It was a Monday when the Class of 2019’s group chat exploded.
Seniors at Spelman College had just gotten news concerning their rapidly approaching graduation. The college president, Mary Schmidt Campbell, announced that Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta, would serve as the commencement speaker at her hometown historically Black women’s college. She would also receive the National Community Service Award at the ceremony.
The bar was set high in recent memory with both Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey as back-to-back commencement speakers in 2011 and 2012 respectively. The students voted on a list of approved speakers, signaling a high-profile woman—the likes of Angela Bassett, Angela Davis, Kamala Harris, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes or Viola Davis—might speak.
On the surface, Bottoms is the perfect choice as a young and stylish Black woman beloved by pop culture, a fellow HBCU alumna, and a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. In her mayoral acceptance speech, she said she wanted to serve as a reminder that Black Girl Magic is real “for all the little girls out there who need somebody to believe you’re better than your circumstances.”
But for Spelman seniors, this situation has much deeper tentacles.
“Keisha may be inspiring little Black girls to run for mayor… But the material reality is that as she’s inspiring those girls, she’s conspiring with the developers and big-money people who want to push her out of her neighborhood.”
Spelman senior Eva Dickerson, best known on campus for her activism and as 2018-2019 Miss Spelman College, felt this invitation affronted students who have taken a stance in direct opposition to the mayor’s controversial policies on housing, development, and policing.
“To hear that Keisha Bottoms was going to be at our commencement, it felt like just the most cruel irony,” Dickerson said in an interview. “Keisha may be inspiring little Black girls to run for mayor, which is beautiful and important, and representation absolutely matters. But the material reality is that as she’s inspiring those girls, she’s conspiring with the developers and big-money people who want to push her out of her neighborhood.”
Dickerson acknowledged actions such as Bottoms’ campaign promise to “raise and commit” $1 billion to “produce and preserve” 20,000 affordable housing units in the city by 2026. The outspoken Spelman senior commended efforts like the mayor’s recent allocation of $60 million toward affordable housing projects. However, as the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports, this money is actually part of annual funding the Atlanta Housing Authority receives from the federal government, not “new,” funds as apress release from Bottoms’ office describes it. To that end, Bottoms is only making surface-level strides.
It is precisely this type of framing from the mayor that peeves so many Spelman students.
Bottoms has served in all three branches of Atlanta’s municipal government. She was a councilwoman for the entirety of Kasim Reed’s tenure as Mayor of Atlanta—an era that will be remembered for bribery and corruption scandals. Bottoms worked closely with Reed and was viewed as the leader of his “nod squad”––council members who seemed to do his bidding. Reed was recently announced as the 2019commencement speaker at Howard University, his alma mater in Washington D.C.
As a city councilwoman in 2012, Bottoms was one of 14 members tounanimously support criminalizing panhandling. The new law put anyone who solicits money from someone within 15 feet of a building’s doors or in line to enter a building at risk for up to 30 days of community service on a first offense. A second conviction would result in a mandatory month in jail, and any future incidents merit 90 days in jail.
“This is not a heartless piece of legislation,” said then-Councilwoman Bottoms when the law passed.
Among Spelman seniors, there was also talk of the poor treatment of the homeless, including arrests and removal, leading up to the 2019 Super Bowl. The iconic event took place in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium—a looming reminder of the rapid gentrification in the area under Spelman.
Old buildings were demolished as new businesses sprung up at breakneck speed in the years leading up to the 2019 Super Bowl held in Atlanta. In order to build the galactic $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, developers bought and razed two historic black churches, erasing the site where Spelman was founded and where Morehouse College was located for several years. Both colleges were founded in the in the 1800s to educate freed Black people, and both held classes in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church.
The West End, the historic neighborhood cradling Spelman and the Atlanta University Center, has streets that are named for the activists who worked with and mentored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse College alumnus. But thanks to Atlanta’s developer-friendly policies, the landscape changes every day. Remodeled “bungalows” now go for hundreds of dollars a night on Airbnb.
