by Colton Campbell

In 1969, a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., African American students at universities across the country held protests asking for changes to the curriculum and the hiring of African American faculty.

Jimmie C. Gardner
Jimmie C. Gardner

That same year, at the University of West Georgia, a group of students joined together to found the Black Student Alliance (BSA), which celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event on campus Tuesday night.

In the intervening five decades, the BSA has addressed and amplified the African American experience on campus, and current president Angel King hopes to continue that legacy.

“Our mission in BSA is to heighten the awareness of students, faculty, and staff in the area of black history, achievements, and culture in the United States and around the world,” King said in her remarks during the event. “We also strive to provide quality social and community service programming activities to students of the many multicultural backgrounds fostering a positive atmosphere where all feel welcomed.”

The event’s featured speaker was Jimmie C. Gardner, a motivational speaker who spent 27 years of his life incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Gardner shared life lessons he acquired through his childhood, professional baseball career and wrongful conviction.

Gardner’s keynote remarks centered on the theme of the evening: legacy.

“That is a powerful word that we hear a lot, but do we really know what it means?” Gardner asked the crowd of more than 150 UWG students, alumni, faculty and staff. “Legacy is defined as something transmitted by or received from an ancestor in the past. That’s the definition we’re celebrating tonight. Legacy is central to UWG’s Black Student Alliance and, really, blackness itself.”

In 1984, Gardner was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and played with them in the minor leagues for four seasons, while studying business management at Tampa College during the off-season. In 1987, Gardner was charged in a case in which two women had been robbed and sexually assaulted.

Twenty-seven years after his wrongful conviction, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia held that Jimmie’s conviction was a “total miscarriage of justice.”

The court vacated the conviction, and he was released from custody on April 1, 2016. It would take another five months, but prosecutors formally dropped all charges against Jimmie on Sept. 7, 2016.

Since his release, Gardner has become an advocate for criminal justice reform, inmate rights, and other wrongfully imprisoned and over-incarcerated men and women.

“My true legacy isn’t about my skills as a baseball player or winning games,” he said. “My most important legacy is understanding my self-worth and having the knowledge that I could be and do anything.”

Gardner implored the collected students that it is their “duty” to carry the legacy of the past 50 years forward into the next 50 years.

“Make a mark on the world that cannot be erased,” he said. “Those 27 years I spent behind bars made it more important for me to leave a legacy for the next generation. I encourage you all to step outside of UWG and get involved with the young men and women in your communities who need your help.”

The event also featured a reading of a spoken word piece by Asiah Brown and the sharing of the organization’s history by Camryn McGregor.

Members of UWG's Black Student AllianceClosing her remarks, King called BSA a “guiding force” for scholarship, service, activism and engagement at UWG.

“This group has undertaken important issues in its 50 years on campus,” she said. “Over the years, BSA has continued to withstand the trials and test of time, and that legacy will continue.”

Gardner’s closing words before answering questions from the audience were ones of perseverance in the face of adversity.

“Most of all, what I’ve learned in life is this: when you think you’re at the end of your rope, hang on,” he said. “Never give up, and never give in.”

Photography by Miranda Daniel

Posted on November 15, 2019