In light of Black History Month, Chancellor Emeritus Clifton Ganus discussed his recollection of Harding’s integration and the events that transpired.
Harding integrated in 1963, six years after the National Guard was called in to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock. Dr. George Benson was president at the time, and Ganus said Benson’s decision to delay integration was largely due to financial reasons. According to Ganus, who became president in 1965, Benson was afraid people would stop sending their children and their donations to the school if it was integrated. After pressure from students and faculty alike, Harding was integrated in 1963 and Ganus said they never looked back.
English professor Heath Carpenter, who is working towards a Ph.D. in heritage studies with a concentration in Southern culture, said there is not a simple answer to why Harding integrated when it did.
“I’m against the idea that there is a tidy, easy glance back at the past,” Carpenter said. “I like to look at the role the students and faculty played in standing up for what they believed in. (Racism) almost wasn’t even a conscious decision back then, it just permeated southern culture. It wasn’t eloquently thought about, it just was. Until they were confronted with it and said, ‘Wait a minute, why are things this way?’ That happens when kids come to college; they push boundaries.”
In 1957, a group of students began a petition to then-president Benson calling for integration, signed by 854 of the 1,276 students and 92 faculty and staff members. Benson presented the petition to the Board of Trustees, but it took a few more years before integration took place.
“Students and professors clearly grappled with this issue,” Carpenter said. “They would have come from backgrounds that were not racially progressive, but these people were clearly spiritually influenced to do something that their culture wasn’t pushing them to do. As a Harding alum, that’s something that makes me proud, and I still see that in my students today: they grapple with important issues, often times counter-cultural ones.”
Ganus said the university accepted and gave financial assistance to black students starting in 1963, and the attitudes of students and faculty were generally positive.
“When we integrated in 1963, we had three black students and they were basically well-accepted,” Ganus said. “Not by everybody; you’ll always have die-hards. Anytime you have change, you’ll have people for it and against it.”
Ganus said there were no acts of violence, no broken windows and no incidences of civil disobedience on campus throughout the civil rights movement. Tensions did not come to a head on Harding’s campus until 1969, he said.
“After the integration, there was a period of euphoria when we generally accepted it all,” Ganus said. “It was a little bit later when it got worse with the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. (in 1968). Things were good at first, then they got worse because of the bad feelings from the shootings.”
Ganus said he received a phone call from a parent of a student threatening to send their son a gun so he could “take care of the Negro problem himself.”
Ganus told the parent that the day he sent his son a gun was the day Ganus would send his son home. Ganus said the parent relented and even apologized, but it was indicative of a greater problem: there was no way to know how many, but some students were unhappy with the school’s integration to the point that they were complaining to their parents about it.
Even at their worst, Ganus said, race relations on Harding’s campus were not bad when compared to the rest of the country. In 1969, a group of students took pro-integration literature and burned it on the front lawn, but Ganus spoke with the students and made it clear that they would not cause any more trouble.
Over the years, race has become known as a generational issue. Ganus said people in his generation were brought up in a different time: a time when white people and black people did not go to the same school, use the same water fountain or intermarry. This is not an excuse for racist behaviors, he said, but he believes he has had to fight against the stereotype that everyone in his generation is racist.
“We are what we’re taught to be — good and bad, right and wrong,” Ganus said. “We’re a product of our experiences. There is a generational emphasis in the way we think. I do my best to not discriminate, but my generation has a different perspective than yours because our backgrounds are different.”
Ganus said we as a society still have work to do — look at what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, he said — but he is proud of Harding’s progress through the years.
“Is Harding perfect? No, because human beings are involved,” Ganus said. “But I’ve been to campuses all across this country and I don’t know any school that has a better spirit, a better group of people working together because they want to do what is right.”