Why We Are Here: Introducing Kentucky State’s Atwood Institute on Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal

Remarks delivered to open the inaugural symposium of Kentucky State University Atwood Institute on Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal. 

Welcome to the Inaugural Symposium of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal. The symposium, like the institute, is the vision of our 18th president and the institute’s founder, Dr. M. Christopher Brown II. I am Crystal A. deGregory, the institute’s director.

Any success the Atwood enjoys today is undoubtedly due to many, many more people, like the leadership and staff of the offices of Student Enrollment and Brand Identity, as well as Public Engagement and Community Outreach, Student Affairs, Information Technology, Public Safety, and the Office of the President whose names do not appear on the Atwood’s masthead; conversely, any shortcomings are mine alone. I ask your patience as we attempt to bring something larger than ourselves to bear.

Because ours is a courageous vision that sees beyond both the proverbial city and the smoke to continue our campus’ reach onward beyond its outer limits, upward beyond its surrounding environs, and forward to the world.

And not just to the world, but into the kind of world we each deserve; a world where each and every human being has the opportunity, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or geography to access the promises of the transformative powers of education and of the democratic ideal.

I say the democratic ideal because at the Atwood Institute, we are clear to make the distinction that the revolutionary notion of democracy was not enough to free those theologian and mystic Howard Thurman referred to as “the disinherited” from the shackles of slavery, or from the manacles of a failed Reconstruction, or from the second-class citizenship of Jim Crow.

It was not merely the notion of democracy, but of the lofty pursuit of the promise of the democratic ideal which forced black people, many of them not more than children themselves, students at black colleges including Kentucky State, into restaurants to sit-in, and in doing so to stand-up for the un-cashed check of a more perfect union in which the terror of masked and unmasked vigilantes alike did not bar them from accessing the inalienable rights of life, liberty and justice for all.

For thirty-three years as this institution’s ninth and longest-serving president, Rufus Ballard Atwood used his intellectual acuity and political acumen to make certain that the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s checks to the mission of Kentucky State University were cashed.

A native of Hickman, Kentucky, Atwood had not forgotten the bitterness of an imperfect democracy — the same democracy into which his parents were born enslaved.

I wish to be clear by reiterating, Rufus Ballard Atwood realized his dream of raising Kentucky State to an accredited college, despite the realities, complexities, and limitations of a nation and of a world in which his literal parents, Rufus “Pomp” Atwood and Annie Parker Atwood were once slaves.

He did it here in Kentucky, where, the terror of fifty night riders in Hickman lynched an entire black family of seven — burning them out of their house and gunning them down one, by two, by three — first the father, then the mother holding an infant at her breast, then three small children, with the remaining child, the couple’s eldest son choosing to be burned alive rather than face the fiery mob.

Why were their lives taken? Because the father David Walker was supposedly a “surly negro” who swore “at a white woman.”

Why does this matter? I give you just three reasons.

First, because the consciousness of something like that, happening to a black family with children your age, in the very same city in which you live, does not leave you, ever. Rufus Atwood never forgot it.

Second, because the neighbor of that slain man wished to take his 22 and ½ acre-farm, prior to the killing of he and his family. And upon his murder and that of every person in his household in 1908, an adjacent neighbor absorbed the Walker family’s property, and sold it to another man whose daughter still owed that property as late 2004, some 96 years later.

And third, because respectability and hard work, even a lifetime of it, may not be enough to insulate any one of us from falling victim to a democracy that does not work the same for each and every one of us.

Simply put, if democracy does not work for the least of these — for black men and women (wearing hoodies, selling loose cigarettes, playing with BB guns and while at traffic stops); for Native American and indigenous communities whose plight is longer than the pipelines which run through them; for murdered transgendered women of color whose deaths do no lead off the nightly news; if it does not work for each of them and all of us in the same way in which it works for the occupants of Ivory Towers and of C-Suites at Fortune 500 companies, it does not yet work in all of the ways in which it should.

That is why I am here. That is why you are here. That is why the Atwood Institute exists, and why it bears the name of Rufus Ballard Atwood.

Not because he was a perfect man; not even because he was a great president — perhaps the best this institution has yet known; but because Rufus Ballard Atwood was a good man. And this world needs more good men, and women too.

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