Hundreds gather on UNC’s campus to demand tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones

Photos by Kyle Ingram

Demonstrators call on UNC-Chapel Hill trustees to take action by June 30

Several hundred UNC students, faculty and staff gathered on campus Friday to demand that Nikole Hannah-Jones be awarded tenure. 

The demonstration, organized by UNC’s Black Student Movement, brought a broad coalition of university members — including professors from departments across campus, alumni and concerned students.

“We stand here today in solidarity not only with Nikole Hannah-Jones, but with every single Black faculty member, Black student, Black alumni, Black graduate student — everybody,” Julia Clark, the vice president of UNC’s BSM said.  “…We recognize that this incident is merely a symptom of a larger disease of white supremacy that exists on every corner of this campus.” 

Clark and Taliajah Vann, the BSM’s president, presented a list of 13 demands for UNC’s Chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, including a memorial for James Lewis Cates Jr., a Black man who was killed by a white supremacist gang on UNC’s campus in 1971.  

Julia Clark and Taliajah Vann, Vice President and President of UNC’s Black Student Movement

BSM also demanded that the UNC Board of Trustees hold a vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure before the end of the month — when new board members will be take office. 

“What we’re really calling for is that this issue be addressed now before June 30, before we have new members coming into the board so that current members of the board can rectify their mistake that they made in the first place instead of pushing this back even further,” Clark said.

As Policy Watch reported, UNC’s Board of Trustees failed to hold a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and creator of the 1619 Project. She was hired at UNC as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative reporting — a position in which all past Knight Chairs have been granted tenure. 

Over the last few weeks, the BOT has received more than 60 letters in support of Hannah-Jones from various academic departments at UNC, alumni groups, student groups and journalism organizations. 

UNC’s student body president, Lamar Richards, has petitioned the board to hold a special meeting to vote on tenure. If five other board members join him in this petition, the board will be forced to hold a meeting within 10 days. 

Campus leaders, including Vann, Clark and Richards met with the chancellor on Wednesday to discuss student concerns regarding the Hannah-Jones case. Leaders said Guskiewicz was receptive to their concerns, but offered little in the way of concrete solutions.

“We take everything that the administration says with multiple grains of salt,” Vann said. “You are not interested in action. You have not been interested in action for decades. If you invite us into your space and you tell us, ‘I am here as your chancellor right now to listen to you and to help the Black community,’ we challenge you to do just that.”

UNC’s Student Body President met with Chancellor to discuss Hannah-Jones’ tenure case, racism in the university

UNC Chapel Hill Student Body President Lamar Richards (L) and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (R)

UNC Chapel Hill Student Body President Lamar Richards met with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on Wednesday to discuss student concerns after the fallout of the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure case. 

Richards discussed his conversation with Guskiewicz at the inaugural Campus President Council meeting, saying the chancellor was receptive to their concerns but offered little in terms of concrete solutions. 

“At the end of the conversation, we walked away with few answers on change moving forward,” Elliana Alexander, a member of the CPC who was present at the meeting, said. “The Chancellor told us that he is committed to continuing to learn from students’ experiences whose identities are different from his own.” 

Also in attendance at the meeting were Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson, and members of the CPC — a new group created under the Richards Administration that includes a variety of campus leaders, such as the presidents of the Black Student Movement and the Residence Hall Association. 

As Policy Watch reported, UNC’s Board of Trustees failed to hold a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and creator of the 1619 Project. She was hired at UNC as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative reporting — a position that has included tenure upon hire with all past Knight Chairs. 

Richards has petitioned the Board of Trustees, of which he is a member, to hold a special meeting to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. If five other board members join him in this petition, the board will be forced to hold a meeting within 10 days. 

Calls have risen from countless departments within the university for the board to hold a vote. Alexander said UNC’s Office of Faculty Governance also asked all student organizations to send their own statements to the board. 

Taliajah Vann, the president of UNC’s Black Student Movement, said Guskiewicz pointed to instances where he had publicly said Hannah-Jones should be a professor at UNC. He did not mention tenure in these statements. 

“I personally think that’s a very different statement than I think that Nicole Hannah-Jones should be a tenured professor here,” Vann said. “And I think that kind of begins to get into the root of the problem that Black students are having right now.” 

Last week, Richards wrote a letter in which he encouraged prospective students of color to rethink coming to UNC. 

“While Carolina desperately needs your representation and cultural contributions, it will only bring you here to tokenize and exploit you,” he wrote. “And to those that will attempt to misconstrue these words—my words—understand this: I love Carolina, yes, but I love my people and my community more.”

At the CPC meeting, Richards said he had gotten pushback from the Chancellor and members of the BOT about this letter. 

“I stand 1,000 percent by my words,” he said. “And I do not change them.” 

In addition to Hannah-Jones, students voiced their concerns to Guskiewicz about further issues with racism and inequity on campus. 

