Jason Thompson, the University of Wyoming student government’s first black president, returns to campus today as the keynote speaker for UW’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue event.
Thompson said he never thought he would be ASUW president. He said he didn’t even plan on running, in fact, and only joined the race because his wife suggested it and his friend, Dominick Martinez, wanted to run for vice president.
“I didn’t really go into it thinking I could win,” he said. “I just went into it thinking, ‘Well, it’s just student government — it couldn’t be that big a deal.’”
Any other year, Thompson’s assumption might have been correct, given the low turnout for ASUW elections. But after announcing his run, Thompson experienced pushback from some UW students immediately.
“From the first day, somebody called, threatened to beat me up,” he said. “They were ripping down my posters as fast as I could put them up. … At one point, they took down all my posters, changed them all to something offensive towards me and put them back up in the same spot.”
Following a contentious primary election, Thompson said, UW took extra measures to ensure a fair election.
“The city of Laramie brought in all of their equipment and they actually ran the general election,” he said. “I think that’s the first and only time it’s ever been run by the city of Laramie. It was a pretty interesting time, looking back on it now.”
Throughout his tenure as president, Thompson said he continued to experience pushback — the student senate fought him on executive officer nominations, for example, which are usually treated as formalities in ASUW.
“I remember when I had to go to the first trustee meeting being very nervous because I thought, ‘Man, if the students were giving me a hard time, I couldn’t imagine what the trustees must be,’” Thompson said. “And I had, in my mind, imagined all of these old white people who are racist — and you know, that’s my stereotype — and honestly, it was the exact opposite.”
He said the trustees’ kindness said a lot about Wyoming.
“As a group of people, they could not have been nicer to me and did everything they could to make me feel welcomed, to make sure I had a good experience,” Thompson said.
Since graduating, Thompson has worked in the area of diversity and inclusion and currently serves as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of diversity and inclusion.
Thompson’s address will cover his own experiences and reflections on Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination and the 15th year of the event, the 2018 Days of Dialogue focuses on the progress made since King’s activism in the 1950s and 1960s.
“As I reflected on this, I started thinking when I was about 6 or 7 — and this was probably about 1972,” he said. “I got to meet my great-grandfather. It was right around his 100th birthday. We weren’t sure if he was 100 years old because of when he was born, which would have been close to when slaves were freed.”
The end of slavery a little more than 150 years ago is not as far in the past as many think, Thompson said. Meeting his great-grandfather made Thompson realize this, he said.
“Some slaves didn’t know until 1865 they had been freed,” he said. “To picture the two of us somewhere (together) would have been amazing, just to think about the generations and all the things that happened in that lifetime.”
Thompson said he is honored to return to UW and be given the chance to reflect on his time as ASUW president.
“It was a difficult year, but it’s one of my more favorite memories of being in Wyoming,” he said. “I learned a lot and I grew a lot as a person and made some pretty good friends.”
Thompson gives his address at 7:30 p.m. today in the Wyoming Union Ballroom. The event is free to the public. Go to www.uwyo.edu/studentaff/mlkdod for more information.