An unexpected turn of events has given former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke a platform this week at Dillard University, a historically black college that can trace its origins back almost 150 years in New Orleans.
And Richelle Peck, a Dillard freshman, is riled up about it.
She’s upset that Duke is deemed to be a serious enough candidate for a U.S. Senate seat to be invited to a debate Wednesday night, and at a predominantly black school, no less.
But she’s also peeved because Duke, upon learning he'd be participating in the debate, expressed concern about his security at Dillard — as if he needs protection from college-educated young people, Peck said.
"There’s not much that has changed in America to where you can make a comment like that, and it's bypassed," she said.
Peck is one of many students on the Gentilly campus who are both stunned and perturbed by Duke’s impending arrival, a scenario that Dillard’s administration did not anticipate but nonetheless must manage.
Duke was the favorite of barely more than 5 percent of registered voters in a poll commissioned by Raycom Media earlier this month. But clearing that 5 percent bar was all that was needed to earn an invitation to the last televised debate before the Nov. 8 Senate primary — an event for which WVUE-TV, a local television station operated by Raycom, has rented a space at Dillard.
The two contenders most likely to make the runoff, according to the poll, were John Kennedy, the Republican state treasurer, and Foster Campbell, a Democratic member of the Public Service Commission. Others polling ahead of Duke were Caroline Fayard, a Democratic lawyer from New Orleans; U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden.
Dillard officials have said they did not know before they agreed to provide a hall for the debate who would be invited to participate, and the university does not endorse any Senate candidate.
Duke, for his part, walked back his security worries Friday.
“The truth is, I’ve had a good relationship with Dillard,” he said, adding that he was allowed to give a speech at Dillard four decades ago. “They told me that they really liked to hear from a white person who was very honest and straightforward about issues.”
The controversy has made national headlines, with more press than usual expected at a forum Wednesday that will be closed to the general public.
Duke, now 66, was elected grand dragon and later grand wizard of Louisiana’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1970s. He has said he left the group because he was fed up with some Klan branches’ continued violent outbursts against minorities, though his departure also came after he reportedly offered to sell his membership rolls to another Klan leader for thousands of dollars.
He won a single term in the Louisiana House from Metairie in 1989, his lone political victory in decades of trying.
He was sentenced to 15 months of federal prison in 2003 for cheating his supporters out of cash and not paying taxes.
Dillard students who spoke to The Advocate said they knew little about Duke's current candidacy before they learned he would be coming to their college.
Several said they were offended by Duke's Twitter feed, on which he repeatedly alludes to control of the media, politicians and Hollywood by Jews, and calls for protecting white culture and heritage by separating white people from other races.
It's not yet clear whether Dillard will see large-scale anti-Duke protests on Wednesday, but several students said they wouldn’t be surprised if that happens. Some said they were thinking of protesting themselves, though they stressed that anything that is done would be done peacefully.
“We’re not animals,” freshman Dyani Colon said.
Meanwhile, alumnus and teacher E'Jaaz Ammaad Mason is planning to show up — even if he has to stand outside.
“This person has fought for the disenfranchisement of black people in America,” Mason said. “We can’t allow him to just show up without our voices being heard.”
But at least one person at Dillard balks at the idea of any sort of outcry. University President Walter Kimbrough said such a move would draw undeserved attention to a man Kimbrough said has been fighting for relevance and press time for decades.
“By doing that, he’s won,” Kimbrough said of the idea of protests.
Instead, he said, the conversation should be about relief for victims of the floods that devastated parts of the Baton Rouge area this summer, federal funding to improve higher education and other things Kimbrough said actually matter.
“Everything is about someone who doesn’t have a chance in hell to win, and that’s a shame,” he said.