Vann reportedly told Guskiewicz that Black Student Movement has had to fill in the gaps in student support that the university has failed to provide. She mentioned that when students were forced to move out last fall after The number of COVID cases increased on campus, Black Student Movement had to help students find new places to live and pay off their housing. 

“The reality is, we have nearly 900 student groups on campus and we keep getting more and more,” Richards said. “It’s not because students are having new bursts of creativity, although we are very creative, it’s because every day there’s a new need we’re finding that isn’t being addressed by the university, and we’re taking the initiative to do it by ourselves.” 

Richards concluded the CPC’s inaugural meeting by asking members to continue sending letters to the BOT urging a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. 

House passes bill seeking to lift mask mandate in NC schools

The N.C. House passed a bill seeking to give school boards the exclusive authority to determine whether students must wear face masks in the upcoming school year on Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 173, called the “Free the Smiles Act,” would strip away Governor Roy Cooper’s authority to  issue state-wide mask mandates for schools, leaving him with the ability to do so only for individual schools during a state of emergency. 

The Governor’s current executive order requires all students in public and nonpublic schools to wear face masks while indoors. On June 11, Cooper announced he would be extending the State of Emergency, saying that although the state has made massive strides in combating COVID-19, the emergency classification allows for easier access to federal relief funds. 

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, presented the bill to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday. Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican, added an amendment to the bill that would require all local school boards to take a vote on whether or not they will require face masks by August 1. If a school does require masks, they will have to revisit the issue every month and hold a vote on whether or not to keep them. 

“It’s supposed to increase transparency and communication with parents who are concerned about this issue,” Paré said. 

Two members of the public spoke in support of the bill, including Tracy Taylor, a physical therapist based in the triangle. 

“The most important thing that I want to explain to you all is that there have been so many studies and so much data that are in support of students not masking at all,” she said. 

Taylor was also a part of a “Free the Smiles” rally that was held outside the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services building on Wednesday.

“Bring your friends + signs to let Mandy Cohen know our kids don’t need to be masked at school,” she wrote on Twitter. 

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that over 4 million children in the U.S. had contracted COVID-19, but the mortality rate among infected children was between 0.00 percent – 0.03 percent. According to data from 23 states, between 0.1 percent – 1.9 percent of all child COVID-19 cases were severe enough to require hospitalization. 

In a press conference earlier this month, NCDHHS Director Mandy Cohen said that it’s important that children under 12, who are ineligible to get the vaccine, continue to wear masks in school.

“The CDC continues to recommend that those who are unvaccinated … wear a mask indoors. That includes the vast majority of our children who are in K-12 schools and that will continue until the guidance changes from the CDC,” she said.

Willis said that the bill is flexible enough to mitigate infection in schools while also loosening restrictions. 

“This still allows the governor to act on a school by school basis if necessary,” he said. “If there were something to come up where a different strain were to come through, or something were to happen, I’m sure we’d be happy to bring that back in front of this body for a larger discussion. But we’re comfortable with where it’s at today.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate.

Activists demand end to poverty, kick off national campaign in Raleigh

Rev. William Barber II addressed the crowd Monday evening. Photos by Kyle Ingram

The Poor People’s Campaign held a rally in Raleigh on Monday to demand an end to poverty, kicking off a year-long activism campaign that will culminate in a march on Washington in 2022. 

Attendees heard testimony from speakers across the country, both in-person and via Zoom, as well as several live music performances. Speakers discussed a wide range of progressive issues, including poverty, systemic racism and the environment. 

President Biden delivered pre-recorded remarks to the rally’s attendees, expressing his support for the organization and their agenda. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever been together at a time of such opportunity to deliver dignity for our nation’s poor and low wage workers,” Biden said. “To make ending poverty not just an aspiration — but a theory of change.”

The event in Raleigh was the beginning of what the group says will be 365 days of action, ending on June 18, 2022, with a massive “Moral March” on Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, organizers said they’ll hold events across the country to raise awareness about poverty, gain supporters and pressure legislators to pass progressive reforms. 

A key issue raised during the rally was voting rights, a problem the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign, said is especially relevant in North Carolina. 

Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign

“North Carolina was ground zero for voting rights,” she said. “Those attacks, those anti-democratic attacks are being spread throughout the country.” 

In 2016 and 2017 federal courts ruled that the North Carolina General Assembly had unconstitutionally gerrymandered its voting districts in an attempt to weaken the Black vote. 

Since then, 48 states have introduced bills seeking to limit voting, either through cutting early voting periods or restricting access to mail-in ballots. Fourteen states have passed these bills. 

The Poor People’s Campaign describes their movement as a “Third Reconstruction,” a multifaceted grassroots campaign drawing upon the civil rights activism following the Civil War and again during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. 

“We are at a time when we did not have a scarcity of resources in America, nor do we have a scarcity of solutions,” the Rev. William Barber II, the group’s leader said. “What we have a scarcity of is social consciousness. As a people, we must change that narrative, because reconstruction is not just about law, but changing the mentality of the people.”

