Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke has received enough support for his Senate campaign in Louisiana to be included in a televised debate. The debate is scheduled to take place on Nov. 2 at New Orleans' Dillard University, a historically black college, where students say they are shocked and planning to respond.
Duke, who made waves early in the presidential race over his support for Donald Trump and later announced his run for Senate, has polled high enough to qualify for the debate with race frontrunners John Kennedy, a Republican, and Foster Campbell, a Democrat, according to an ABC News report.
The university, which agreed to host the debate before Duke qualified, has said it is contractually obligated to keep the event scheduled. On Monday, Dillard student leader Joseph Caldwell said there are plans to respond to the fact that an internationally known racist and white nationalist will get a speaking platform at an institution that has provided higher education opportunities predominantly to African-Americans in the Deep South since the end of slavery.
"David Duke is unacceptable and he's not welcome here," Caldwell, a 20-year-old sophomore and vice president of Dillard's Student Government Association, said in a phone interview.
"We are going to look at that as a student body and we're probably going to do something about it," he said.
Caldwell, an urban studies and human policy major, said the announcement shocked many students over the weekend. University officials did not meet with student body leaders before Dillard agreed in September to allow the debate to take place in George's Auditorium, part of the professional schools and sciences building.
David Grubb, a Dillard spokesman, said university President Walter Kimbrough and the board of trustees learned WVUE-TV had invited Duke to participate in the event on Thursday. While officials are in ongoing conversations about Duke's participation, pulling out of the event has not been part of those discussions, Grubb said in a phone interview Monday.
"It was a shock to us, just like it was to anyone else," Grubb said. With the coronation of Mister and Miss Dillard on Saturday and Founders Day convocation on Sunday, the university simply had no time to meet with student government leaders about Duke, Grubb said.
Later on Monday, Grubb said Roland Bullard, Dillard's vice president for student success, met with SGA executive board members to clear the air about the upcoming debate. The spokesman said students are "aware and clear" on the university's position about Duke.
"Most importantly, we encourage them to make sure they get out and vote on Election Day," Grubb said in a phone interview.
In a statement released Saturday, Dillard ensured that it would work with the station to keep the event secure and professional. It also said Dillard "does not endorse the candidacy of any of the candidates who will appear at the debate."
Duke has expressed his excitement at the invitation to join the debate. But the 66-year-old former KKK leader has reportedly expressed his concern over safety. "Dillard is pretty supportive of Black Lives Matter, and I've been pretty critical of them," Duke told theAcadiana Advocate on Oct. 20.
Grubb said Duke may have been referring to a Sept. 20 event Dillard held with conservative writer Rick Lowry, who told a room full of black students that he disagreed with Black Lives Matter and there was no incident.
"Issues about safety are unfounded," the spokesman said.
Campbell, the Democratic Senate candidate, told ABC News it was "unfortunate" that WVUE-TV was allowing Duke to participate.
"His destructive rhetoric is a distraction from this campaign, which is about our future, not our past," Campbell said.
Duke, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations in 1988 and 1992, has also failed in runs for the Louisiana state Senate and governorship, U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Duke was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1989 and served until 1992. He renounced his membership with the KKK in the 1970s, but has been known for espousing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic viewpoints since then.
In March, he denied ever officially endorsing Trump's candidacy, but said he agrees with the real estate mogul's call for draconian immigration policy proposals that would allow the U.S. to remain Eurocentric in population and policy.
Founded in 1869, just a few years after the abolition of U.S. slavery, Dillard became a premiere Christian institution of higher learning in the 20th century and has the designation of being a historical black college or university, or an HBCU. Dillard enrolled 1,185 students in 2014, 90% of whom were black.
Should Duke get to debate on campus, Dillard students aren't going to start a riot, Chadrick Hudson, the past SGA president who graduated from the New Orleans university last spring, said in a phone interview.
"I know my student body," Hudson said Monday. "They're going to carry themselves with intelligence. But I think it's going to get tense."
Dillard sent an email to the student body and to alumni over the weekend to acknowledge the concern among students, Hudson said.
"If I was still SGA president, I would have pushed for the debate to be hosted off-campus," Hudson said in the phone interview. "We could have had shuttles for students to actually go to the debate."
Given that student leaders were not initially consulted before Dillard agreed to host the debate, Hudson questioned whether officials had students in mind at all.
"I really kind of feel as though they're not looking at it beyond the publicity," he said.
WVUE-TV's invitation to Duke is "disrespectful and distasteful," Caldwell, the current SGA vice president, said over the phone.
"I can care less what David Duke has to say," Caldwell said. "He's racist. He endorses Donald Trump. As a student body, we just have to rally together. This is our chance to make our mark."
Oct. 25, 2016, 11:10 a.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.