UK students, leaders decry effigy of Obama

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comOctober 29, 2008 

Hundreds of students and several Democratic officials expressed outrage and embarrassment Wednesday after an effigy of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was found hanging from a tree early Wednesday on the University of Kentucky campus.

The racist act was emphatically rejected by hundreds of students and community leaders attending a quickly-called campus forum to discuss racial issues Wednesday evening.

"Our time at this university is too short to sit idly by and allow these things to continue," said Tyler Montell, president of UK's student government association. "This is not a concern of any single race. Today, every student is a victim. Every member of our student body must now become part of a greater change."

Meanwhile, UK police and the Secret Service are asking for the public's help in finding who hung the effigy — which wore an Obama mask and had a noose around its neck — in a tree near the Rose Street parking garage.

The effigy was found shortly after 7:30 a.m. and was down before 9 a.m.

UK President Lee Todd called the racially-charged display "deplorable" and said he was embarrassed for the university, which has tried to increase its black student population in recent years.

"I know this is not a reflection of this institution," Todd said of the incident.

Democrats from Gov. Steve Beshear to Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry decried the effigy on Wednesday and apologized to Obama.

"This was not political speech," Beshear said. "It was simply hate. It was profoundly wrong and deeply offensive. This incident does not reflect who we are as a flagship institution of higher learning or a Commonwealth."

Newberry released a letter late Wednesday addressed to Obama that apologized on behalf of the citizens of Lexington for the act.

"I apologize to you, your family and your supporters," Newberry wrote in the letter.

A representative from Obama's campaign could not be reached for comment.

Some said they weren't surprised by Wednesday's incident, including Urban League President and CEO P.G. Peeples.

Peeples pointed to a recent Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll in which 12 percent of respondents said they are less likely to vote for Obama because he would be the first black president. Only five percent said Obama's skin color made them more likely to vote for him while 83 percent said Obama's race didn't affect their vote.

Overall, Obama, who is the child of a white mother and black father, trails McCain in Kentucky by 16 points, 55 percent to 39 percent, the poll found.

Peeples said recent Republican rallies for McCain and vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin have become raucous, leading some in the black community to say the rallies have become too racially charged.

"It's a terribly bad reflection on this state," Peeples said. "My first reaction was 'How pathetic.' It is an embarrassment to our state."

Kentucky Republican Party leaders could not be reached for comment. At the forum Wednesday night, Jacob Simms, president of the UK College Republicans, called the effigy "cowardly" and "disgraceful."

"I come to you not as a Republican, but as an outraged student of the University of Kentucky," Simms said.

Todd pledged to find the culprit in a written e-mail he sent to the campus just after noon.

"Such acts will not be tolerated. Those found responsible will be subject to the full force of university, state, and federal rules and regulations," Todd said.

Todd said he received an e-mail from a professor who saw the effigy while he was riding his bike to campus shortly after 7:30 a.m. The professor had called police and then sent the message to Todd, he said.

Few people saw the effigy before it was taken down by campus police after 8:30 a.m.

Mike Lynch, who works nearby at the Kentucky Geological Survey, said the effigy had an Obama mask, a sport coat and a pair of sweat pants. There was a noose around it's neck, Lynch said. The clothes were hung on a hanger.

Lynch and others at UK said they were horrified that someone had done this on UK's campus.

"There is little doubt that it was Obama," Lynch said. "I am deeply offended."

Word of the early-morning incident slowly reached students, but by 1 p.m. many had heard about it.

Antonio Dixon was walking out of UK's Student Center when he heard the news from another student. The black freshman from Lexington said he hoped that it was a prank.

"It's terrible," Dixon said, shaking his head. "You've got a lot of people who do that kind of stuff just to get attention. It's just not right. I think with Halloween coming... I hope it was a prank."

John Ghaelian, Lisa Steelman, Justin Lamb and Sean Taylor were recruiting people to vote for Obama outside the main dining room at the student center on Wednesday. They heard about the effigy from a staff person earlier that morning.

"It just reinforces people's stereotypes about Kentucky," said Lamb, 19, a sophomore from Crab Orchard.

The effigy is not representative of the response they have gotten on campus, where many actively support Obama, they said.

"But there is an element here that would not vote for a black man," said Taylor, a junior from St. Louis.

The students said the university should do more to address racial problems on campus. Too often, they feel like the university brushes racial problems under the rug, they said.

The effigy at UK comes about a year after two racially charged incidents sparked student protests on campus.

First, the student paper published a cartoon that showed a black student, bare-chested and chained, being auctioned off among three fictional fraternities: Aryan Omega, Kappa Kappa Kappa and Alpha Caucasian.

Then, as the furor over that started to settle, a student elected as "Mr. Black University of Kentucky" found his residence hall door vandalized with the message: "Die," followed by a racial slur.

UK has struggled to increase diversity on its campus in recent years. This fall, a record number of black students were in its freshman class with 341 black students out of 4,044 students.

In total, the number of black students has increased over the past four years from 1,407 to 1,628 on the campus of 26,901, according to figures the university released Wednesday.

Police said they were following all leads in the case Wednesday.

Vice President for Public Safety and former Lexington Police Chief Anthany Beatty said police were trying to determine if any video cameras on campus captured images from the area.

Beatty said they had no suspects. It's difficult to say what type of charges the culprits may face until police can interview whoever did it, he said.

Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, confirmed that the federal agency charged with protecting presidents and presidential candidates had been notified and were working with UK police to determine who was responsible.

"We take any threat against any of our protectees very seriously," Donovan said.

It's the second time an effigy has been found on a college campus recently. Last month, George Fox University in Oregon, a small Christian college, punished four students who confessed to hanging a likeness of Obama from a tree.

That effigy was found in September with a message taped to it — "Act Six reject." The message was targeted at participants of a scholarship program geared toward increasing the number of minority and low-income students and several Christian colleges, mostly in the Northwest.

In West Hollywood, Calif., authorities on Wednesday were looking into a Halloween display depicting a mannequin of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin hanging from a noose. The display also displayed her running mate, John McCain, surrounded by fake flames.

Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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