Most recently, The West End Mall, a cherished staple to students and the community at large, is under siege. The humble mall contains Black businesses of all sorts: A Greek-life paraphernalia shop, a clothing shop that is essentially a brick-and-mortar Fashion Nova predating the online shopping era, and an American Deli. A Black and white developer duo through Elevator City Partners has plans to demolish the mall and build in its place a $300 million mixed-use edifice. The company’s tagline is “Elevate. Everyone,” but their project will most certainly outprice most living in the neighborhood where the median income is $25,000. Spelman’s President Campbellstrongly supports the initiative.
As Dickerson’s classmates expressed outrage on social media, she and a group of about six other seniors got organized. They rolled out a#NotKeisha infographic outlining the specific reasons why the mayor was a poor choice.
“It’s not just about Mac’n’cheese, 2019,” the opening line reads, referencing the mayor’s photo of her Christmas Day dish that went viral because, as The Root describes, it “looked like someone melted a few slices of Kraft Singles over a box of Cap’n Crunch.”
The graphic bemoaned city policy that requirespermits to feed the homeless, a popular community service activity for students on the three campuses in the AUC. The graphic claims students have been arrested for this now-banned practice. It also calls out Mayor Bottoms for voting to close the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, the largest in the city, with no plan for the vulnerable thereafter.
“Honestly and truly if you can look over the wrongdoings of someone just because of ‘Black girl magic,’ Spelman College has failed you,” wrote @seizethade on Twitter.
There is also a Change.Org petition with a growing number of signatures asking for Bottoms to be removed as commencement speaker.
With all of that, the students had gotten the administration’s attention.
Toeing––or crossing––the Spelman line
As is the Spelman way, Clarissa Brooks dovetails her on-campus involvement with serving the Atlanta communities beyond the iron gates that encircle the school’s manicured lawns. After teaming up with Dickerson and other students on the #NotKeisha protest, she soon found herself in a meeting with Campbell and other college officials.
According to Brooks, administrators related concerns from Bottoms’ office, detailing feelings of embarrassment on both sides in the wake of the backlash. Despite repeated requests for comment, Spelman College did not offer a statement at press time.
A Bottoms spokesperson sent Scalawag the following: “The Mayor is honored to deliver the commencement address and equally proud that the legacy of student engagement and activism remains vibrant at Spelman College.”
For Brooks, this is less about feelings and more about holding a public official accountable for what she claims to do versus what she’s actually done in office. Lately, Brooks has been organizing around justice for the death of fellow activist Oscar Cain, who was shot and killed by police during a foot chase in April. In an interview, Brooks drilled home that she did not want a commencement speaker who has poured$10 million into the Atlanta Police Department while also, in Brooks’ eyes, failing to properly address the mounting officer-involved shooting crisis within city limits—26 this year alone.
Some alumnae catching onto the #NotKeisha protest have all but told current students to sit down and shut up.
Brooks and the other students came into the initial meeting with Spelman administrators offering a solution, understanding that the college, ever image-conscious, would not be quick to sign up for the media frenzy that would ensue around rescinding the offer. So, they suggested Sonia Sanchez become the speaker. She is a poet, playwright, professor, activist and one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies movement, who will receive the Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree at commencementthat same day.
But at a town hall meeting for the seniors on May 1, Campbell announced Mayor Bottoms would not be swapped out, not even for Sanchez.
Spelman has produced generations of fierce advocates, from Stacey Abrams to Marian Wright Edelman to Pearl Cleage. And then there are the Alice Walkers, who arrive excited to be nurtured and leave daunted by the ruling respectability politics. Walker transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in the ‘60s.
“I’ve grown so much, but the growth that I have from this space is really trauma and really strife and pain of trying to get through it even when it feels like your school is very much actively against you,” Brooks said. “That’s a lot to process, and a lot to be aware of.”
The school’s tagline, “A choice to change the world,” might work best with an asterisk disclaiming that Spelman is seemingly exempt from that worldly change. Some alumnae catching onto the #NotKeisha protest have all but told current students to sit down and shut up. They had to sit through boring commencement speakers, why couldn’t they simply endure Bottoms at theirs?
Spelman can be like a strict mother, wanting the best and providing the tools for those within her gates to excel, while expecting no deviant behavior in return—not in her house. Big sisters carry that torch too.
