35 years later, Cager reflects on his election, impact at Miami

By Jesús F. Jiménez, assistant director of digital content

John Cager ’86 was the first Black student to be elected student body president at Miami University.

For the past 20 years, he has served as the full-time pastor of the Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and also serves as the president of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders.

Last fall, he participated in a Love.Honor.Learn. alumni webinar panel as other Black student body presidents discussed their experiences regarding diversity and social justice.

The alumni association reconnected with Cager for a Q&A session.

What does it mean for you to hold the distinction of being the first Black student to be elected student body president at Miami?

When I ran, I didn’t run to be the first Black student president. I ran because I thought we could do some stuff, and in the course of running, I discovered I was the first Black.

For me to be elected student president of the Associated Student Government meant something more after hearing from Black students who were around and felt pride that there was a brother who was stepping up to make it happen. In 2021, we lose sight of the fact that there was a very different America in 1985, and some of the things that we take for granted in terms of advancement in race relations and racial equity were not taken for granted in 1985.

Oftentimes, when we’re living in the moment, we don’t realize how special that moment is. It’s not until we look back that we can truly appreciate the significance. Was that the case for you?

I did not realize how historic that moment was until I had conversations with those who followed me. Randi Thomas ’88, my good friend, was the second Black president elected, and there have been a few others since then. To look back and see that they accomplished things we had been working on since 1985, I realized that maybe there was some significance, because the people who came after us were able to see the value in what we were fighting for.

How would you describe how much the world has changed from your time at Miami to now, and how much have we yet to grow?

In the ’70s there was kind of a group dynamic where Black students were together and pushing each other. For a Black student to make it through college today is much tougher, in my point of view, because you don’t have the same support systems from other students. While they do have more access, they don’t have the same level of moral support and that has pushed them to develop an internal compass to want to make it. In that same vein, it has also made them much more courageous, not just on issues of race but on issues of gender equity, issues of sexual orientation and economic parity. The students who I see on campus and those who I’ve talked to at Miami recently, they’re much more in tune with what’s going on in the world and the way the world works than we were 35 years ago.

Can you describe what it means to see Kamala Harris become the first woman of color elected vice president of the United States? And having been the first Black student president, what was it like to see Barack Obama elected the first Black president of the United States?

Seeing Barack elected was everything that everybody has already said: The culmination of a lifetime of hopes and dreams. Many of us thought once Barack got it, that’s it, we were one-and-done. We’ll never see another person of African descent get up there again, but for Kamala to get elected as, not only an African person, an Asian person, but also a woman, shows that the moral arc of the universe does lean toward justice. Who would’ve thought in 2016 or 2018 that she would’ve had a shot? It shows that there is something in America and in society, there is some force – I’ll call it God – that ultimately wants us to get it right.

Some events during 2020 have been referred to as a modern era of the Civil Rights Movement. Can you describe what it was like to live through that?

If I can use a different terminology, I think what we’re seeing is another re-litigation of the Civil War. The issue has been: Are people of color whole persons in American society? We lost almost half a million people in the 1860s dealing with that question, but the question still hasn’t been answered. We’re still fighting to get full recognition.
It’s heartwarming for me to see younger people of color fighting that battle, but at the same time, it’s heartbreaking for me to see that we’re still fighting that battle in 2021.

Many alumni have talked about being Black students in a predominantly white space. After graduating Miami, what advice can you offer to students who may find themselves in a similar situation?

The one thing that I would tell students is to use your time at Miami wisely, because, as you find out once you advance into the professional world, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you’re the only persons of color in the workplace. So learn how to operate in that niche and learn how to make sure that you’re working your program and achieving your goal when you’re in an environment where you are the minority. The skills that you get navigating as a minority at Miami are skills that you can use in the professional world.