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Op-ed

University of Maryland’s Collins Plaza a reminder that tolerance is not enough; we must embrace one another | GUEST COMMENTARY

Five years ago on Friday, Lt. Richard Collins III, a young Black man, was killed at a bus stop on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland. His murderer was a man with white supremacist ties, who demanded Richard step aside and then stabbed him to death when Richard refused.

Lt. Collins was the best of America. He was a leader and a student athlete; he was kind and compassionate and had a deep desire to serve his country. He was poised for a life full of promise. Just two days before he was killed, Richard was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the United States Army. To lose him days before his graduation from Bowie State University has been, and continues to be, a quiet agony for those of us who loved him. While he was exceptional, the circumstances of his death are tragically common.

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White supremacist violence has claimed Black lives across America. Just days ago, a man fueled by bigotry and hate walked into a grocery store in Buffalo determined to murder Black people. The same white supremacist ideology that drove that man to plan and kill 10 people is the same ideology that claimed the lives of men like Richard, Ahmaud Arbery, James Byrd Jr. and Emmett Till. It also claimed the life of Richard’s grandfather, Richard Collins Sr., who was gunned down by a white man — a man who was never prosecuted for his crime. The pain inflicted by white supremacist violence spans not only the long history of this country but generations of families as well.

Nothing can come close to filling the hole Richard’s murder left in our community. His loss shattered our lives and sent a message that reverberated across the country. Challenging white supremacy, especially when you are Black, can have deadly consequences. As Black parents, we know we must think twice before encouraging our kids to take a bus, go outside for a run, drive to the grocery store or walk home late at night. This is the unique and chilling nature of hate crimes: They leave scars on entire communities for generations and make it difficult to feel like an equal participant in our democracy.

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Yet, even as we still reel from our collective loss, we must ensure that the stories of those lost to racist violence, people like Richard, are not forgotten. That is why we applaud the University of Maryland for establishing the Lt. Collins Plaza on campus last week.

The new Collins Plaza comes at a critical time. White supremacy is on the rise across the United States, with its most fanatic agents growing increasingly bold. Last year, the FBI identified white supremacists as the nation’s greatest domestic terror threat. From 2015 to 2020, hate crimes against Black Americans rose more than 60%. Elected officials, politicians and national media personalities are increasingly trafficking in bigoted, racist conspiracies that were once confined to fringe groups and the far corners of the internet. Now, more than ever, calling out racism and standing with its victims is imperative.

Memorials like the Collins Plaza and the Maryland Lynching Project’s landmarks across the state provide a perennial public testimony, helping educate future generations about our shared past while charting a course for our shared futures. But memorials do more than mark our history. They also create a sense of belonging and craft our future by publicly signaling the values of the community. They send a message about who is valued, who is deserving, who is deemed worthy, who will be loved and protected. Whose lives matter.

When Black students at the University of Maryland walk to class, they will know that, yes, there is a history of racist violence on campus (as there is elsewhere), but they will also know that the university has taken seriously its obligations to make its campus welcoming for all, to learn from the past, and that it stands in solidarity with its students in dismantling white supremacy.

The new Collins Plaza serves as a reminder that our collective work must go beyond simply tolerating each other. Our wish is for the Collins Plaza to be a lasting symbolic place at the University of Maryland that honors Richard’s spirit and repudiates all forms of hate and bigotry. May it be a touchpoint that inspires all students, faculty and staff on this campus to learn about the history and the cost of American racism.

A better world is possible if we instead focus on moving from tolerance to acceptance to genuine embrace. That is the most meaningful way we can fully honor Richard’s life and all the other lives lost to racist violence. It’s crucial that we take collective action now to prevent such hateful acts from occurring again, and build communities with compassion, understanding, and empathy.

Damon Hewitt (Twitter: @DamonTHewitt) is executive director of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Dawn Collins and Richard Collins II are the parents of Richard Collins III.


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