LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 26, 2019) – Throughout U.S. history, college students have often been catalysts of change. In the 1960s they led sit-ins, rallies, marches and demanded change on their campuses and in their communities. The University of Kentucky’s campus was no different. There were issues on campus, and a group of black students took up the mantle of creating a more inclusive and equitable community.
Jim Embry, a 1974 UK graduate, got involved in civil rights activism at 10 years old as a member of Northern Kentucky CORE. His mother was the chapter president and took him to meetings and picket lines. A fire was lit within him that ignited a life-long passion for social justice. Embry was among the UK students who founded the Black Student Union which presented to President John Oswald a list of demands. From that meeting came a lot of big changes including the integration of the basketball team, the institution of diversity programs, the creation of African American history courses, the banning of the song “Dixie” and rebel flags at athletic events and an end to off-campus housing discrimination.
While serving as the BSU president, Embry fought across Kentucky for social and environmental justice. After attending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta, he helped to organize the annual Martin Luther King Day march in Lexington. His activism eventually led him to Detroit to work closely with Grace Lee Boggs as the director of the Boggs Center. As director, Embry helped create a vision for the Greening of Detroit and established urban gardens. He continued that work when he returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded Sustainable Communities Network.
Change is rarely linear, it’s often cyclical and the issues faced in the past must be battled again. That sentiment has held true for addressing and combatting discrimination on campus according to current president, Tsage Douglas. Douglas, a junior double-majoring in public health and foreign language and international economics, leads the UK Black Student Union with the same passion and fervor Embry had all those years ago and still has.
Douglas appreciates the changes that have taken place at UK since its founding, since it was integrated and since all those changes took place thanks to Embry. But, she came to UK to help it reach its full potential as an inclusive, affirming and diverse campus community. She, and other current members of the Black Student Union, have their own demands: more transparency, increased recruitment of black faculty and staff, increased financial aid for black students and the creation of a black student advisory council. As of today, the black student advisory council has been established and she and other student leaders are working with administrators on the other three goals.
On this week’s episode of Behind the Blue, Embry and Douglas engage in a thought-provoking discussion about their role as change makers, their leadership of the Black Student Union and their vision for the campus community and beyond.
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Seventy years ago, Lyman T. Johnson forced open the doors of the University of Kentucky by becoming the first African-American student. He, along with countless others, opened a door and created a path for us to follow. It’s the idea that anyone -- regardless of who they are, the color of their skin, what they believe, how they identify themselves, or where they are from – can find a place at the University of Kentucky. Yet, our story demands that we acknowledge that progress on this path has not been a straight line. There have been moments where we have, as an institution, not honored our aspirations. Those moments provide a compelling reminder that building a community of belonging is a journey, not a project. This month, as part of Black History Month, we are chronicling the stories of the trailblazers, innovators and champions, who bravely stepped forward or are prodding us ahead today. Their stories speak to us and guide us still.