‘Underground Railroad’ Novelist Colson Whitehead Withdraws from UMass Commencement Speech – Calls Anti-War, Pro-Palestinian Protester Arrests ‘Shameful’

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By Sarah Chayet

AMHERST, MA – A report from Western Mass News has announced Colson Whitehead—author of The Underground Railroad and other novels—decided he would withdraw from giving the commencement speech at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) undergrad ceremony because of his views on the arrests of protesters earlier this month.

Western Mass News estimated the number of arrests made on campus on Tuesday night to be about 130 people.

According to Western Mass News, Whitehead made a statement online in which he wished the new graduates well, but condemned the actions of the campus and its handling of the protests.

“I was looking forward to speaking next week at UMass Amherst. I visited two years ago and everyone was awesome,” wrote Whitehead. “But calling the cops on peaceful protesters is a shameful act.

“I have to withdraw as your commencement speaker. I give all my best wishes and congratulations to the class of ‘24 and pray for the safety of the Palestinian people, the return of the hostages, and an end to this terrible war,” Whitehead’s statement concluded.

On Wednesday, Western Mass News reported a statement made by UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes about the protests and the arrests that followed.

“I made the difficult decision last night to ask the University of Massachusetts Police Department to clear the site of an unauthorized fortified encampment that had been erected on the South Lawn of the Student Union,” wrote Chancellor Reyes, adding 70 of the individuals arrested were UMass students, and six were UMass faculty.

“Safety, wellbeing, and a sense of belonging are paramount for our community’s ability to thrive, and I recognize that there is work to do as we restore trust with those who feel harmed by the university’s actions,” Reyes added, noting, “My greatest hope is to continue dialogue, even—and especially—with those who disagree with or question the university’s stances and actions.”

UMass has released an update about how the commencement, set for May 18, will be held without a commencement speaker this year, and stated, “We respect Mr. Whitehead’s position and regret that he will not be addressing the Class of 2024.”

Because of Chancellor Reyes’ decision to call the police on the protestors, some students are calling for his resignation, another Western Mass News article reports.

About The Author

Sarah graduated from California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo with a bachelor’s degree in English with a Technical and Professional Communication Certificate. In addition to being an author for the Vanguard Court Watch Program, she is a proofreader at CalMatters and works as a museum guide.

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