EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Twenty years ago this month, I covered for this newspaper a campaign stop at Florida A&M University by the former first lady Hillary Clinton, making a final push in support of her husband's re-election.
That event is on my mind a lot this homecoming, for obvious reasons. The electricity of the campus as it prepared and welcomed Mrs. Clinton is still indelible.
So is the look on her face when former FAMU president Frederick Humphries did his famous "Rattler charge" — and the crowd started hissing and making faux fangs with their hands in the air. Even for someone who was criss-crossing the country every day at the time, being exposed to various local customs at each campaign stop, the first lady seemed genuinely taken aback by that little FAMU ritual.
I also recall some things most people never saw: specifically, the adrenaline and the practical lessons many of us learned as journalism students putting out that edition of The FAMUAN and, a short time later, the one on election night.
I hope the current staff has at least a few similar experiences from Election 2016. But make no mistake, their situation is also certainly different in key respects from ours.
First and foremost, there's this: My staff's annual funding from student activities and services fees in the '90s was multiple times what the current staff gets. Even as recently as the 2011-2012 school year, the FAMUAN’s A&S budget allocation was almost ten times its current level, according to the documents on the student government’s website. (See http://sga.famu.edu/sga/budget.)
Cuts that deep seriously affect the number of paid staff, the number of pages, and pretty much every other aspect of the paper’s operation.
Granted, there are some benign factors one might cite in justifying the reductions. The number of students majoring in newspaper journalism has plummeted due to that industry's real-world struggles. TV20, which didn't exist in '96, has filled some of the journalistic demand on campus.
But it is also obvious, to be blunt, that there’s been a decline in the basic commitment to The FAMUAN by senior university administration, which ultimately signs off on the A&S budget after the Student Government Association debates and passes it. The sign-off requirement was previously often favorable to The FAMUAN, prompting conversations in which cooler heads and the “grown folks’” appreciation of the bigger picture would prevail after the SGA and the FAMUAN’s naturally adversarial relationship colored the earlier phases of budgeting.
Clearly, that’s not happening anymore. All the other factors at play, real though they may be, cannot on their own account for a drop in support of such magnitude as The FAMUAN has seen. That requires a more fundamental change of principles in Lee Hall.
What the new ones are, I'm not quite sure. But I can tell you a little about the old principles, for whatever that's worth.
Around election time, it's common at FAMU for faculty and staff to remind students to vote, since "someone died for your right" to do so. This fact is undeniable, referring back to the battles of the Civil Rights Movement. The franchise was one of the key things the ancestors fought for.
But I'd suggest it's also worth remembering what they fought with — their First Amendment freedoms. The right to assemble. The right to practice their religion in the black church. And, yes, the right to a free press.
Journalism was pivotal in moving people to action in the civil-rights era. There was the publication of photos of a murdered Emmett Till in the black press at the time, the publication of Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail, and the work of mainstream journalists like the New York Times' Earl Caldwell and the Atlanta Constitution's Eugene Patterson. Even the famous television images of protesters being beaten and attacked — all purposefully calibrated to shock America to make change, in a brilliant early example of media messaging for the electronic age.
Ultimately, honoring and making use of the First Amendment freedoms shows that you value living in a democracy every day, not just when it's time to vote.
This newspaper is still the purest embodiment of that idea at FAMU, in my view. In particular, it's one of the few places anywhere where young black people are given free rein to have their voices heard and to collaborate in helping one another do so.
That's a precious thing. It deserves better than we've given it lately.
Peter McKay, B.S. '97, is a digital-media entrepreneur based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a former award-winning reporter at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, a former Famuan editor in chief, and distinguished alumnus of the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication.