As part of the 50th anniversary celebration for ABLE—Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality—three of the organization's founders returned to the Knox College campus to reflect on their time as students and activists. Brenda Butler '71, Jeanne Franks '71, and Semenya McCord '71 participated in the panel discussion "We Started Something" on February 22.
"We wanted something that belonged to us, that recognized us," Franks said, explaining the key reason for ABLE's founding. "ABLE was a response to something that was lacking in our college experience."
ABLE was created in 1968 to promote cultural awareness in the Knox and Galesburg communities by raising issues that impact people of African descent, and to serve as an added support service for Knox's diverse student body.
"We felt empowered and really needed to do it," Franks said.
Butler added, "I would like to think that Knox is a better place now because of it."
The women agreed that 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the Vietnam War raged, was a pivotal year. King's murder, in particular, was a defining moment for them.
McCord said she remembered taking a list of demands to the administration, and that the students were very serious about them. Among the demands: more black faculty members and a counselor for black students.
The ABLE name itself is very "Knox," McCord said, noting that similar organizations at other schools typically are called black student unions.
During a question-and-answer session, the three women were asked what they'd say to today's students about the sense of isolation they may feel.
"Do not let it limit your experience," Franks said. "The isolation—you have to fight it." She added that students need to take advantage of the opportunities that Knox provides, because they may not be available again.
The women also were asked to offer advice for black students who feel the need for a stronger connection with other black students and faculty, or who feel out of place on campus.
"Sometimes you just have to make things happen," said Butler, who encouraged students to work with academic advisors and to keep in mind that professors are "just people."
McCord urged students to "speak up" and "make yourself heard when there is something you need."
Franks pointed out that Knox students are trained to write and think and speak well. "Take the skills that you have, and use them to solve your problem," she said.
Students who attended the event said they appreciated hearing from Butler, Franks, and McCord.
Francesca Downs '19 said she was excited to meet them because they helped change the course of Knox history. "I definitely got that I'm not alone in my struggles being a black woman at Knox and that the struggle has been going on for 50-plus years," she added. "I feel very empowered and inspired to bring a lot of change not only to the campus, but to the nation and the whole world."
ABLE Co-President Niky Washington '20 said she couldn't pass up the opportunity to hear from the organization's founders.
"I want to make sure I'm continuing that legacy and also adding to it," Washington said. "I want to try to go above and beyond. Whatever I can contribute, that's what I want to do."