Do we have any readers from the classes of 1981–1984? If so, tell us about the cross burning on campus.

For example, race-related problems have had very visible results at Amherst and Williams, both small, highly selective, northeastern schools. After a cross-burning occurred at Williams College last fall, admissions officials there saw Black applications drop significantly. Only 100 Blacks applied for their class of ’85, compared with 170 for the previous class. Some Blacks even pulled out of their supposedly binding early-decision contracts. Philip Smith, director of admissions at Williams, attributes the declines to “the massive publicity surrounding the cross-burning.” The press often covered the situation inaccurately, Smith says, citing one example where a newspaper ran big headlines saying that Williams classes had been cancelled for three days as a result of the incident, when in fact there had only been a two-hour voluntary moratorium one morning.

Aside from media hype, though, there was a very real, very strong campus response to the cross-burning, Smith says, adding that students, faculty members and administrators united against the atrocity. Admissions officials expanded their visits to big cities, encouraged students to visit the campus, and tried to contact minority students individually to ease their concerns.

Apparently they were fairly successful; the yield (the percentage of students accepting their offers of admission) for Blacks admitted in April was actually a bit higher than the yield for the previous year. “I suspect the problem will fizzle out, since the publicity is down.” Smith adds.

The events at Williams virtually mirrored those which had taken place the year before at Amherst College. Before a cross-burning occurred there in 1979, Amherst was accustomed to enrolling between 25 and 30 Black students in each class (the class size at Amherst is about 385). After the incident, the figure dropped to 13 in the class of ’84.

I believe that the Amherst cross-burning was later shown to be a hoax, but I can’t find a good link for that claim. I believe that the Eph burner(s) were never caught. Was anyone there when it happened in the fall of 1980?

The Times reported:

At Williams, even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded that last year’s cross burning had probably been ”a prank,” more than 1,200 students turned out for a protest rally, and there has been a series of lectures and workshops on the issue.

”Relationships, which were pretty good, have improved since,” Mr. Chandler said last week. ”White students have become more sensitive to subtle forms of racism, more willing to talk about it.” Many students, he added, were emotionally upset that the crossburning could happen, while other whites who at first wondered ”what all the fuss was about” have learned since why blacks feel so strongly about this reminder of an outrageous past. ”We took it seriously,” Mr. Chandler said. ”And we didn’t get polarized.”

See also this AP story (pdf) and one from Time.

The ugly message called for the elimination of “stinking black monkeys” from “a white society.” It was mailed from Cleveland, signed K.K.K. and addressed to a black senior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., part of a spate of hate mail and threatening phone calls to blacks on campus. A similar letter was sent to Williams President John Chandler.

The wave of antiblack attacks began in early November. During homecoming, two figures in white sheets planted a wooden cross on campus. Few took any notice until the pair doused the cross with gasoline, ignited it and escaped.

Though officials have sharply tightened security on the campuses and the FBI is investigating the incidents at Williams, Wesleyan and Harvard for possible civil rights violations, there is no evidence of who is behind the racist campaign, whether isolated individuals or concerted groups. Despite the Ku Klux Klan references and implications, there is no proof that the Klan is involved.

What particularly bothers students and school officials is that the news of each incident has seemed to spawn others. In an open letter to the college community, Wesleyan President Colin Campbell said he believed the anonymous letter delivered there was one example of “resurgent racism in society at large.” Chandler concurs: “Because of the current shift in the national mood, I’m assuming that some rather ugly impulses have been liberated.” Says Archie Epps III, dean of undergraduates at Harvard and a black: “In such a climate, an individual who has harbored resentment is more likely to feel free to threaten minorities because, once again, it is respectable.” Among the moves that Chandler and Epps feel encourage racism are an antibusing measure in Congress and calls to repeal the Voting Rights Act.

Only a racist could be against busing.

The incidents have spurred students and faculty members to look anew at long-simmering problems between the races, both on campus and off. Acknowledges Susan Hobbs, a white Williams senior: “There has been apprehension about relations between minorities and whites.” Another white Williams student wonders why “each group seems to stick together, without reaching out to each other.” Says Darrell McWhorter, a black senior who is president of the Williams student council: “There is really nothing different here from the world outside. These incidents have just shown that Williams does not exist in a vacuum.”

At Williams, officials held two prayer meetings and replaced half a day of classes with seminars on campus race relations. A reward of $1,000 was offered for information about the cross burners.

A tale worth remembering.

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