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One year after an uncharacteristic sit-in, campus activism lives on at Clemson

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CLEMSON — Tour groups of prospective Clemson Tigers did not linger long in front of Sikes Hall last April.

More than 100 students at typically placid Clemson University had gathered on the steps of the main administration building, part of a nine-day sit-in pressuring school leaders to pursue racial diversity and confront the university's legacy of slaveholders and segregationists.

Unlike at Yale or the University of North Carolina, where student protests prompted the renaming of buildings that honored white supremacists, few members of the Clemson community would describe the public university as a hotbed of political activism. The students are known for leaning to the right, if they lean at all.

Last year was different. Longtime professors said they had never seen anything like the series of pickets, rallies and public confrontations that culminated in the Sikes sit-in and the arrest of five students who entered the building and refused to leave on April 14, 2016.

The students' list of demands included construction of a new multicultural center, a forceful response to online hate speech, more funding for minority student organizations, and "incentivized" diversity training for faculty and administrators.

One year later, the tension seems to have fallen.

Some members of the Sikes crowd feel they won some concessions, although university officials say any changes in policy were not inspired by the protests. Clemson President Jim Clements promised to increase diversity and find a permanent home for the school's Gantt Multicultural Center, and the university has made slow progress toward both goals.

Clemson recently launched an online diversity training course for employees, to mixed effect. Some of the protesters see it as ineffectual, while conservative news outlets, such as the National Review and the Daily Caller, have been ridiculing a questionnaire that suggests professors should accept tardiness as a cultural difference.

Other effects of the sit-in are less tangible. Younger student activists — on the right and the left — say the event inspired new waves of political engagement, from an on-campus Women's March to a protest defending a sidewalk evangelist's First Amendment rights.

Even some freshmen who didn't follow Clemson news last year heard all about the sit-in during their freshman orientation. Joshua Jackson, an undeclared first-year student who grew up in nearby Greenville, said he saw the protest as a sign that students could take action.

"I think it's saying you can get involved and do something positive, basically," Jackson said.

'See the stripes'

For a non-Tiger, the volume and intensity of orange on display across Clemson's campus can be overwhelming. And not just on Solid Orange Fridays.

It's a place where school spirit approaches religious fervor, particularly during a dominant football season like the Tigers enjoyed last year. A banner hanging from a streetlamp on the way into Clemson boasts of a designation from U.S. News & World Report: "Happiest Students, No. 1 in SC."

A.D. Carson struggled to find that happiness when he moved from Illinois to Clemson as a graduate student in the summer of 2013. He said he came to feel that he was living on "a plantation that is not quite converted."

His grievances ranged from the personal to the systemic. Clemson has the second-largest percentage of white students of any college in the state after Myrtle Beach's Golf Academy of America — trailed closely by the College of Charleston. Seven percent of Clemson students are black, in a state that is 28 percent black.

Soon after arriving, Carson took a tour of John C. Calhoun's former plantation house on the campus, known as Fort Hill. While the university's website presents an unsparing account of the seventh U.S. vice president's enthusiastic defense of slavery and brutal treatment of enslaved African-Americans, Carson said a tour guide made only passing references to black "servants" or "employees."

"I had on a black shirt, it was a Friday," Carson said. "And there were some elderly women there who said, ‘You must be a freshman.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not,’ and they said, ‘Anybody who’s from around here knows we wear orange on Fridays.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I represent the stripes.’"

Carson composed a spoken-word poem on that theme, "See the Stripes," posting it as a YouTube video in August 2014. Some students began wearing black T-shirts with the slogan on Solid Orange Fridays.

He caught a lot of heat for that poem. Classmates said he was dredging up settled controversies and portraying football players as modern-day slaves. Clemson's Strom Thurmond professor of political science dismissed Carson's movement as "fascism" rooted in baseless claims of racial prejudice.

"I got in bed, pulled the covers over my head, and I said, 'What have I done?'" Carson said.