The organization’s demands include passing a living wage for all workers, ensuring the right to unions, expanding voting rights, eliminating tuition for higher education and more. 

The Poor People’s Campaign said that their “Third Reconstruction” will liberate the 140 million poor and low-income people that live in the United States. This 140 million figure, which estimates that almost half the population is in poverty, has been contested in the past, but The Poor People’s Campaign asserts that the official poverty measure is outdated and in need of reexamination. 

Barber is a civil rights activist who has risen to prominence since his “Moral Monday” protests in Raleigh began in 2013. Each Monday, Barber led a diverse coalition of religious progressives into the Legislature to protest a wide range of issues, such as worker rights, LGBTQ discrimination and restrictive immigration laws. These nonviolent protests typically ended in multiple arrests. 

Barber also served as president of the N.C. NAACP until 2017, when he stepped down to lead The Poor People’s Campaign. 

Despite Democrats winning the Presidency and a majority in the U.S. House and Senate, progressive reforms have largely failed to make it through Congress. 

In February, the Senate Parliamentarian refused to allow a $15 minimum wage increase to be included in the most recent COVID relief bill — striking down a campaign promise for President Biden and many progressive legislators. 

Earlier this month, Joe Manchin (D-Va.), announced that he would not vote in favor of the Democrat’s anti-voter suppression bill that sought to roll back recent moves by states such as Georgia to to limit early and mail-in voting. Manchin also said he would work to preserve the filibuster — a procedural bulwark that has been used to block progressive reforms in the Senate. 

“There can be no moderation when it comes to voting rights and living wages and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Barber said. “Senators have never voted against their own living wage, they’ve never taken away their own healthcare… That’s why we have to have a massive movement, because the politicians — even the Democrats — are not going to fully do everything that needs to be done if we just let them sit in the room and cut deals.” 

Monday’s event ended with a fiery speech from Barber, who told attendees “we have work to do.” 

“We’ve got to cause this nation to recognize that since the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, indeed in all of history, it is a moral abomination that there are 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country,” he said. “It’s time to go to work.”

Demonstrators gather outside the North Carolina legislative building on Monday afternoon.

Bipartisan bill to remove Jim Crow-era literacy tests from NC constitution advances in state House

A bill in the N.C. House would put Jim-Crow era literacy tests, designed to disenfranchise Black voters, on the 2022 ballot, giving voters the chance to remove this provision from the state constitution. 

The bill, H.B. 337, has bipartisan support, with two Democrats and two Republicans as its primary sponsors. 

Article VI Section 4 of the North Carolina constitution states “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”

The provision is not enforceable, but lawmakers say its removal would provide an important symbolic change. 

Rep. Terry M. Brown Jr.

“It’s important to take account for the things that we’ve done in the past that have been negative and affected so many people like myself and my ancestors,” Rep. Terry Brown (D), a sponsor of the bill, said. “And really make sure that we are moving forward and taking these steps to be accountable.”

Literacy tests were banned by the federal government in 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Gaston County lost a lawsuit challenging this provision in 1969 and was ordered to stop using literacy tests at the polls.

In 1970, the General Assembly passed an amendment to remove the provision from the constitution, but it failed once it reached North Carolina voters. Similar efforts in 2013 and 2019 didn’t make it through the state Senate. 

This time, the bill not only has the support of both parties in the legislature, but several influential advocacy groups as well. 

The John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank associated with Art Pope, millionaire businessman, has come out in support of the bill. 

“It is something that is worthwhile and important,” Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the Locke Foundation said. “Removing such a sad piece of our state’s past from the state constitution.” 

Rep. Kelly Alexander (D), another sponsor of the bill, said the legislation also has the support of the North Carolina Bar Association.

Rep. Kelly M. Alexander Jr.

“Given everything that’s happened in the past year, and while we’re thinking critically about what our past was, I do think that is going to be able to make it through the House this year,” Brown said. “I think that it will get heard in the Senate and I think that now is the time for it to be put on the ballot and I think North Carolina will vote to remove this finally.” 

The move comes at a time when the state is bitterly divided over the question of “critical race theory” (CRT,) which seeks to examine how racism functions within our society’s institutions. 

House Bill 324 seeks to ban the teaching of CRT in all public schools. The bill would ban schools from teaching that “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” among other ideas. The bill is currently in the Senate, and it is unclear when or if a vote will be taken on it. 

The bill to remove literacy tests from the state constitution has largely avoided this debate so far. 

“That is a big issue with what’s going on in terms of educating people in North Carolina about the past,” Brown said. “…Where North Carolina is now in 2021 is not where North Carolina was in 1899 when this provision was enacted. There’s nothing wrong with saying that when this bill was enacted, it was enacted for a negative purpose, it was enacted with ill intent in mind.”

The House State Government Committee approved H.B. 337 and referred it to the Rules Committee. If the bill wins final approval, voters in our state could see the issue on the ballot next year.