Current MXI Chair Keon Gilbert '01 and President Ford admire Keith
Nelson's craftsmanship.

 

"Soon we had African-American studies courses, this Afro house, and Finley Campbell--all at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. People had to think something strange is goin' on at this place!"

Keith Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"When I saw strong black men concerned about education, about each other, about the community, that set my decision. I knew I'd be coming to Wabash."

Alonzo Weems

 


Magazine
Winter/Spring 2001

Handing Down a Legacy
Born in struggle, shaped by challenge, and reaching out today as a diverse group defined by leadership and service, the Malcolm X Institute has evolved over its 30-year existence, but it has always been a family.

by Steve Charles

Malcolm X Institute co-founder Keith Nelson '71 took the floor at the MXI 30-Year Reunion's "MXI in Your Time" presentation with a stick in his hand and a burden on his heart.

Nelson had carved the spuce walking stick as a reminder of MXI's earliest days, when Sid Nance '74 had brought a walking stick to campus and it became a symbol of respect, shared leadership, and unity among MXI's founders.

Nelson's burden included memories from MXI's difficult early days--stories that need to be recalled as MXI is passed down to each new generation of students, and especially as the Institute moves into a spacious new building that will replace the familiar whiteand black framehouse MXI brothers have always called home.

His work was to tell those stories in 15 minutes or less to the more than 140 MXI members and their families gathered. You knew after the first five minutes that this wasn't going to happen in a quarter hour. This was a man struggling to come to terms with some of the seminal issues and events of his life at Wabash.

But the conviction in his voice was a powerful reminder to those of us who now boast that Wabash had the first Malcolm X Institute in the country that MXI wasn't the College's idea. Like many of the best Wabash traditions, it was founded by students, nurtured by faculty and staff, and supported by the administration. It was born in a time that today's students can't comprehend--when the Ku Klux Klan had an office in downtown Crawfordsville and students and faculty of color were turned away from local barber shops--and that makes it even more important for the lessons of that struggle to be remembered as a part of MXI's heritage.

Nelson recalled how Nance's stick was used at meetings, handed to the man whose turn it was to speak. When he finished on this day and it was time for another speaker to talk about "MXI in his Time," Nelson reenacted that ritual, passing the stick on as a symbol of the responsibility--and the legacy--being handed down. And as four men from four different eras of MXI shared their stories, the common themes that arose continued to define that legacy.

A Struggle and a Family
Nelson, formerly superintendent of the Illinios Department of Corrections Academy and currently supervisor of that state's Winnebago Adult Training Center, told the story of MXI's beginning.

"In 1967 a group of seven black students came to Wabash for different reasons from different areas of the country," Nelson said. "I was one of them. The United Negro College Fund had sent me a list of colleges where blacks were admitted and that had the atmosphere, support, and willingness to bring black students onto campus. Wabash was one of them.

"After we got here, a brother went to a fraternity rush party and some students took him aside. They said ‘We don't have any black students, and though we'd like to have one, we're taking this Chinese guy instead.' That didn't bother me--but the nigger joke I heard after I got here did.

"We were colored in those days, negro if you will, and I was proud of it. We came here wanting to fit in, wanting to be a part of something. We got into the music program, into the theater, into the classroom, and a couple of us became the best damned cheerleaders you've ever seen at Wabash.

"Then Wabash Dean Dick Traina brought Finley Campbell here from Chicago for a campus lecture. Victor Ransom '71 and Preston Greene '71 took Finley aside and convinced him that, if he was really going to walk the talk, he would come to work at Wabash, and Finley did.

"We formed the Afro-American Student Association. We told the College we needed a place to get together and discuss issues, to talk with each other as men and convince these boys that the racism on this campus had to go. The College agreed.

"We had wise people at this College--Norman Moore, Dick Traina, and others--and they told us that the College had a house and, if we wanted to pay the rent, that could become our place. So Chuck Ransom, Ray Griffith, Ron Angel, and myself moved into that house, we had those encounter sessions.

"Soon we had African-American studies courses, this Afro house, and Finley Campbell--all at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. People had to think something strange is goin' on at this place!

"We went back to President Seymour, a wise man, and offered a proposal for the Malcolm X Institute. We put that proposal in writing, so that it could not be forgotten or ignored. They respected that, and the Malcolm X Institute was born.

"That summer, we worked with Professor Peter Frederick taking an old raggedy College house, cleaning it inside and out, painting it, adding furniture, a kitchen and that pool table. That first year we had seven brothers--then 15.

"We formed a family--the Malcolm X family. We had uncles and brothers, an aunt in Jasmine Robinson, the only person of color on campus when we first arrived, and we had sisters. And we had a daddy.

"And, we joined the College, because we couldn't have accomplished what we did without that support."

Wabash and MXI Accept Difference
Keith Lee '83, now a graduate student at Ohio State University, joined MXI nine years after its founding.

