For this crusader, the fight for equality is a lifelong endeavor

Donald Spivey, a distinguished professor of history, has been named the special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Donald Spivey, a distinguished professor of history, has been named the special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice.

For this crusader, the fight for equality is a lifelong endeavor

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Donald Spivey, a distinguished professor of history who has championed civil rights since his days growing up in Chicago, has been named the special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice.

Donald Spivey lost count of all the times he was pulled over and interrogated by police officers while growing up as a young Black male in 1960s Illinois. 

Ten? A dozen? Or was it 15? He can’t remember. There were so many. 

But one of those stops, conducted on an Illinois state highway as Spivey and three of his college buddies were driving home to Chicago on semester break, will always be unforgettable. The officers had drawn their guns, demanding to know where the four were headed. “In their minds, we were four Black men on our way to rob a liquor store,” Spivey said. “That we were college students was just unimaginable to them.” 

He and his schoolmates were only seconds away from being hauled away to jail, or perhaps worse, suffering a fate like that of George Floyd decades before there was even a George Floyd. 

It never came to that, though. The four were allowed to go on their way. 

Spivey would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degree. All in history. 

But the sting of systemic racism was always there. The forms of racial profiling, harassment, and discrimination, such as what he and his schoolmates experienced on that stretch of Illinois road in the early 1960s, never really went away. 

Spivey has been fighting for racial equality for most of his life, using his lectures, teachings, and exhaustive research as a distinguished professor of history and Cooper Fellow in the College of Arts and Sciences to help foster change. 

His latest appointment—special advisor to President Julio Frenk on racial justice—comes as the nation grapples with issues of systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. 

His cabinet-level position is part of a recently unveiled 15-point plan to improve “racial justice on campus and beyond,” and he has vowed to tackle his new responsibilities with the same zeal and dedication he has employed in his decades-long academic journey of tearing down barriers. 

Among his goals: help increase the number of Black faculty members at the institution and ensure that the University admits, and more importantly, retains more African American students. “These are issues we have to wrestle with,” Spivey said. 

He’s already hit the ground running, responding to the dozens of faculty, staff, students, and community leaders who have flooded his email inbox with messages voicing concerns over diversity matters they’d like the University to address. “I have a rule of answering people within 24 hours,” Spivey said. “If someone says they have a problem, you have to be able to respond quickly. If you don’t, you lose all credibility.” 

And as part of his steadfast commitment to taking action, Spivey has promised to take those concerns to Frenk. “Action without thought is empty. Thought without action is blind,” Spivey said, quoting Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian nationalist leader and revolutionary who led the Gold Coast to independence from Britain in the late 1950s. 

Spivey often quotes passages from influential civil rights figures from history, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom he heard speak in person. 

He’s been a student of history for as long as he can remember, falling in love with the subject, in part, because of the teachings of a history instructor at his inner-city high school “who made things relevant to the moment and showed us that we all had first-rate minds,” Spivey said. 

He grew up poor on Chicago’s West Side, raised by Mississippi-born parents who were part of the Great Migration—that massive movement of some six million African Americans who fled the rural South between 1916 and 1970 in search of a better life in the Northern states. 

His father worked in Chicago’s steel mills, and his mother in a clothing factory. 

“As a kid, I held every job you can think of,” Spivey said. “Back then, parents believed you should work for things. No one was going to give you anything.” 

When he wanted “serious money,” he would wake at 3:30 in the morning and go to the docks of the South Water Market, unloading the scores of trucks that carried fresh fruit, vegetables, and poultry. 

Spivey, who at that time was 17 and already an avid weightlifter, could earn as much as $20 a day unloading those trucks, enough to treat his high school sweetheart, who is now his wife, to a night on the town—a steak dinner, a movie with popcorn, and a Polish sausage sandwich at Chicago’s famous Jim’s Original—and still have $5 left over. “Which was a lot back then,” Spivey recalled. 

An all-state football player at Crane High School on Chicago's West Side, Spivey attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a full football scholarship. He was one of only four Blacks on the team during his sophomore year, a projected starter at tailback. “But I never had a dream of being a pro athlete,” he said. “There came a moment of truth when I knew I wanted to be a real student and boost my grades, which were starting to fall.” 

Inspired by the tumultuous events of the time, Spivey hung up his cleats, committing himself to help effect change amid the growing civil rights movement. 

“These were the ’60s,” Spivey said. “So many things were happening, and my social consciousness was growing. The many, many fights, protests, demonstrations, and social and political skirmishes of the era are very much a part of who I am today.” 

He joined the Black Students Association on campus, making the hiring of more African-American faculty members a priority. “We could count on one hand the number of Black faculty who were there,” Spivey said. 

The very history department through which Spivey took courses toward his major had no professors of color, and he especially wanted that to change. He and his fellow students met regularly with school administrators, voicing their concerns and hoping that some progress would be made. The change they sought, however, seemed to fall on deaf ears. So Spivey and the others turned up the heat, bringing in the local NAACP and threatening to file a lawsuit if the department didn’t bow to their demands. 

Finally, it did. 

School officials labeled him a troublemaker because of his spirited activism and the way he pushed the envelope. But Spivey didn’t mind. That’s the way he wanted it. “The best students are the ones who fight for what they believe in,” he said. “And we fought for everything.” 

His research and achievements at the University of Miami are legendary: nine authored or edited books to his name. While he was trained as a labor historian, his body of research runs the gamut, everything from the history of education to Black music to sports. 

He spent 12 years researching and writing his groundbreaking book, “If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige,” traveling to Mexico and the Dominican Republic to track down information on the barnstorming Negro Leagues pitcher who, Spivey described, was doing his part to strike out Jim Crow. 

Spivey’s team-taught “The Sixties” course is one of the most popular at the University, with more than 1,000 students having taken the class since it started 10 years ago. A jam session featuring faculty members performing 1960s music is the highlight of the course. Spivey is a drummer, a skill he’d often put to use at gigs that helped pay for his tuition after he gave up football. 

But ask him what his most important project is, and he’ll say, “All of them.” 

Today, Spivey is witnessing Confederate statues being removed, companies like Quaker doing away with product names that perpetuate racist myths, and professional sports franchises dropping their polarizing team names and logos. Is the nation finally having a long overdue reckoning with racism? “I hope so,” said the former recipient of the University’s Outstanding Teaching Award and Provost Award for Scholarly Activity. 

“There have been people trying to make a reckoning with racism for so many years. The George Floyd incident has brought it to the forefront,” Spivey said. “I think it’s actually a combination of George Floyd and COVID-19. Everyone was at home, watching the news. You couldn’t miss it. It was in our face, right on camera. These are things Blacks have experienced all our lives.”