'This massive frustration'

Carson and other student activists doubled down. After photos surfaced of white Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members throwing a gang-themed "Clemson Cripmas" party in December 2014, students marched in front of the Cooper Library, criticizing President Clements' gentle rebuke of the event.

By January 2015, the protesters had a platform that would be largely echoed at the Sikes sit-in. Eighty marched to Sikes Hall with demands including the "prosecution" of hateful speech — the final item drawing an outcry from free-speech advocates.

The Sikes sit-in began April 13, 2016, after students found bananas hanging from a sign memorializing "African Americans at Fort Hill." Some critics felt they were just waiting for an outrage to respond to.

"For something spontaneous, it seemed very well-organized and well-prepared," said Zach Talley, a Clemson student and editor of the conservative Tiger Town Observer.

But no one claimed the sit-in was spontaneous. The one latecomer was Ian Anderson, the only white student among the five arrested. He decided to join in solidarity at the last minute, and he was surprised more students didn't follow suit.

"Sikes came out of this massive frustration," Anderson said. "This is something where black students felt alienated."

Pushing back

The backlash began before the sit-in ended.

The Tiger Town Observer and national outlets, such as Campus Reform, dug up emails that suggested key Clemson administrators never believed the banana incident was racially motivated.

Talley said he saw some of last year's political agitation as an outgrowth of a contentious U.S. presidential campaign, but he remained suspicious of protesters' motives on a local level.

"They used that card to get in the door, and then to accomplish things that went well outside of the scope of what they were saying," Talley said of the incident.

The Tiger Town Observer is part of a conservative-libertarian coalition known as WeRoar. The group got its start before the Sikes sit-in, but it gained momentum as members critiqued the protest.

WeRoar has its own bones to pick with the administration, particularly with free-speech policies. Last fall, the group rallied to defend an evangelist after officials asked him to move his prayer station elsewhere on campus.

WeRoar also partnered with Turning Point USA, the national group that compiled a "Professor Watchlist" of instructors it deemed "leftist" and "un-American."

But WeRoar's biggest move was to host a lecture by Milo Yiannopoulos. In the name of free speech, it invited the far-right anti-Muslim polemicist to talk at Tillman Hall on Oct. 18. 

"They didn't see him as any flawless guy," said Professor David Woodard, who advises several conservative groups at Clemson. But he said the students were responding proportionately. "See the Stripes elevates? These guys are going to elevate. You know?"

This was a few months before Yiannopoulos' ill-fated speaking engagement at the University of California-Berkeley, where students lit fires and smashed windows to force its cancellation. At Clemson, Yiannopoulos addressed about 800 while draped in a plush white bathrobe, taunting unseen protesters who he said wanted to pelt him with eggs and paint.

None did. Yiannopoulos left spotless.

Tillman's ghost

Student protests cropped back up after the November election. More than 200 joined a "March Against Silence" to Sikes Hall in February, pressing administrators to rebuke U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration and travel ban after it prevented an Iranian-born graduate student from returning to Clemson. Some students from the Sikes sit-in were down in front.

As for the sit-in's original goals, some remain unaccomplished.

They demanded the renaming of Tillman Hall, named after the former governor who helped found the school. "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman was a lifelong white supremacist who led at least one massacre during Reconstruction, ordered the assassination of a black state lawmaker and laid the foundation for South Carolina's segregation laws.

The Board of Trustees refused to change the name. But when Clemson's newly elected student body president and vice president ran on a progressive platform this spring, one small piece reflected the Sikes sit-in: "Explore options for (Tillman Hall's) renaming."

Carson is leaving Clemson after successfully defending his dissertation, a hip-hop album titled “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions." The university put out a press release in February highlighting how he was not a "typical Ph.D. candidate." It mentioned his activism, but not his arrest at Sikes Hall.

"There are people that I see because I saw them out there at Sikes, and we're going to always have that," Carson said. "That's the positive that I'm taking. It's not anything that the university did or the administration did, because frankly they did very little."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or

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