Students Urged to Meet Challenge of the Dream : King’s Fire Still Glows at UCI

Times Staff Writer

They came together with music, poetry and chants to sing a hero’s praises. The scene would have made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proud, yet perhaps sad too.

To commemorate King’s 60th birthday Sunday, several hundred students from UC Irvine were joined Friday by high school and junior high school students--most of them black--to celebrate at least one of King’s dreams coming true. Before he was slain by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, King said he dreamed of black children attending school beside white children.

The enrollment numbers at UCI might surprise him: At UCI, black students are 375 strong, with 11 faculty members. The vice chancellor in charge of student affairs is a black man.

On Friday, along with some non-black students and others in the community, black students marched triumphantly over the Campus Drive bridge to UCI’s Gateway Plaza, wearing T-shirts that said “Black by popular demand” and chanting “B-L-A-C-K, We’re black and we’re proud!”


But King also might be saddened that black youths born after he was slain--some more than 2 decades after the civil rights movement began--say his dream of a racially equal society is still far away.

During the symposium, speaker after speaker reminded the students that although they had made it into a university, evidence of racial inequality still can be found at UCI, and in Orange County.

“You kids out there with the gold studs in your ears, in your designer jeans, driving your daddy’s BMW,” said Erylene Piper-Mandy, a doctoral candidate and instructor. “You might not have noticed, but black people have gotten less popular in Irvine, and they are becoming less popular all over America.”

She and other speakers said the numbers tell the story of a long struggle ahead for blacks.

Currently, blacks make up only 3% of the student body at UCI, and they hold less than 2% of the tenured faculty positions. Recently, several black and female faculty members accused the university of discriminating in promotion and hiring of minorities.

Piper-Mandy said black dropout rates also are much higher than they are for white students at UCI. “I have seen freshmen come in crying, and they go out as seniors crying,” she said.

The UCI symposium--titled “Where Do We Go From Here?"--featured the march and a series of speeches by student leaders and Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, as well as recorded music and snippets of King’s speeches played over a loudspeaker.

The symposium began at 10 a.m. and continued through the lunch hour. As orators stood under eucalyptus trees, expounding on black themes in a plaza flanked by the main library and a cafeteria, hundreds of students of all ethnic backgrounds stood listening, while others walked by on their way to classes.

One 17-year-old black student hung at the fringes of the crowd but said he agreed with what the speakers were saying.

“His memory is symbolic of hope,” said Kevin Booker of Los Angeles, who knows of King only through history books. “There is a desperate need for black unity. We are the only ones who can do it for ourselves. There is gang violence, drug addiction. Our race is on the brink of becoming extinct.”

Although blacks now can sit at the front of the bus and attend schools with whites, something that wasn’t true in much of the country in King’s day, more subtle forms of racism still exist, Booker said.

“There will never be a day, in my eyes, when there will be equal opportunities,” he said. “Oppression is still going to exist.”

UCI Vice Chancellor Horace Mitchell expressed concern over Booker’s view. “I worry when I hear something like that. . . . We’ve got a multiracial society and everybody must take a management position in that. We’re in this together, and we have to search for a common ground.”

But the university administrator, himself a black man, said Orange County’s reputation of being a conservative community with few minorities keeps many blacks from enrolling at UCI, and many faculty members from wanting to work there.

“Our challenge right now in Irvine is to show major results in increasing black faculty, increasing black student enrollment, so there will be more people here to espouse these issues,” Mitchell said.

While there was general support for the symposium, even among non-blacks, there were signs of tension at the rally. During the march, Mandy-Piper said, a couple of young white men in a car shouted out, “Who said he was the king?”

After she spoke at the rally, someone shouted out “baloney” and a young white student accused her of promoting racial separation.

Despite those incidents, the rally was mostly an event that sought to reaffirm the hope inspired by King’s works and actions.

Thomas Parham, symposium chairman, said blacks have to continue to strive to be first.

King “said don’t give up this instinct of being first. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need to be important. Keep feeling the need to be first,” Parham said.

But King also taught that before anyone could become important, they had to help others, Parham said.

“That’s the new definition of greatness. Everybody can be great because everybody can serve,” he said.

Mandy-Piper said young black people have to have the courage of King, even in the more subtle battles of the ‘80s.

“Martin Luther King was not a hero,” she said. “He was just a man . . . thrust into the forward motion of time. . . . He accepted the call of history. He didn’t shut the door when history said ‘march,’ he didn’t go to class instead.

“He didn’t say, ‘Well, somebody else do it.’ You have to be willing to take the position of black people everywhere, even when it is unpopular.”