"Gender, race, and Native American inclusion—they were all issues that we struggled with on campus in the mid to late 1980s, in part because the scars from the battles of the past hadn't yet healed."
As a writer and editor at The Dartmouth, Boykin reported on campus protests, among other wide-ranging topics. And while attending Harvard Law School, he became "an accidental activist." He later worked for presidential nominee Michael Dukakis and President Bill Clinton. Boykin is now a well-known national political commentator, TV and film producer, and a New York Times bestselling author.
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Hi everyone and welcome to our 50 For 50 podcast, 50 stories for 50 years, as we celebrate three major milestones in Dartmouth's history. As many of you know and some of you can remember firsthand, 1972 was a pivotal year. Women joined the undergraduate community as Dartmouth students, following several years of women exchange students on campus. The Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association, or BADA, is also entering its 50th year, and so is the Native American program: three important anniversaries, and also not a coincidence that so much happened during this critical time. I'm Jennifer Avellino, class of 1989, past president of the Dartmouth Alumni Council, and a former senior producer at CNN. As a journalist, my early days were spent as the news director for WDCR WFRD, Dartmouth Broadcasting. I've had the good fortune to meet and bring to the airwaves remarkable people over the years, and this podcast in many ways brings me home. Throughout this series, I'll be speaking with inspiring, influential, and fascinating Dartmouth alumni. They'll reflect on what it was like to be a woman, a non-binary person, a Native American, a person of color at Dartmouth, and how their time at the college led to the lives they're pursuing today. Our guest today is Keith Boykin, Dartmouth class of 1987 and a graduate of Harvard Law School, a well-known national political commentator, TV and film producer, and a New York Times bestselling author. He's a co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, was a co-host of the BET network's talk show My Two Cents, and starred on the Showtime reality series, American Candidate. Keith taught at Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies and at American University. And he currently teaches at City College of New York. His latest book is Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America. Keith, welcome.
Keith Boykin: Hi, Jennifer. It's so good to hear you and see you. It's been a long time.
Jennifer Avellino: So Keith, you arrived at Dartmouth in 1983, just about a decade after these really significant changes on campus were getting underway involving these three communities, women, African-American students, and Native American students. What was that time like for you and for Dartmouth in the mid-1980s?
Keith Boykin: I did arrive at that time, Jennifer, as you know. You were right above me in Robinson Hall.
Jennifer Avellino: At the radio station.
Keith Boykin: At the radio station, where I was at The Dartmouth offices. And I think all three of those issues that you're talking about, gender, race, and Native American inclusion, were all issues that we struggled with on campus in the mid-1980s and late 1980s, in part because the scars from the battles of the past hadn't yet healed. So yes, co-education had been a thing on campus since 1972, but the reality is that the school song was still Men of Dartmouth at that time. And I think it was in the time I was there on campus when there was a big debate about that. And finally, our senior class, I believe, voted to change the song. I'm not sure when it actually officially changed.
Jennifer Avellino: Sometime in the late '80s.
Keith Boykin: Yeah. So it was right around that time. And then there was the issue for African-Americans, the whole issue of divestment was really important at the time because Dartmouth was still invested in businesses that operated in South Africa, which was a racist, apartheid, minority, white regime, and a lot of African-American students and others were concerned about those investments. And it caused a ruckus on campus. There was a shanty town constructed on the campus green, as you know, and a group of right wing students from the Dartmouth Review took sledge hammers to the shanty town in the middle of the night one night and tried to destroy them. And that caused an uproar where the faculty ended up voting a no confidence in the president, students took over the administration building at Parkhurst, the dean's office, the president's office. And we had a moratorium on campus for the first time, I think, in decades, where classes were canceled. And then thirdly, with the Native American community, we were still struggling with the issue of the Indian symbol, which was never really officially Indian symbol on campus, where a lot of my classmates and students who were there before and after me were still doing the old wahoo-wah at football games and wearing Indian symbol tee shirts, largely provided by and instigated by the Dartmouth Review, I might add. And so it always baffled me because here we were, these young people who were in our late teens or early 20s. We had no connection to Dartmouth in the days when it was an all male school or when there were no or very few Black students, or when there were no Native American students, but people were still holding on to this history as though it was theirs, when it was not even part of their current experience. And it was just baffling that that was something we had to fight with.
Jennifer Avellino: As you mentioned, you were at The Dartmouth, you were a reporter and later the editor-in-chief; did you see this time through a journalistic lens? Did you see it as a student? How did you balance those two?
