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Former Black Panther and IU student body president reflects on time as undergrad


Keith Parker, pictured on the right, was the student body president of IU during the 1970-71 term. Parker was a member of the Black Panther Party.  IU Archives

During his time as student body president of Indiana University in 1970, Keith Parker was being investigated by the FBI.

Parker had been a target of COINTELPRO, a secret campaign by the bureau whose goal was to disrupt the Communist Party of the United States. 

The campaign later expanded to investigate other domestic groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panther Party. Parker was a member of the latter organization.

“The Panthers do not play,” an article in Bloomington’s underground student activist newspaper, the Spectator, said in 1968. “Their rhetoric and their actions are straight, hard and angry. They are not prone to intellectual jaw-oiling.”

Parker, who recently announced his retirement after 36 years of work at the University of California at Los Angeles, reflected on his time as an undergraduate during the Vietnam War.

He was a freshman at IU when Carol Jenkins, a young black woman selling encyclopedias door-to-door, was murdered with a screwdriver in Martinsville, Indiana.

He said he remembers seeing ads from the Noble Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in local newspapers welcoming IU students back to campus.

The windows of Parker's car were once shot out. He never found out who did it.

Parker remembers the head of the Bloomington chapter of the Klan at the time being employed as a truck driver by the University.

When he came to Bloomington in 2010 to meet some friends for dinner, Parker said they were surprised when he did not know where the restaurant they were going to was located.

“It’s on the other side of the town square, and when I was a student here we didn’t go into that part of Bloomington,” he said. “The townspeople would not only fight with black students, they’d fight with white students who they thought were long-haired hippies.”

On December 2, 1970, the Indiana Daily Student ran an editorial titled ‘Betraying the people’ focusing on Parker’s plans to travel to North Vietnam on a trip arranged by National Student Association and equivalent group in Vietnam.

Parker would travel to Hanoi before the end of the Vietnam War.

The editorial worried that the North Vietnamese would use the ‘people’s peace treaty,’ the document being drafted by the students on the trip, as propaganda to display the dissatisfaction of American students with the war. 

The trip created backlash from all arms of the University.

“I protest that any student who displays such an immature lack of good taste and judgement is allowed to continue studies at Indiana University and is not suspended or barred altogether,” IU alumnus Thomas Willman wrote to the University’s then-president Joseph Sutton.

Parker said the trip was an incredible experience.

“I think the mistake was, the North Vietnamese were Vietnamese, and this wasn’t a war about communism, it was a war about self-determination for the country of Vietnam,” he said. “The people of Vietnam were not going to let anyone but the Vietnamese run their country.”

Beyond political activism, Parker’s student government was also focused on student welfare issues.

They 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.

In an event Wednesday titled ‘Catching up to our legacy: the Black Panther Party’s impact on non-black groups domestically and abroad,’ Professor Jakobi Williams said welfare programs like these are the true legacy of the Panthers.

“The Panthers spent eight hours at school, eight hours helping the community, and didn’t have any time left to hate white people,” he said.

“When you are young, at that age in college, everything is new, and it feels more intense to you because you’ve not experienced it before," Parker said. "When I think about that time, I think that it was a very intense and challenging time. It was a time that you had to stand up on issues.”

Parker is still in contact with his vice president, Mike King. He calls him a lifelong friend.

Though Parker left the Black Panther Party in around 1972, he remained politically active. He calls the Black Panther Party the grandfather of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Just as I was anti-Richard Nixon and a lot of his policies, I am 10 times more anti-Donald Trump and his policies,” Parker said. “Age hasn’t softened those viewpoints.”

He said there was one thing he would have done differently: he would not have expected IU's president to make changes as monumental as the ones he wanted.

“We were hell-raisers, and I think we raised the right kind of hell,” Parker said.

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