As Biden administration responds to HBCU bomb threats, Black leaders decry ‘domestic terrorism’

EXCLUSIVE: “We know that Dr. King's home was bombed. We know that the home of Fred Shuttlesworth was bombed. This is a trend and it's a practice of intimidation."

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Black leaders are calling the recent series of bomb threats against several Historically Black College and University (HBCU) campuses “terrorism.” There have been threats to several HBCUs so far this month, many of which occurred only in the past two days.

Howard University is a federally chartered, private, coeducational, nonsectarian, historically black university (HBCU) on April 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The matter is so alarming that civil rights lawyer and attorney for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, Lee Merritt, who is also a graduate of Morehouse College, told theGrio that he believes the Biden administration should form a task force to get to the bottom of the threats.

“The DOJ [Department of Justice], DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and US Attorney Generals office must form a task force specifically designed to identify the source of these ongoing bomb threats and bring the perpetrators to justice. We need action now,” Merritt told theGrio.

As the news of the HBCU bomb threats over the past two days was making headlines, in the White House briefing on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told theGrio, “We take these threats incredibly seriously. Our Homeland Security adviser is in close touch with law enforcement authorities at a federal and local level, and we are assessing what we think the origin, the reasoning, the motivation behind it is.”

The Biden administration affirmed its continued support for HBCUs in this moment that is being characterized by leaders as domestic terrorism. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki answers questions during the daily White House briefing on February 01, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“We are absolutely behind these HBCUs. We want to make it very clear that we take these threats seriously and we deeply value their contributions. But it’s important for law enforcement authorities and others to make an assessment before we make any determinations about next steps,” said the presidential spokesperson.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) plans to engage with the Department of Justice on actions to be taken to address the threat of danger against HBCUs. Meanwhile, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are investigating the matter. 

“ATF is aware of bomb threats received by some Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We take all potential threats seriously and we regularly work with our law enforcement partners to determine the threat credibility,” ATF said in a statement. “This is a fluid situation with ongoing investigations, and we can’t comment on the specifics at this time.”

One of the HBCUs that has been targeted is Delaware State University, which hits close to home for the White House. The president of the university, Tony Allen, happens to be the current board chair of the White House Initiative on HBCUs. Howard University, the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, also received several threats.

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 08: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) takes the stage at the Louis Stokes Library on the campus of her alma mater Howard University on July 08, 2021 in Washington, DC. Organized by the Democratic National Committee, the event focused on voting rights. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The recent escalation in the number of bomb threats against the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities is receiving strong reaction from prominent alum, particularly as the moment comes during Black History Month.

Merritt told theGrio that he doesn’t believe this is a coincidence. “There is a clear pattern emerging of HBCUs being targeted for terroristic threats,” he said, warning, “We cannot wait until one of the threatened bombings occur.”

As of now, there doesn’t appear to be any particular pattern of which HBCUs are being targeted versus others. For example, Xavier University in New Orleans recieved a bomb threat while neighboring Dillard University did not. 

Dillard’s president Walter Kimbrough told theGrio that “the recent bomb threats highlight what we have learned painfully over the past year, increasing levels of tension and opposition to anything that is Black.  

He added, “History has taught us that these tactics will not deter our progress, and we can learn a great deal from that history, be inspired, and find courage to press on.”

These threats are an act of “intimidation” due to “racial polarization,” said Noelle Trent, a Howard alum who is also a director at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.  

Trent recalled the ugly history of bombings targeting Black people – one of the most infamous being the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing just weeks after the March on Washington. Four little Black girls were killed in that attack. Birmingham was a hotbed of bombings over the years as it garnered the name “Bomingham,” noted Trent.

Men search through the ruins of building burned during a fire in Birmingham, Alabama sparked by racial tension.

“We know that Dr. King’s home was bombed. We know that the home of Fred Shuttlesworth was bombed. This is a trend and it’s a practice of intimidation,” Trent told theGrio

“And so as there are successes, as people are standing up for their civil rights and their human rights, one of the acts of aggression and intimidation by white supremacists and white nationalists is to bomb not only people’s homes, but their institutions.”

The irony in this moment is that many of the nation’s top leaders in government and beyond are HBCU graduates. 

In addition to Vice President Harris being a graduate of Howard in Washington, D.C., senior advisor to President Joe Biden, Cedric Richmond, attended Morehouse College, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn attended South Carolina State University, U.S. Congresswoman and CBC Chair Joyce Beatty attended Central State University, and Chair of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security Bennie Thompson attended Tougaloo University. 

White House Press Secretary Psaki said, “I would not call it irony, but I would say that it is scary. It is horrifying. It is terrible that these students, these faculty, these institutions are feeling under threat.”

She added, “We don’t know more details at this point in time, and I don’t want to get ahead of law enforcement authorities … but certainly, given the history you referenced, you know, this is something we’re very mindful of, and that is why we’re so focused on providing regular updates and seeing what our law enforcement team assesses.”

BALTIMORE, MD – DECEMBER 30: Morgan State University is a public historically black research university in Baltimore. (Photo by Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post via Getty Images)

One HBCU president who has been connected to the White House for many years, and wished not to be identified due to the continued threats, reflected on this moment stating, “It’s so unfortunate that such a sickness would occur on the first day of Black History Month. These heinous actions work to underscore the monumental impact African Americans have made to our country during this celebration of Black achievement and excellence. It’s parallel to an act of terrorism. But we will still honor those leaders and history makers who paved the way for many of us.”

No matter the threats, after first responders gave the “all clear,” some of the HBCUs went on with their scheduled classes — a sign that they will not be deterred by recent threats.

“What people don’t realize is that HBCUs are powerful entities and these are beloved institutions that exist beyond the homecoming and the marching bands. They have produced civil servants who have served at every level of government including the Supreme Court and the vice president of the United States,” said Trent of the National Civil Rights Museum, adding “They have served in corporations, they have served in nonprofits, they have served in the military. They’re in every field, nationally, internationally because they bring a different perspective because they challenge what people think. They challenge white supremacist thinking. 

Trent emphasized, “They are the only Black voices in the room. And the easiest way to try to destroy that, to try to take our community and our culture down is to destroy our institutions.”

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