Keith Boykin: I saw it a little bit as both because although I was a journalist covering the issues for the D, I was also a student and couldn't believe that I was having these debates with some of my classmates. But in particular with the issue of The Dartmouth reporting on shanty town, I was there when that happened, almost literally. I was putting the newspaper to bed, I think around 3:00 in the morning one day, and walking across the campus green, when I noticed that there were police cars parked on the green, which was an unusual sight. And I went to find out what was going on, and found out that the shanties had been attacked. And I spoke to the police officers on the scene, and then the campus police officers, and I raced back to Robinson Hall to tell Don, the guy who put together the newspaper, to hold the presses so that we could... Stop the presses so that we could actually put the story in. Started to write up the story, and I noticed there was a big envelope in the hallway in Robinson Hall from the group that was taking responsibility for attacking the shanties. It was like a terrorist attack, where the terrorist acknowledged that they had had been responsible for this act. And so of course, incorporated what they had to say into the story. We raced to put that out into the D. And ironically, the story appeared... There was a teaser on the front page. It appeared later in the paper because there was no space to take out the stories in the front page, but it appeared on the same day when The Dartmouth editorial board called for the shanties to be taken down, which was an odd position for us to have taken. Because I think... I don't remember where I voted on that issue, but the majority of the editorial board of which I was a member felt that the shanties had outlived their utility. And after that point, we couldn't take back that editorial. But the very next day, I think we called for the people, the students who had been involved in attacking the shanties to be expelled from campus. And so it was just this big swing, from one day we're saying take down the shanties. And then the second day, it's like the people who did this violently should be removed from campus. But we were also, as students, even on the editorial board of the D, we were somewhat divided. I think we had two conservatives, two progressives, including myself, and one moderate. And so it was all about convincing that one moderate which way the editorial board was going to go in terms of its opinions. And we were all shocked when one of the most conservative members of the board came in the day after the shanty attack and said, "These students need to be expelled." Immediately, the executive editor and I, we looked at each other and said, "Yes." We were both the two progressives. We were like, "Yes, we've got a consensus on this. We can make this happen." So we moved to write this editorial to get that to happen. But yeah, it was a very traumatic time. I don't think I'd ever expected when I went to Dartmouth that we would be in the midst of such chaos, but I should have anticipated it because when I applied to Dartmouth, part of the reason why I applied was because I saw a Nightline report about Dartmouth in the early 1980s. Ted Koppel was the host of Nightline, which was a nightly news broadcast on ABC News. And I think Professor Bill Cook was on there with members of the Dartmouth Review, talking about the uproar on campus, and they were attacking him. And immediately I thought to myself, "This is where I want to be. I want to be where all this controversy is happening." It just seemed fun and exciting as a place to be. And I was able to be a part of it in a very real way.
Jennifer Avellino: It certainly was that, an exciting place to be in the 1980s in so many ways. You also covered the 1984 presidential election while you were at Dartmouth, you interviewed presidential candidates visiting Hanover in the run up to the New Hampshire primary. Just to remind everyone, Ronald Reagan was President. Walter Mondale would go on to be the Democratic nominee and of course lose the general election. Was that when your interest in politics and campaigns began?
Keith Boykin: Well, I had actually already been involved and interested in politics before I got to Dartmouth. I worked on political campaigns going back to the time when I was in high school, but this was my first time seeing presidential politics up close at that level, working on the D as a reporter, long before I was an editor. It was in my freshman year, I think. It was my freshman and sophomore year, 1983 and '84. And well, actually most of it was in the freshman year because that was when the candidates were coming for the debate at Dartmouth College, and I remember that. And I remember I met nearly all the candidates, I think at that time, Walter Mondale, Alan Cranston, Jesse Jackson, there's a few other people whose name... Who am I forgetting? Gary Hart.
Jennifer Avellino: Hard to forget Gary Hart.
Keith Boykin: Gary Hart had a press conference at the Hanover Inn…
Jennifer Avellino: No, that was in the next election cycle.
Keith Boykin: Oh, that was the next election cycle. Okay. Yeah, I was...
Jennifer Avellino: In 1987. Yeah. So many candidates. Keith Boykin: It's hard for me to keep all these straight, but yeah. It was an exciting time to be a part of both of those campaigns, to be at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, where all the candidates basically come through at some point was really an impressive thing to see. And I think I remember, the funniest moment to me of the whole campaign was watching Jesse Jackson. The first time I ever saw Jesse Jackson, I was at my Hinman box. I was HB224. I was at my Hinman box checking my mail. I saw this entourage of people walking by, and Jesse Jackson was one of the people walking. So, I saw Jesse Jackson as he was walking by my Hinman box. And I said to him, "Hey, good luck on the debate." And he responded to me, "I don't need good luck. I need good votes." And I thought, "What a line." I guess he had said that to many people before, but just struck me as funny that he was such a soundbite machine. You could always depend on him to have something worthy and interesting to say.
