‘You are not safe anywhere.’ So, it is disorienting to students to be threatened in their center.”
The federal government considers the threats acts of domestic terrorism, said panelist Michelle Asha Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs with the U.S. Department of Education.
The FBI’s joint terrorism task force is leading the investigation that includes the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Education. They are looking at the coordinated nature of the incidents in the context of white supremacy and other far-right movements, Cooper added.
Authorities have said bomb and other threats of violence were made against at least 19 HBCUs in eight states and Washington, D.C. These include institutions such as Howard University, Jackson State University, Kentucky State University and Albany State University.
The threats were intended to interrupt learning “and, worse, they were meant to intimidate and invoke fear with the timing to coincide with the first day of Black History Month,” Cooper said. “It’s reminiscent of the Civil Rights era with the bomb threats.”
In addition to the ongoing criminal investigation, the federal government also is conferring with HBCU officials about grant programs and other tools to strengthen campus safety and security and to provide mental health support to students, faculty and staff at the colleges and universities, Cooper explained.
While no arrests have been made in the cases, investigators say they have identified suspects and that at least six of them are youth, said event moderator Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture for the SPLC.
And one of those young people has known connections to “a particularly dangerous” white supremacist group known for its apocalyptic ideology and propensity to violence, she said.
The panelists agreed that news of youth involvement in the threats was particularly disturbing in light of campaigns to ban Critical Race Theory and other efforts to teach about racial injustice in schools.
“Our young people are not being exposed to the history and are not being exposed to the truth when it comes to matters of race,” Faison said. That young people may be involved in the bomb threats “was particularly alarming for me because this is rooted out of ignorance in the literal sense.”
The situation is made even more difficult by politicians who describe some forms of racial violence as legitimate political expression, Brooks responded. The Republican National Committee recently declared the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill “legitimate political discourse.”
“Those responses from elected officials are having an impact on young people,” she said.
Nave said it’s important that the criminal and legal response to the bomb threats not “soften” because youth are involved, but added she hopes young perpetrators receive effective counseling to help them outgrow the hate that informed their actions.
“If part of the process requires changing hearts and minds, it starts at a very early age,” Nave said.
Whoever the perpetrators are, their actions are a wakeup call in several ways for Black colleges and universities, said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a New Orleans HBCU and a target of threats prior to the latest round of intimidation.
It’s a signal that emergency plans should be updated, including with the latest cyber security measures through funds and training from the federal government, he said.
And it is a reminder that the forces of racism are willing to target vulnerable populations, just as they did during the Civil Rights movement when they jailed children and turned fire hoses and dogs on them, Kimbrough said.
McCall said the bomb threats should draw attention to the movement fueling them. “We need to see that this is part of a large white supremacist project, and it needs to be understood as nothing else.”
The threat campaign should also alert Americans to the challenges facing people of color in the U.S., McCall said. “This is an opportunity for everybody in the country to have a reality check about what it means to be part of communities that have been oppressed and are doing so much to further themselves.”
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