"Some things had changed at MXI by 1979. We weren't concerned about establishing the Institute. Our group was more concerned with preserving and improving it, and we structured the Institute in a different way. The Owen Duston program was developed at this time, and we started up another Afro-American studies course. Our professor's background was in British literature, not African-American literature, so as students we tried to educate the teacher, as well.

"But some things hadn't changed. The Klan was on the move in Crawfordsville, and they were harassing students at the diner. And in 1979, one of our MXI students who wanted to join a fraternity was blackballed on the basis of race. That started campus-wide discussions with students and administrators, and the fraternity reversed its decision and admitted the student.

"But from those discussions we learned that some students believed that MXI was discriminatory, that we were segregating ourselves. We started to talk about the role of the Institute, and MXI opened its membership to white students.

"For me, the legacy of the institute is that it says that Wabash accepts difference. Without it, Wabash is a traditional white campus in a small Indiana town, and people like me won't come here. I certainly would not have attended Wabash if the MXI had not been here."

Leadership through Service
Alonzo Weems '92, former field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and now an attorney with Eli Lilly, made his decision to come to Wabash after visiting the MXI.

"I was here for Martin Luther King Visit Day," Weems recalls. "I walked into MXI, the guys were playing pool, and that night we watched Eyes on the Prize. We discussed community, and when I saw strong black men concerned about education, about each other, about the community, that set my decision. I knew I'd be coming to Wabash.

"During my freshman year we had a strong group of men who looked out for the underclassmen. But I was shocked when I joined MXI and discovered that there wasn't always unity on everything; we had disagreements, just like a family has disagreements. But in the end we knew were here together to help each other grow socially, intellectually, and all of that happened through MXI.

"One of the legacies I'm most proud of from our time here was starting the mentoring program--the K, Q, & K. We began tutoring students from the Crawfordsville community twice a week--black students and white students--and we had picnics on campus and got other members of the Wabash community involved. We didn't just give lip service and say we're concerned about our community; we realized we have to be accountable and really show through diligent and consistent efforts that we're going to make an impact on our community. And I'm proud that the guys in MXI today continue to do that.

"One of the recurring themes I've noticed in listening to the other guys arose in my time, too. There were incidents of racism in town, and they led to discussions on campus; but we dealt with it, and we become stronger."

An Embrace and a Challenge
I met Wabash College Associate Director of Admissions Walter Blake at a black college fair--what he was doing there, I don't know," recalls Keon Gilbert '01, the current chair of the MXI.

"I would challenge him, asking him why should an African American student attend a predominantly white college. When I arrived in 1997, I walked into a brotherhood at MXI, where men put their arms around us and said ‘you belong here.' They taught us how to proceed. We learned how to challenge one another as well, which is something I hear we've always done at MXI. From challenging each other, we learn how to engage issues on campus.

"One of the best ways we learned to challenge ourselves was at the dinner table, 'doing the dozens,' and you had to have thick skin to survive that! That experience taught me how to take a challenge, to turn a negative ideology around and turn it into something positive. Last year we challenged the campus on issues of diversity, particularly on the issue of bringing an African-American or minority professor in on tenure track.

"I spent last year in Australia, where the indigenous population was only given citizenship in 1967; they are still, in many ways, second class citizens, as we were in the 1960s in America. That gave me new appreciation for why MXI is so important, and why it's so important for me to be politically and socially active--to understand ourselves and project that to others, so that they will understand and respect who we are. You can't take that for granted.

"What will be our legacy? We still have a father--Horace Turner. And we have a mother, Jasmine Robinson. And today, I think that MXI is helping the College address and move forward on diversity issues, and we can do more. The service we provide the community through the tutoring program is going strong. Attendance at our Kwanza program is growing, last year surpassing 100. The new building will be a great project. I've been working on it since its inception last fall, and we're going to get something great.

"We will make MXI a nationally known, internationally known organization, and we need to you to come back to campus and be a part of this, to challenge us, to voice your concerns."

Stories that Need to Be Told
In welcoming back MXI members, Wabash President Andy Ford recalled his first visit to Wabash, when he was surprised to see the Malcolm X Institute as he turned into the College mall. He noted that, although the new $2 million Institute building will not be at the entrance of the College, it is placed at the activity center of campus--across from the Allen Athletic Center, next to the Lilly Library and Student Center. He believes the Institute will always play an essential role on campus.

"As I travel the country, I hear about the difference MXI has made in the lives of young men struggling to get through this College, to grow into manhood, and assume responsibility for their lives, their families, and their communities," Ford said.

"Those stories are exciting and need to be told. We celebrated that five years ago, at the 25th celebration, but I barely knew about MXI then. I certainly understand now. I thank you all for coming back; thank you for keeping the faith in current undergraduates, and helping them to go forward."

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