A Metro article yesterday and one in Wednesday's Prince George's Extra incorrectly reported that Juliana Njoku was the first black president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland at College Park. University spokeswoman Tia Mason said Njoku is "the first African" to hold that post. (Published 11/19/99)
Thousands of University of Maryland students turned out yesterday for an emotional rally against bigotry as police continued to investigate several racist threats of violence sent to black student leaders and officials at the College Park campus.
"We need to work together to stamp out this cancer that has invaded this community," university President C.D. Mote Jr. told the cheering, sign-waving crowd, which represented nearly every ethnic group at the state system's diverse flagship university.
University officials said the vulgar mailings were the most brazen racial offense in years at a school generally known for peaceful race relations, and they vowed to apprehend the author. The rally, they said, was meant to show support for the victims and condemn hatred.
Yet many students interviewed on campus questioned the decision to hold a rally, which they feared would exacerbate tensions and flatter the culprit.
"Whoever wrote the letter is expecting attention, and campus leaders are playing right into his hands," said Paul Kim, 19, of Silver Spring, an architecture student of Asian descent.
Three typed letters filled with racial slurs and threats of violence arrived through university mail on Tuesday in the mailboxes of the Afro-American studies department, a student officer of the Black Student Union, and Student Government Association President Juliana Njoku, who is Nigerian.
A fourth, longer letter was sent to the office of the Black Student Union, a social and political organization that advocates for black students.
"No marchs, no rally's, and no sit-in will prevent the coming of judgement day," read part of the letter, which was filled with misspellings. "You will all die by the hands of the judge and jury."
About a dozen hate crimes have been investigated on campus this year, slightly more than in previous years, school officials said. In one recent incident that prompted a community meeting last week, the editor of a black student newspaper on campus reported receiving threatening e-mails.
But it was Tuesday's mailing that motivated university officials to speak out publicly, since it was aimed at several people and "the nature of the language was much more severe than anything we've seen," said campus spokesman George Cathcart.
Campus police have offered round-the-clock protection to the recipients of the letters, and are providing some student leaders with cellular phones for their safety.
State police are using forensic technology to try to trace the author or authors of the letters. Campus officials are also consulting with the FBI, which monitors hate crimes, and the Justice Department, which prosecutes cases of civil rights abuses.
Students and officials of many races spoke at the rally. Njoku, the first black student elected president of the student council, delivered a fiery speech aimed at the unknown author: "Your ignorant manifesto has only inspired the leadership on this campus."
Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) called the incident "a frightening flashback to an era that I thought was gone." He added $5,000 to the $4,500 pool of reward money posted by university officials for information leading to an arrest.
Many of the estimated 2,000 students in attendance at the amphitheater near Stamp Student Union were energized by the rally. "As a member of the Muslim Students Association, I was outraged by what happened," said Syed Zeyad, a senior physiology major. "It was great that there were great numbers that showed up for support."
Yet some Black Student Union leaders privately questioned whether the rally might simply give the letter writer the attention he or she wants. Other students said they believed the author posed no real threat.
The campus of about 33,000 students is about 60 percent white, 12.7 percent black and 11.7 percent Asian, according to data from the University System of Maryland. About 4 percent of the student body is Hispanic, and more than 11 percent of the students are categorized as "foreign" or "unknown."
"I have been here for a long time, and these kind of things [the threats of violence] never materialize," said Tom Beigel, 25, a white graduate engineering student.
"My guess," said Forest Gwynn, 24, a history major who is black, "is this whole thing is being blown out of proportion."
CAPTION: University of Maryland students cheer student government speakers Camille Adams and Juliana Njoku during a rally on the College Park campus.
CAPTION: Roberta Coates, staff ombudsman in the president's office at the University of Maryland, listens during the rally.
CAPTION: University of Maryland student government leaders Camille Adams, left, and Juliana Njoku, seated at right, receive support from friends and faculty after speaking at the rally. They and others have been critical of the university's handling of racial tensions on campus.
CAPTION: University of Maryland campus police Lt. Paul Dillon fights back tears after Adams singled him out for his help to her and other students after they received threatening letters.