Up Next

UNC alumni show support for student activists

After seeing current students protest during a football game, alumni banded together in solidarity

On Sept. 24, Carmen Scott settled in for an afternoon of college football. Her alma mater, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, would be taking on the University of Pittsburgh. As the national anthem played, Scott didn’t expect to see a protest form within the student section of Kenan Memorial Stadium.

After showing the American flag on the field, the camera panned to the student section, where rows of students, led by UNC sophomore Jerome Simpson, were dressed in black and sat with fists raised toward the sky. They remained seated during the anthem while others stood around them.

“I saw the game live and wasn’t ready for the demonstration,” Scott said. “I was just watching the game because that’s my alma mater and when they did that, it just affected me so much. I went to school there and I’m like, ‘Man, they’re going to get a lot of flak for that,’ because it’s the South and I know some alumni weren’t going to like that. I knew they were going to hear from those alumni who did not appreciate them. They were going to hear from people in Chapel Hill who did not appreciate that and sorely missed the point of their message. I wanted them to know how meaningful it was for us.”

Four days before the game, Charlotte, North Carolina, grabbed headlines after the death of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old man who was shot and killed by a police officer. Carmen Scott, who said she usually watches each video that is released, was at a complete loss after watching Keith Scott, the latest black male victim, take his last breath as cameras recorded him. After watching the protest, Scott felt compelled to find her own ways to support a movement that meant so much to her.

“That [latest video] just took everything out of me,” Scott said. “I usually have a lot to say all the time, but I couldn’t do anything. I’m just tired. I turned on the game and in the very beginning, when they started the anthem … there was like this confidence the group had, but it was also like, ‘Man, I know people are looking at me and judging me right now.’ They still did it. They knew they were on national TV and that just gave me life. I was done feeling sorry for myself and wanting to get back into it.”

Feeling inspired, Scott jumped into action and began planning how she’d show her appreciation for the cause. After all, Scott was also an activist when she attended UNC before completing her journalism degree in 2002.

UNC has a long history of the oldest public university built by slaves and they had a knack for not addressing that and not acknowledging that,” Scott said. “We called ourselves Students Seeking Historical Truth because we had a lot of buildings named after slave owners and Klansmen, but back then they were prominent North Carolinians, so they had buildings named after them. We wanted students to know the true history of the university. If you’re going to call it Saunders Hall, let them know who Saunders was. That was our crusade. We took up those fights.”

Knowing what she faced as an activist, Scott wanted to find a way to let the protesters know she supported their efforts. As Scott anticipated the mountain of backlash that protesters would most likely face, she turned to social media to seek help. Scott created a private Facebook group in order to share her thoughts with some UNC alumni.

Alumna Tiffany Black, who studied multimedia journalism and African-American studies before graduating in 2002, learned of the group and immediately wanted to contribute.

“Every day, there’s a feeling of hopelessness, like I can’t do anything,” Black said. “What am I supposed to do? You feel paralyzed and trapped, and that’s why I love that we came together to do this. It makes me feel like I’m doing something meaningful. I’m giving back and I’m supporting in this really bold way.”

North Carolina Tar Heels students hold up their fists during the national anthem in silent protest during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

University of North Carolina students hold up their fists during the national anthem in silent protest during a football game against the University of Pittsburgh at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As it turns out, Scott and Black hadn’t been the only ones to notice the protest before kickoff.

The group began to throw ideas around and finally settled on creating a half-page ad for a newspaper. After pricing ads for larger publications, the group settled on buying an ad in The Daily Tar Heel, the university’s student-run daily newspaper. With this move, they would be able to express their support while also contributing to the university.

Members were asked to contribute $10 each. Within 12 hours, the group collected enough to not only purchase a full-page ad, but also to use the remaining funds for campus organizations speaking out against social injustices. The finalized ad lists the names of 525 alumni who were able to get their donations processed within the allotted time.

Although the Facebook group’s number swelled to over 2,400, it was the efforts of eight to 10 alumni who worked tirelessly to see the process through. The ad appeared on page five in the Sept. 28 issue of The Daily Tar Heel.

“It’s a true labor of love because, one, we love the university,” Black said. “At the end of the day, no matter what goes on, we are all Tar Heels through and through. Two, we are extremely proud of the activism of these students because we were extremely active when we were on campus. To see that activism going on, and now that we’re adults, it’s nice to be able to say we have the opportunity to stand up, stand together and do something.”

Simpson, a leader of the Sept. 24 protest, heard about the full-page ad and was shocked.

“I didn’t even know they had done that until someone from The Daily Tar Heel interviewed me and asked about it,” Simpson said. “I asked [the reporter] what she was talking about, and she told me about the alumni taking out an ad to promote and support. I was shocked to see 500-plus alumni come together and support. We received so much negative feedback, so it was nice to see something positive. It’s important.”

The 19-year-old sophomore transferred from North Carolina State University after feeling his voice wasn’t accounted for and experiencing, what he said, is a lack of diversity and cohesiveness at the school in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As media coverage of police brutality becomes more frequent, Simpson felt he needed to do something. Simpson, who hails from Charlotte, also wants detractors to know that his method of protest is no way a slight to police officers or members of the military, but to highlight injustices and police brutality.

“The protest is not an anthem protest,” Simpson said. “We’re protesting police brutality. It’s not that we’re not acknowledging the anthem. We understand the anthem is playing. We’re using the anthem to highlight police brutality, and that’s what we’re trying to discuss right now. It’s not an anti-police nor an anti-military protest.”

Simpson plans to continue, and has already staged multiple protests before and after. The latest demonstration saw over 20 students dropping to a dining hall floor every minute, as each student represented the 23 people killed by police officers in North Carolina this year. Simpson wants to continue his mission in hopes that change will come soon.

“What keeps me motivated is the negativity, because that’s the culture we’re trying to highlight right now and we’re trying to get rid of,” Simpson said. “Unfortunately, what also keeps us motivated are the instances of police brutality which continue to occur. At some point, we want to stop having this conversation about police brutality. It’d be great if this conversation could end, but police brutality keeps happening. Too often, the conversation ends too early because the problem doesn’t go away.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.