Gainesville, FL - On Sept. 25, over a dozen Gainesville and Tallahassee activists packed the room during a University of Florida (UF) Student Senate meeting. The Dream Defenders were there to support a non-binding referendum calling for a name change of the Reitz Student Union. Students will have a chance to reject the current building’s name, which commemorates known racist and homophobe John Wayne Reitz, in favor of one that commemorates Virgil Hawkins. Hawkins was a Black civil rights leader who gained renown for his successful desegregation campaigns at Florida university campuses.
During the 1950s and 1960s, former University of Florida President John Wayne Reitz gained notoriety for his administration's purges of gay and leftist employees and students. He also resisted racial integration and the admission of African-American students. His administration turned away as many as 85 African-American students. Among them was Virgil Hawkins, who fought to desegregate the University of Florida and finally succeeded in 1964.
In celebration of Virgil Hawkins' achievements, University of Florida students obtained the necessary 500 signatures to put a non-binding referendum to rename the student union on this semester's ballot. In a blocking motion, white members of Greek fraternities and sororities in the UF student government deemed the petition unconstitutional because it was proposed by one of its own student senators. The student senator proposing the referendum is African-American. The UF campus Supreme Court overturned the student government decision and the referendum is now going forward.
Gainesville Dream Defender Nailah Summers gave this sobering explanation for student government's efforts to block the referendum: "The Reitz family is still donating huge amounts of money to the university, so they are pressuring student government to block the name change referendum. The student government doesn't care about justice, racism or the time that Reitz said that 'homosexuals are an aberration.' They are elected because of their money, to protect their money, and to protect UF administrators' money, no matter who pays the price."
During the Sept. 25 Senate meeting, activists from the Tallahassee Dream Defenders and the newly formed Gainesville Dream Defenders held up signs that voiced the anger and outrage felt by thousands of African-American, Latino and LGBTQ University of Florida students. "The Reitz Union does not represent us," one sign read, while another declared, "If Reitz were still around, he wouldn't want us here!"
This student government controversy occurs in the wake of a hate crime performed on Sept. 11, when the word "faggot" was keyed into the car of an openly gay UF professor. The LGBTQ community at UF, represented by Pride Student Union and Queer People of Color, held a rally Sept. 20 in order to protest the resounding lack of investigation. The concern of students feeling unsafe on their own campus came up repeatedly in speeches made by the Dream Defenders during public debate.
The Dream Defenders packing the meeting room demanded that senators vote for the name change to honor Virgil Hawkins. The Dream Defenders campaign against racism and national oppression on campus and in U.S. society. They demand an end to mass incarcerations, the growing number of deportations and the rigged education system that favors culturally white private schools.
"There are civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Virgil Hawkins who fought for our freedoms," said Michael Sampson from the Tallahassee Dream Defender chapter, "and they deserve the honor of having UF's most important building named after them, instead of a rich man who fought to keep members of the black, brown and LGBTQ communities in America's underclass. If we would still rather celebrate racists instead of leaders of the Black Power movement, then we as a nation have not changed."