During the Clinton administration, students called for greater recognition for black and LGBTQ civil rights

Justin Atkinson

The continuation of civil rights issues on campus during Bill Clinton’s tenure as president revolved around the struggle to memorialize two key figures within the black community, and included new conversations about LGBTQ rights. 

The Malcolm X Lounge, located in Jester Center, started out in the late 1980s as an informal space where black students could socialize, study or just play music. Choquette Hamilton, associate director of development for the department of African and African diaspora studies, said there were difficulties in maintaining the space for black students.

“It just so happened that a resident assistant’s dorm was adjacent to this area, and she made a lot of complaints about noise,” Hamilton said. “In spring 1993, it was converted into a general study lounge, so it was taken away from black students, and that led to protests and sit-ins at the lounge. Even though there were protests, students felt that the ‘power of the pen’ was needed to make change happen. Students joined The Daily Texan, and they started writing articles and publicizing the wrong they felt was being done to them.”

Linguistics professor Ian Hancock, who served as mentor to minority students during the ’90s, said he saw the frustrations of African-American students in the 12-year effort to fund and build the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. — completed in 1999 — that currently sits on the East Mall.

“The efforts to build the statue started with a small group that formed a corps, and then positioned for support within the black community, and then went to the administration,” Hancock said. “There were some questions about whether the focus should be on not what’s happening on the inside, like asking for statues and so on, but on what the University itself is doing to make students feel welcome and part of the UT community.”Hancock said he heard stories of black students being oppressed by faculty in ways that would not happen in present day.

“I can remember there was a student who wanted to do her doctorate on an African language — it was on Swahili — and she was told by her adviser not to deal with that and to pick a European language. The student was mortified by this,” Hancock said. “Those were the sorts of things where in the past, minority studies weren’t seen as equal to Western-oriented studies, and they weren’t as valued.”

Another prominent civil rights issue during the Clinton years was an increased focus on discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Students on campus strongly reacted to these national stories of hate crimes, said Shane Whalley, education coordinator at the University’s Gender and Sexuality Center.

“One of the things happening in Austin during the ’90s was the effort for the hate crime bill to be passed in Texas, and it was only passed after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd were murdered,” Whalley said. “There was no way you could say James Byrd wasn’t murdered because he was black or that Matthew Shepard wasn’t murdered because he was gay, and I would say a lot of college campuses — UT included — had rallies and people coming to speak in response to these national stories. The ’90s were this time of a groundswell of conversation about civil rights in a different way than it had been talked about before.”