NAACP official: Graduate student failed Bienen class after refusing to perform Walt Whitman lyrics

Patrick Svitek, Summer Editor

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A graduate student failed a Bienen class after he refused to perform a song with lyrics written by Walt Whitman, citing the poet’s comments on black people, according to a top NAACP official.

George Mitchell, president of the NAACP Illinois State Conference, said the student, Timothy McNair, is in the process of appealing the grade and “taking it one step at a time.” Mitchell, who also runs the NAACP in Evanston, declined to comment further because McNair filed an ongoing complaint with the NAACP in the spring.

McNair, who was a first-year graduate student in Bienen this past academic year, has not responded to several requests for further comment since he emailed The Daily about his situation during Spring Quarter. In an email to Bienen Prof. Donald Nally on May 11, McNair explained why he did not want to participate in an end-of-the-year concert.

“After receiving the new music for Chorale and observing the ‘Song of Democracy,’ poetry by Walt Whitman—I refuse to perform this piece under any circumstances,” McNair wrote to Nally, according to an email exchange McNair shared with The Daily. “Walt Whitman was a self-documented racist who is known for having called freed Blacks ‘baboons’ and his writings which saw them as a threat to White Democracy.”

Nally responded that all students are expected to learned and perform the “assigned repertoire,” which included “Song of Democracy,” according to the emails forwarded to The Daily. McNair called Nally’s reply a “racially insensitive and disregardful act.”

(Bienen graduate student says he may fail class after ‘racially insensitive’ incident)

NU spokesman Al Cubbage has said the University does not comment on “academic issues regarding individual students” due to federal regulations.

“However, the University’s expectation of all students is that they complete work assigned by their professors,” Cubbage said in a statement in May.

In June, Nally declined to comment on McNair’s grade.

“My first year at Northwestern has been full of amazing discoveries with fantastic students,” Nally said in an email to The Daily. “I love my work.”

Summer editor Patrick Svitek can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at