by Kentrice S. Rush
The phrase “Thee I Love,” penned in 1916 as part of the alma mater “Jackson Fair,” has been long-associated with Jackson State University.
But it was a group of alumni called A.I.M. (Alumni in Motion), organized to support the university during some difficult financial times, who breathed new life into those words.
Today, “Thee I Love” is on branded merchandise and on an official Mississippi car tag. It’s the most popular JSU social media-related hashtag, the name of the students’ annual fun day before the end of the school year, and a standard line in JSU President William B. Bynum Jr.’s speeches.
“Every time I see a different iteration of ‘Thee I Love,’ it’s always mind-blowing that something so simple caught on in such a big way,” says Aaron Thompson III, a 2004 graduate and original A.I.M. leader. “It’s definitely a point of pride — not just for myself but for all the work that I know we did as a group. And more importantly, the reason for our organization is to help to improve morale at Jackson State.”
Morale was definitely an issue during the 2009-2010 academic year. It was reported that by 2012, state appropriations for Mississippi’s universities could be reduced by 25 percent. Subsequently, budgets were cut, and schools began to reduce their programs and personnel. The year was particularly difficult for JSU as speculation of a potential merger of Mississippi’s public HBCUs — JSU, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University — grew. And, against this backdrop, President Ronald Mason resigned after a decade of leading JSU.
Alumni get in motion
With uncertainty in the air, a group of young alumni decided to step up and organize, forming A.I.M. The goal was to reconnect young alumni to the university; raise funds for scholarships and other critical campus needs, and boost morale. Thompson, then a JSU recruiter and counselor, led the effort. Additional members included: Brian Grizzell, (’99); Tangelia Kelly, (’04); D. Nicole Kennebrew, (’04); Jimmy Lee, (’05); Eltease Moore, (’05); Gladys Peters, (’04); Damian Thomas, (’03); and Adrian Wilson, (’10). The organization eventually grew to be 100 strong.
In June 2010, A.I.M. launched the Seed Campaign, a grassroots effort that utilized the growing use of social media as a source of promotion. At the time, Facebook was only 6 years old; Twitter was 4 years old, and Instagram was just coming on the scene.
The campaign had a goal of raising $75,000 by JSU’s Oct. 30 homecoming game, with a “blackout” T-shirt.
Designed by Thompson, black JSU T-shirts were sold for $10 and worn by supporters during the September 2010 football game against Mississippi Valley State University. Ultimately, the group raised $25,000, including solicited donations, with proceeds going to the university to help with security upgrades and scholarships.
The power of a song
Following the Seed Campaign, A.I.M. members met in 2011, looking to hone their fundraising approach. Thompson decided that they should pull from the university’s alma mater, “Jackson Fair.”
He had captured a video at the end of a JSU-Southern University game the prior year of the massive crowd singing the alma mater.
Initially written by JSU English professor Thomas D. Pawley II in 1916, “Jackson Fair” was later edited and revised by JSU music department chairman Frederick Douglass (F.D.) Hall in 1923. The first stanza reads:
Jackson Fair, Jackson Dear
Thee I Love, My Dear Old College Home
Thee I Love, Wherever I May Roam
Jackson Fair, Jackson Dear.
Thompson said the scene at the game was so moving, and so many people shared it on social media, that he began to notice the power of the line, “Thee I Love.” So, Thompson suggested that the group use “Thee I Love” on a shirt. Jackson State University was added to the design for clarity.
On Sept. 21, 2011, Thompson tweeted #TheeILove for the first time. He also mentioned a homecoming T-shirt drive. From there, the phrase took off.
A.I.M. partnered with the JSU Bookstore and delivered 2,000 of the light blue and navy “Thee I Love” shirts, hoping they would not end up with inventory. Within an hour, the shirts sold out. Thompson’s social media inboxes were full of inquiries and the bookstore could not keep up with the demand. In the end, more than 5,000 shirts were sold and thousands of dollars was raised for the university, which set the stage for the A.I.M. Endowed Scholarship.
“I didn’t know the impact of it until after the promotion was over and people still wanted to buy the shirt,” Kelly says. “It kind of took on a life of its own. It started out as a flicker, and the next thing you know, it was a flame.”
“I knew it was something special, but I had no idea the impact would be this large,” she adds. “I had no idea that alumni of all ages and the University would embrace it as a mantra.”
Today, members of A.I.M. live and work across the U.S. But wherever they may roam, they continue to show love for their dear old college home — through recruitment efforts, donations, and participation in university and alumni events. And the mantra that came from their efforts will forever be part of their legacy.
“Thee I Love’ is not the only example or the only way to do what we did. All we did was find something that was part of our history and amplify it,” said Thompson. “There are so many other things that we can do. There’s another ‘Thee I Love’ that can happen. There’s another A.I.M. that can happen … So, I would say, don’t stop with ‘Thee I Love.’ Find other things within our story that can be amplified and used for the good of Jackson State.”