Letter

A Call to Action from the Demosthenian Literary Society: Ending Racism in Our Society and Community

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” in the United States. But in the South, it took seven long years for desegregation to become a reality. At the University of Georgia, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Hamilton Holmes, and Mary Frances Early finally desegregated the student body in 1961. 

Today’s climate of racial injustice has caused our members to pause and reflect on the roots of racism, discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry that affect all marginalized groups and people of color and in particular members and alumni from Black and Brown communities. #BlackLivesMatter was born out of the 2012 execution of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of Trayvon’s murderer. As the movement has grown, it has scrutinized and criticized police brutality and called for expansive police reform. Becoming a global phenomenon – spreading from the United States to the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, France, and beyond – has not ended the list of murdered Black bodies: Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Freddie Gray Jr., Rayshard Brooks, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Walter Scott. Say their names. And these are only those that made it to the national news. 

Founded in 1803 as the first student organization at the University of Georgia, the Demosthenian Literary Society feels called to address today’s events. In our Constitution, we teach our members “to cultivate a correct mode of speaking, and to qualify ourselves through practice to express our views in an effective manner.” Traditionally, we rush to the podium in our hall in the spirit of extemporaneous debate to discuss what is present and relevant to our members. However, we cannot wait until fall semester to speak. We cannot use the limited capacity of social media to fully heal the wounds we feel. As a Society, we must address the systemic and institutional causes of generational trauma in Black populations. We must acknowledge that our state, our school, and our debate society has benefited off the backs of people of color, in particular Black Americans, while simultaneously denying them access.

In the process of drafting this letter, the 2020–2021 President of our Society launched a Letter Writing Committee. The society voted in favor of addressing our history, while also creating a tangible action plan for the near future. The members of the committee represent a diverse and inclusive background of UGA faculty, staff, alumni, and current students of color and allies. This committee determined the framework of this letter, as laid out below. Furthermore, we decided that we would not rush the process of our letter or attempt to pat ourselves on the back through a false moral high ground or performative process. 

With this letter, and as a society of thinkers and a current generation of members who believe in accountability, we seek to address the history of racism and discrimination in DLS; recent historical understandings of how DLS members of color have experienced and/or witnessed challenges in diversity, equity, and inclusion; and a call-to-action for how our members will address these challenges and create solutions through individual and institutional action.

The History of Racism and Discrimination in DLS

Slavery in the South not only contributed to the global economic power of the United States, but also built UGA’s infrastructure in Athens, Georgia. Our Society directly benefited from the enslavement of Black people, unnamed individuals who built Demosthenian Hall in 1824. From 1830 through 1839, our minutes demonstrate that Society members often debated the institution of slavery; none ever voted to abolish it. During the Civil War, Society members fought for the Confederacy; for example, DLS alum Robert Toombs served as Secretary of State of the Confederacy. The Society, like the University of Georgia, remained a white supremacist institution for the next century. When Brown v. Board of Education passed, Society members wrote a letter to then Governor Marvin Griffin stating that the vast majority of students were opposed to integration. After UGA desegregated in 1961, Demosthenians played a vital role in protests, debates, and riots against the first Black students. 

DLS Today: Experiences and Challenges from the Lens of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Our Society acknowledges that we have forgotten to reflect on how our 200-year history directly affects our Society today. Due to whitewashed historical narratives and the privilege of systemic supremacy, we often assume we are not responsible for past actions. However, we have learned that our Society continues to perpetuate negative experiences for members of color and marginalized groups. Some of these recent challenges include:

  • Lack of institutional inclusivity with current members of color
  • Lack of representation in ethnic diversity with current members of color
  • Lack of institutional recruitment and retention initiatives for members of color and guests
  • Harmful rhetoric and ideologies perpetuating racism, prejudice, and racial stereotypes in the form of serious and humorous debate and speeches
  • Support of institutional tokenism 
  • Lack of diverse programming for members of color 
  • Consistent experiences of feeling unwelcome, unapproachable, and undervalued as a member of color

A DLS Call-to-Action: Addressing Challenges and Creating Ongoing Solutions

Our Society will no longer take a backseat to today’s climate of racist violence or tomorrow’s future racial injustices. Although we may not possess the power to stop hate and racism in our country, we can do our part in dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism through institutional change. From the feedback of our members, here is how our Society will institutionalize anti-racism into our culture and address some of the challenges we face.

With this letter, we acknowledge our historical role in racism and discrimination and take responsibility for our shortcomings and flaws both in our past history and our present-day challenges. To do so we will:

  • Create a diversity and inclusion committee to involve marginalized groups, people of color, and Black and Brown populations;
  • Initiate institutional recruitment strategies to support members and guests of color by collaborating with and recruiting from other campus clubs and community organizations focused on underrepresented groups. Each month, DLS will reach out to a separate organization to create connections;
  • Initiate retention through diversity programming to support members and guests of color. This includes eliciting and implementing input from members of color when organizing, actualizing, and evaluating official events, workshops, inter-society debates, and the All-Night-Meeting (ANM);
  • Create a page on our website to address the racist history of the Society, in particular how the labor of enslaved people provided the funds to build the debate hall, a history that the Society does not acknowledge when celebrating the hall;
  • Prioritize the selection of diverse resolutions to challenge dominant modes of thinking in the Society;
  • Discuss the potential removal or historical contextualization of the portraits on the Wall of Fame and in the Upper Chamber to challenge how symbolic imagery communicates our Society’s values;
  • Institutionalize the value of diversity and inclusion in ANM addresses to alumni by inviting and selecting diverse ANM speakers;
  • Ask our alumni to reflect on how they can contribute to these initiatives when they interact with members during future programs hosted by the current generation of our membership;
  • Donate to and expand partnerships with local Black-led organizations and advocates that contribute directly to the Athens-Clarke County community.

As the first and oldest student organization at the University of Georgia, we will continue to acknowledge our history, reflect on our privilege, and remain accountable for where our Society is today and how we will navigate its future. Although this letter encompasses neither the full breadth of enslaved people’s contribution to the Society’s origins nor the Society’s racist past, we hope alumni, members, and guests understand that our society stands with #BlackLivesMatter. We have only begun to open the dialogue of diversity and inclusion for Black and Brown members in a serious way. Although we are late to take an institutional stand in our 217-year-old history, we will not let the next 217 years pass by in the same manner. Together, we will continue to work to dismantle the racist seeds of our Society, while building an anti-racist and inclusive culture “to cultivate a correct mode of speaking, and to qualify ourselves through practice to express our views in an effective manner.”

Footnotes:

  1. There was also at least one enslaved person used and referenced in our meeting minutes.
  2. See debates on January 7, 1832; February 23, 1833; June 22, 1833; February 18, 1837; March 24, 1838; and March 9, 1839. 
  3. Robert A. Pratt, “The Rhetoric of Hate: The Demosthenian Literary Society and its Opposition to the Desegregation of the University of Georgia, 1950–1964,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 90, vol. 2 (2006): 236–59.