Former Black Panther and IU alumnus surprised with Bicentennial Medal

An IU alumnus and civil rights activist was awarded a Bicentennial Medal on Wednesday at a Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center lunch and learn event focused on student activism.  

Keith Parker, former assistant vice chancellor at the University of California, Los Angeles who was an IU student body president from 1970 to 1971 and member of the Black Panther Party, was awarded the medal. The panel's discussion focused on the activists' experiences and activism inspirations. 

“When I left IU they weren’t awarding me medals,” Parker said.  

Parker helped form the African Studies program. While student body president, he was investigated by the FBI as part of an effort to disrupt the Communist Party of the United States. The campaign was later expanded to investigate groups like the Black Panther Party and the Ku Klux Klan.

Parker's student government demanded the creation of ethnic studies programs, organized daycare centers for students that had children and food co-ops to try to lower the cost of food and created the Student Legal Services program.

IU Bicentennial Medals are awarded to individuals and organizations that have broadened IU’s reach through their professional, personal, artistic or philanthropic achievements, according to the IU Bicentennial website. They are made of bronze recovered from bells that used to be part of the Student Building. 

Parker said he first became involved with activism in 1954 when he began kindergarten. He and three girls were the first black students to attend the school he went to. This was the same year the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. 

“We had families that said 'I want your life to be better than mine,'” Parker said about his upbringing.

IU alumnus Leighton Johnson was also on the panel. Johnson was an IU student in the early 2010s and was the IU Student Association Chief of Diversity, Inclusion and Advocacy, according to a 2014 Indiana Daily Student article.

Both panel speakers said it’s important to recognize the people who helped create opportunities for them. The speakers said they would not be where they are if someone had not opened the door for them.

“We don’t live in a world by ourselves. We live in a world with other people — so we ought to care about other people,” Parker said.

Johnson said having “activist” on your resume won’t help you get many jobs. He said he eventually took it off of his resume but looks for work that will allow him to help people. 

“Be intentional about the work that you do,” Johnson said. 

Donte Miller moderated the event. He is a Ph.D. student working on a dissertation about contemporary student activism.

Mille said it was important to talk about history since the speakers were from different age demographics. It allowed students to see who came before them. He said in some cases, we are fighting for the same issues in a different context.

“The university is supposed to be a place of democracy where students can voice concerns,” Miller said.

Read the story from the IDS