Jennifer Avellino: And he would go on to become a recurring figure in your life, as you moved through your career. Tell us about that and a little bit about his role in American political life. Keith Boykin: He would, interestingly enough. I saw Jesse Jackson again, I think, when he came to Dartmouth... He ran for President twice. So he came to Dartmouth again, I think in the '88 campaign, I believe. And I was there because I was there in '87. And then afterwards in law school, I went to Harvard Law School. He came to support the student movement that I was involved with for diversity on campus at that point. And then later on, we traveled together to Zimbabwe on a Presidential delegation in the Clinton administration, had a chance to work with him there. I feel like he's been a recurring presence in my life in almost everywhere I've been, going like you said, way back to the '80s and the '90s, when I was involved with the National Black Justice Coalition, the organization I helped to start in 2003, Jesse Jackson was one of the supporters of that organization as well. All the way up to, I can't... The last time I saw him was probably in the past year or two, but I do believe that he's one of those figures where you he's just a seminal part of American history. He was there when Dr. King was assassinated obviously, and took on the mantle of leadership in the civil rights community since that time. And I just been fortunate enough to have had a chance to know him in the course of my lifetime.
Jennifer Avellino: And just full disclosure, I worked with Reverend Jackson a little bit at CNN when he hosted a program there. But Keith, you and I did not overlap at CNN during your time as a commentator there. So after Dartmouth, you went to work for Michael Dukakis for his presidential campaign after you graduated in 1987, of course later, the Democratic nominee for president. What did you learn about politics working on your first big campaign?
Keith Boykin: I do remember working in the campaign, in the headquarters. It was an interesting experience, working in Boston, for a number of different reasons. One, because we had a lot of controversy with that campaign. He was responsible, Dukakis was responsible for getting Joe Biden out of the race in 1988. One of my colleagues, young colleagues, sent the famous attack video that spliced a copy of Joe Biden's speech, his speech, in comparison to Neil Kinnock, the British labor leader, and discovered that Joe Biden had been "plagiarizing" that speech that he was using from Kinnock. But that kind of politics was considered dirty politics in the Dukakis campaign, in the 1980s. Today, everybody does that. If you have something, damning evidence of somebody, it would be on Twitter in 10 seconds. And that was a big, huge controversy back in the day. I'm not sure if that make makes sense to people, even today. It was a lot of work, long hours, very little pay. I remember, I think I was getting $250 a week from my job when I first started. But fortunately, I got a promotion once Dukakis won the primary, and became the Democratic nominee. And I started traveling on the campaign plane and became one of his campaign press aides. Now that was when it was really exciting for me, because we got to travel every day, all across the country, travel to all kinds of places I never would've been to before, like Minot, North Dakota and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was a learning experience about politics in American government and about the process itself.
Jennifer Avellino: So you later crossed paths at Harvard Law School with fellow law student Barack Obama in your efforts to push for greater faculty diversity. You'd become an activist at this point. Was that a deliberate break from your work as a journalist or a political staffer? Keith Boykin: That's funny. You know the story because you read the book, but I've always considered myself an accidental activist. I never have liked the term activist because I don't think that's who I am, but other people do. And I guess I can't really run away from it because literally, my activism started at a protest at Harvard while I was a first year student, holding a sign outside a faculty meeting, and all the faculty members walked by and pretty much ignored us. And the dean walked by, and I called out to him. I said, "Hey, Dean Clark, come back and talk to us." And he ignored us too. So I grabbed my backpack and my sign and put it in my arm. And I began to go after the dean, to walk up, to catch up to him. And the dean of the law school, the Harvard Law School, literally began sprinting across the campus once they saw me, to get away from me. And so I ran, sprinting across the campus to catch up with him. And we had photographers there who we invited from the Boston Globe and other newspapers. They snapped a photo of me chasing the dean of the law school, and that became the defining photo of me, if you will, image of me from my law school career, that here I was chasing the dean of the law school and never lived that down. But I wasn't planning on being an activist. But after that, we ended up... We chased, I and several others chased the dean to his office. We had a sit-in. The sit-in led to other sit-ins. Then we went to the president's office and tried to take over the president's office. We couldn't do that. Then we filed a lawsuit against the law school for a discrimination. We argued that case all the way up to the Supreme Court ourselves, the students. And it was just a fascinating experience for me to be able to switch gears from being an outside observer covering these events, to being a participant in the midst of these events. And in fact, that's been my life story, going back and forth between being a participant and an observer, as a journalist and an accidental activist.
