UCLA

Crisis Point

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Published Oct 1, 2006 12:00 AM


UCLA used to be a beacon for African-Americans. Three of the best and brightest recall why they chose Westwood, and how to make the campus welcome to underrepresented students again.

As a boy, Sherrill Luke '50 crashed the kids' gate at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to watch UCLA football. Today, the retired Superior Court judge remembers the excellence of athletes Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington '41 and Woody Strode as his key inspiration to become a Bruin. When he didn't make the freshman basketball team, he became a yell leader and in 1949-'50, was UCLA's first African-American student body president.

Meanwhile, a boy from Kingsburg, Calif., was attending sporting events with his classmates at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford and USC. A student leader since elementary school, Rafer Johnson liked to stop by the student government office when he visited a campus. At UCLA, he was pleased to discover that Luke had been student body president. "Of all the campuses I visited," he says, "UCLA was the only one with a president of color."

A four-sport star, Johnson '59 was wooed by a number of universities, but was drawn to UCLA to work with track coach "Ducky" Drake '27 to win the university's first NCAA track title. He also was inspired by the accomplishments of Robinson, his childhood hero, and Ralph Bunche '27, whom he had met. "As a student, then later as a parent, I was impressed by what UCLA encourages people to achieve," the father of two UCLA graduates says today.

So when he landed an academic scholarship, the pieces fell into place. In his sophomore year, UCLA won the NCAA title in track, and Johnson won a silver medal in the Olympic decathlon. (He went on to win the gold in 1960.) As a senior, he followed in Luke's footsteps as student body president. Today, he recalls those days as an "unbelievably great experience." While a student, Johnson was presented with Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year" award on The Ed Sullivan Show. One of those watching was an unusually tall 11-year-old named Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Although Abdul-Jabbar received personal letters from both Bunche and Robinson, encouraging him to attend UCLA, and was inspired by Bruin athletes Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, he was most influenced by seeing Johnson introduced on national television, not as an Olympic athlete, but as UCLA student body president.

"That really impressed me — that he could have that kind of impact at an institution of higher learning," Abdul-Jabbar '69 said later. "It showed me what UCLA was about in terms of being an equal-opportunity kind of place."

Luke, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar have all expressed their views on diversity and its importance at UCLA. "Seeing and experiencing how other people live is an unbelievable life experience," Johnson says.

"It opens our eyes to people who are in many ways just like we are, and helps us recognize the importance of participating in the world community."

Luke adds that diversity is critical if UCLA is to "be reflective of the world in which we live. The vast reservoir of intelligence in minority communities must be cultivated in order for academic potential to be fully realized." He stresses the need for a concerted effort to level the playing field and urges improvement of the state's K–12 education, redesign of the SAT tests and a more "evenhanded" approach to evaluation of admission applications.

Abdul-Jabbar points to programs like the Jackie Robinson Foundation's outreach to predominantly black schools that produce qualified students. He also believes that more publications and speakers showcasing prominent African-American alumni would raise awareness of the opportunities UCLA offers students of all backgrounds. And he notes how much personal letters, like those he received from Bunche and Robinson, mean to prospective students.

— Mary Daily

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