Clemson University President James Barker on Tuesday decried a party where white students mocked black stereotypes by drinking malt liquor and at least one student dressed in blackface.
Barker said in a letter to students and faculty the university was investigating. The NAACP also confirmed it was looking into the Clemson party and other similar events held at universities throughout the country.
"I was appalled, angered and disappointed when I learned that a group of Clemson students participated in activities at an off-campus party that appeared to mock and disparage African Americans," Barker said. "Many people have been offended and deeply hurt."
Later in the day, about 50 students and local residents gathered about 20 miles from campus at a library where students said they would plan a demonstration at the school and suggested apologies were needed from the party's planners and university officials.
"Yes, it may have been free speech, but it was disrespectful, and that's why we're mad," said Ranniese McDonald, 20, a junior engineering student. "We need to come together to say, 'Racism is alive, and this will not be tolerated.'"
School officials said they became aware of the party over the weekend and have met with some of the offended students. The party, which students said had a "gangsta" theme, was held the day before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Pictures from the party were posted on the social networking Web site Facebook.com.
Party planners apologize
Following uproar from the photos, party planners issued an unsigned apology letter through the school for "any disrespect we have caused."
"We invited all races and types of peoples and never meant any racial harm," according to the letter, which was provided to The Associated Press by school officials.
"We want everyone to know how sorry we are, and that we are willing to do anything to make things right," the letter said.
Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the party wasn't "just harmless fun."
"We once lynched African Americans as good fun and humor," Randolph said. "We also execute them at a real high rate for fun and humor. We also don't educate them or pay them like we pay others in the community, and that's fun and humorous to a lot of people."
Randolph confirmed the national office was investigating similar parties held elsewhere around the country.
Two other recent parties
Earlier this month, Tarleton State University officials in Stephenville, Texas, investigated a party that featured fried chicken and fake gang apparel, and at the University of Connecticut School of Law, students at an off-campus "Bullets and Bubbly" party held fake machine guns and 40-ounce malt liquor bottles.
Harold Hughes of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha said he had spoken with fellow members who went to the party and met Monday with angry students.
His impression was the party organizers were "naive" and those who posted pictures on the Internet didn't realize it was offensive.
"People put pictures of themselves drinking on the Internet and then go to a job interview and wonder why they didn't get a job," said Hughes, 21, of Columbia.
Hughes said his fraternity spent the King holiday doing community service. The school doesn't hold classes to observe the holiday.
"It's a big thing on campus to work on something to remember the slain civil rights leader," he said.
Marketing student Kim Leonard, 20, of St. Louis said she thought it was an "insensitive situation."
"Being from Missouri, it's not OK for me, and I would never participate in it," Leonard said.
Clemson officials said the school was investigating to see whether any students were harassed or if there was underage drinking at the party.
Barker said in his letter the issue could either divide or unite the school.
"I understand that many of the students involved in the party have come forward to apologize and reach out to those they have offended, and that is important and necessary. But more needs to be done," Barker said.
Randolph said he was concerned about "our future leaders of South Carolina."
"These aren't a bunch of hicks in the back woods somewhere," Randolph said.
Clemson University has roughly 1,100 black students out of more than 17,000 undergraduates, according to the university's Web site.