Brooks knows this wrath well.
In a December 2017essay for Teen Vogue, Brooks wrote about how HBCUs can make it hard for sexual assault survivors to speak up, drawing on her experiences with how Spelman and Morehouse have handled such issues.
A week after the piece published, Brooksannounced that Spelman reached out to Teen Vogue to try to get the article removed, and she had to subsequently make edits and append a statement from the college to the end of the article. This was particularly astonishing given that while writing the article, Brooks said she reached out to the school’s Title IX director and received no response.
“I’m noting that Spelman loves to praise Black Girl Magic but can’t handle critic,” Brooks wrote on twitter. “They don’t want to make actionable changes that are actually changing the culture of sexual violence that are more than task forces, panels and events barely reach the student body.”
Brooks said that at the May 1 town hall, administrators refused to pass her the mic to speak. But a classmate behind Brooks asked for the mic and handed it to her. She said that in addition to this act of solidarity, there were students speaking out who hadn’t challenged the administration before––an indication, in her view, that changes are underway at Spelman.
‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’
There has been a culture shift brewing at the college for years, Brooks said, pointing to Dickerson’s Miss Spelman coronation as proof. Dickerson––a Chaco-wearing, self-proclaimed “weirdo,” who identifies as that hippie, liberal college student registering people to vote and shaming peers for using plastic––won a title usually bestowed on students who conform to a more traditional image.
In Beyoncé’s blockbuster project “Homecoming,” she features a quote from Marian Wright Edelman, a Spelman alumna and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. It reads, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This premise is part of why Dickerson wanted to take a crack at the Miss Spelman College pageant in the first place.
“At the end of the day my goal to Spelman was to say thank you by doing service—because that is one thing Spelman does a really good job of training girls on,” Dickerson said in an interview.
“I wanted my service to campus to be, if a weird girl like Eva Dickerson can become Miss Spelman, then you all have a place here. You all belong at this school and every contribution you are making to make this space more safe to you, you’re making it more safe for the 10 girls that will follow behind you.”
First years with bright orange hair and onlooking students told Dickerson that seeing her pedaling her bike through campus, afro catching wind, made them feel included at Spelman.
Symbolism is simply the first step, it’s not an inherent cure-all, and within communities it can be sticky to navigate how to hold fellow marginalized people accountable.
“I think this moment is really going to catalyze Spelman and Keisha Lance Bottoms into a moment of: listen to your constituents and show up, or get embarrassed.”
Dickerson and Bottoms are sorority sisters navigating Atlanta in different spheres. Admittedly, Dickerson says not all of Bottoms’ initiatives have been bad: she banned gay conversion therapy in Atlanta and restrained ICE.
Dickerson told Scalawag that she participated in a private meeting where Bottoms and some Spelman alumnae from her staff conversed with students about the commencement controversy. Dickerson said it was nice to hear her speak in a more relaxed setting, but noted that the conversation focused on the process of choosing a speaker, rather than Bottoms’ policies.
Fundamentally, Dickerson believes that Black community issues, with sexual assault as the exception, are not to be dealt with under the white gaze. It’s why she says activists like herself have tried to hold the mayor accountable at council and community meetings, but nothing sticks.
Students want to send a distinct message, knowing that both the City of Atlanta and Spelman are sensitive to bad reputations.
“Spelman rescinding their offer to Keisha [would be] bad press, but worse press is students protesting her at their own commencement,” Dickerson said.
Neither Brooks nor Dickerson want to turn their graduation ceremony into the spectacle that was the 2017 commencement at Bethune-Cookman College, a historically Black college in Daytona Beach, Florida. Students turned their backs and booed the newly-appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during her remarks, and faculty lambasted the students and threatened to not hand out diplomas if they didn’t show respect.
“I think this moment is really going to catalyze Spelman and Keisha Lance Bottoms into a moment of: listen to your constituents and show up, or get embarrassed,” Brooks said. “I think those are really the only options in knowing that… they are going to save their face before they listen to students.”
It seems Brooks, Dickerson, and their classmates will persevere ever “undaunted by the fight,” as goes a quintessential line from the Spelman College hymn.