Jennifer Avellino: Yeah. So just a couple of years later, you landed in the White House, serving as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton. You were the highest ranking openly gay person in the White House in 1993. You helped organize the first meeting between LGBTQ leaders and a US President. This was really groundbreaking at the time. What kind of impact did it have? Keith Boykin: Well, here's the thing. I didn't realize it was groundbreaking at the time. I guess there was a lot that shifted in our country from the time I graduated from college in 1987 at Dartmouth, to the time I graduated from Harvard in 1992, in that five year period. And part of what shifted was the country's attitudes about LGBTQ issues. And so I don't remember... And I was with Mike Dukakis every single day of the presidential campaign, the general election. I don't remember him ever addressing any gay issues at all on the campaign. I don't remember it even coming up. And then in 1992, it becomes one of the big issues of the campaign because Bill Clinton, along with every other Democratic presidential candidate, said that he would lift the ban on gays in the military if he was elected. So suddenly, these issues became front and center. And I found myself after Clinton won, working in the White House, dealing with those issues at a time when I thought maybe I could have some influence, but didn't know exactly how much, because I wasn't anticipating how much resistance there would be to it. And I didn't realize just... I guess when you're in the middle of it, you don't really recognize what's happening. But I think the first clue to me, and I can't remember if I even wrote about this in the book, was when I did my FBI interview and I had a background check for my job of the White House. And a few weeks later after I'd started working in the White House, I got a call to return to the FBI interview, back for a secondary interview, where the interviewer, the FBI agent asked me, "We've come across information that you may be living leading an alternative lifestyle," he said. And I thought to myself, "Alternative to what? What does he mean?" Knowing clearly what he meant. But I couldn't believe they were actually interrogating me about whether I was gay.
Jennifer Avellino: Which was not a secret.
Keith Boykin: Yeah, exactly. It was public information. Bill Clinton knew that. George Stephanopoulos, who was my boss, knew that. Everybody knew that, so it wasn't really anything I was hiding. But it was a reflection of just how much had changed in our country in just a few years from the one campaign to the next.
Jennifer Avellino: And fast forward to today, just as we're taping this podcast, we've just had the news that the new White House press secretary will be, who will be the first Black woman, the first openly LGBTQ person to serve as White House press secretary. Maybe the best thing about that is that it's not going to be a really big story.
Keith Boykin: Well, yes, I think it will be a really big story because I think she is the first, and this hasn't happened before, but it is a reflection of how much our country is changing, the fact that we have a Black woman and LGBTQ person who's taking on this role, this prominent role as a spokesperson for the White House in the administration. And I think that is problematic for a lot of people. That was the whole point of my last book, Race Against Time, the idea that all these things that are happening that we think are reflection of progress in our society, move toward modernity. There's a group... I live in Los Angeles now. I also work and teach in New York City. So I go back and forth between two of the most open-minded, allegedly open-minded cities in the country. And so from my point of view from coast to coast, things are fine. People are happy about these things, but that's not the way everyone else sees the world. My mom lives in Texas. I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. I've lived in Georgia and Florida and Arkansas and other places. I know that a lot of people don't see this progress as an affirmation of the country they want to live in. And so whenever we see some indicator of something like this, it becomes an opportunity for people who don't like that change to push back against it. And so we start to see a backlash. That's what happened with abortion, with the whole idea of Roe versus Wade. That's what's happening with marriage equality, with people resisting that. That's why there was so much debate about critical race theory. That's why they're banning or trying to attack Disney, I should say, in Florida, for speaking out. There's a movement afoot to stop modernity in its place, in its tracks, to prevent the progress toward making the country and making the world and society a more open-minded and fair-minded place.
Jennifer Avellino: Yeah, of course. Despite so much progress, we have these now, here in 2022, these potential risks ahead to marriage equality, as you said, to LGBTQ rights. We have new state laws restricting gender affirming healthcare and participation in sports for transgender youth. We seem to be living in this increasingly divided country.
Keith Boykin: That's exactly right. The biggest, I think, trigger to all this was a report that happened in 2015, when the U.S. Census Bureau announced that by the year 2044, white Americans will no longer be the majority of the population. And that one data point scared a lot of people. It was just a few months before Donald Trump launched his campaign. And I think a lot of people were suddenly concerned that the white majority was about to disappear. That was an overstatement of what was actually taking place because a lot of people were identifying as different... As multiracial or different racial groups that they weren't able to do so before, but it was a reflection of the change that was happening. And I think that it caused a lot of concern and rang alarm bells, and it, again, accelerated this move to do everything they could to stop that change from happening, from voting rights restrictions, to gerrymandering congressional districts, to the insurrection itself.
Jennifer Avellino: The demographics of a changing America, as you've mentioned, a much more multicultural America. It's really profound, but it might not have the political outcome, though, that we expect. Why is that?
Keith Boykin: I argue in the book that progress is not inevitable. I argue that in order for change to take place and for it to be permanent and enduring, it will require the work, hard work, of people who are willing to dedicate part of their lives to making that change happen. Now, Dr. King said that we have to dispense with the notion that time heals all wounds. In fact, he said that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. So I urge people to use our time wisely, to use it constructively, to make change as opposed to destructively or passively. Because if you're being passive about the use of time, you're essentially contributing to the destructive use of time as well. Because there are forces out there who are actively engaged in using this time, however long it takes, to roll back the progress that we've seen in the past 50 or so years. This is exactly what happened with abortion. It wasn't a huge issue for the evangelical Christian community at first. In fact, the Southern Baptists even supported legalizing abortion in the early and mid 1970s. But around 1978, the Republican party and the evangelical Christians, white evangelical Christians, would've formed this union to fight on the issue of abortion, and it was politically convenient for both of them. It didn't seem like it was going to be a winner for a long time. Roe versus Wade was decided in 1973, it was reaffirmed in Casey in 1992, and virtually every Supreme Court justice nominee has at least given lip service to the acknowledgement that Roe is a precedent to be respected. And now we're at a point where it doesn't look to be as respected.
Jennifer Avellino: So I have to ask you, Keith, as a lawyer, as a constitutional observer, about what many people see as this real crisis in democracy. Have we taken this seriously enough? Has the threat to voting rights in particular gotten the coverage that it deserves?
Keith Boykin: I don't think so, Jennifer. I think that... I hate to say it because it sounds so pessimistic to say this, but I think our country's at the precipice. I think we could go either way. I've been saying this for five years now. I remember I took a poll on Twitter shortly after Trump was elected, and I asked the people who were following me what they thought was likely to happen in the next five to 10 years. And I mentioned civil war, world war, impeachment, and some other choice. And most people thought impeachment was the most likely choice and they were right, but I'm still not convinced that we are out of the woods in terms of the possibility of a full scale civil war in this country. I feel like there are people who don't care whether the union survives or not. And that's what was so challenging about this past era, because I feel the Trump era opened up the doors for the anarchists and the autocrats and the proto-fascists to be able to tear down all the bulwarks of democracy.
Jennifer Avellino: I want to ask you, as a college professor, you spend a lot of time with students these days, not Dartmouth students yet, maybe some time in the future. But so what's their take on today's politics, how social media drives opinions? What do they make of all this?
Keith Boykin: By and large, I think the young people, they don't... The ones that I'm seeing, at least in classes, they don't feel like there's nothing they can do. They don't feel hopeless. They feel like things are solvable, and they're willing to go out and solve them. And in spite of the fact they have all these obstacles to deal with, they've witnessed a pandemic recently, they've been through two economic crises in recent years, and they're graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, they don't feel like they've given up. And I have to give them credit for that. A lot of times as we get older, we tend to cast a lot of aspersions on young people and wonder why aren't they doing more of this and more of that. But I don't feel like they're out of it. I feel like they're engaged. They have a lot of challenges today that we didn't have when we were college students. There's a lot more distractions today than we had and a lot more opportunities. And so we'll see where this goes, but I'm hopeful that they will lead us in a positive direction.
Jennifer Avellino: Well, I think that's a good place to stop. We could talk for another hour, I'm sure, but this has been a real pleasure.
Keith Boykin, thanks so much for joining us.
Keith Boykin: Thank you, Jennifer. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
Jennifer Avellino: This has been really fascinating. And thanks to all of you for listening to our 50 for 50 podcast series, supported by our Office of Alumni Relations. I'm Jennifer Avellino. My deepest thanks to our co-producers, Catherine Darragh and Charlotte Albright, and to Dartmouth's Media Production Group for technical assistance. We hope you'll tune in for more episodes marking these three milestone anniversaries. You can find out more about our 50 for 50 storytelling project at alumni.dartmouth.edu.