Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History, American Historical Association
"Moving toward Blackness"
The Rise of Black Power on Campus
The explosion of Black student activism in 1968 took many observers by surprise. Earlier in the decade, the violence unleashed by whites on nonviolent protesters in the South riveted a national television audience. Now, television news gave daily coverage to African American college students assertively seeking social change, but the images were often unsettling: violent clashes between Black students and the police in San Francisco; militant Black students disrupting classes in Madison; Black students occupying the computer center in Santa Barbara, the president's office at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and the entire south campus of City College in Harlem. This phase of the Black student movement was markedly different from the sit-ins of the early 1960s, which had featured courteous young men and women in dresses and suits and ties. Now students hurled a defiant vocabulary, wore African-inspired or countercultural clothing, and otherwise pushed the line between Black bourgeois ideals and revolutionary aesthetics. They wanted both upward mobility and an affirmation of African American culture and history, inclusion as well as social justice. The students wanted to expand Black access to higher education and make white colleges more responsive to the needs of a diverse student body, but their confrontational tactics and rhetoric dominated news coverage and shaped popular reception and understanding of their struggles.
Where did the new style come from, and how did Black students all over the country, without formal organizational links, express such similar grievances and demands? Why did the call for Black Power become increasingly popular among Black youth in the late 1960s? And why were students at historically Black colleges also up in arms? In fact, this phase of the Black student movement actually began on Black college campuses. Why? The explosion of activism seemed abrupt to some, and many media accounts linked it to the anger and sorrow over the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But the search for a new approach to racial reform had begun to take shape in the early 1960s, and accelerated after 1966, when most Black student organizations were formed. The idea of Black Power spread nationally as a challenge to nonviolence and integration and as urban insurrection became an annual summer event. By 1969 these developments culminated in what many observers were calling "a Black revolution," and universities were on the front lines.
The burgeoning racial liberalism of the early post-World War II years had given rise to an expectation that dismantling formal racial barriers would dramatically reduce racism among whites and usher in rapid and meaningful social change. Even the discerning W.E.B. Du Bois estimated shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that it would take about five years to implement integration, and this was likely a generous amount of time, in his view, for states to obey a federal mandate. For a variety of reasons, education emerged as the terrain for this national saga of racial transformation. The GI Bill's expansion of higher education, the long-standing emphasis within the Black community on higher education, and the Supreme Court victories against professional and primary school segregation reinforced the belief that education was the key to both Black progress and the creation of a new nation. At the same time, the combination of cold war anxieties, a rapidly expanding social science literature on "race relations" and the legal liberalism of the 1950s produced a narrative of the underprivileged Negro American's gradual and steady assimilation into the modern (white) nation. As one student said of the relentless pressure to conform to white cultural norms: "We didn't feel we had a choice; the implication was plain that we were being let into the university on the condition that we become white men with dark skins." According to Edgar W. Beckham, a 1958 graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, "We believed in what you might call automatic assimilation. We thought the black students would mysteriously merge into the white landscape." This worked because "there were so few of us, and Stokely hadn't shouted 'Black Power' yet." This feeling was widespread. "From 1948, when George McLaurin became the first black student enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, until the late 1960s," writes pioneering Oklahoma professor George Henderson, "black students at the University wished year after year that goodness would prevail and they would be treated as people of equal worth to whites. But it seldom happened."
Southern students hoped that traveling North to college would provide a respite from insult and indignity. The idea that the North and West were more racially liberal and tolerant than the South was deeply ingrained in the national self-image and in many individual expectations. Many Black southerners expected to encounter a liberal racial climate in the North, but found instead a jarring disconnect between image and reality. Frank Monteith came to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the late 1950s from South Carolina, where his aunt Modjeska Simkins was a nationally known leader of the state NAACP. From the airport, he shared a taxi to campus with a white freshman from Iowa. She pestered him relentlessly, asking, among other things: "Can I touch your hair?" Monteith worked with the Evanston NAACP to try to remove the racial identification question from the Northwestern application form, a question that was used by many colleges in the pre-affirmative-action era to enforce a limit on minority student admissions. The university pressured Monteith to join the band so that its lone Black musician would have a roommate on the road. "It was ugly traveling with the band," he recalls. In a sign of how widespread Jim Crow exclusions were across the Midwest, the two young men had to stay in private homes because no hotel across Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio would admit them. Madelyn Coar graduated from Northwestern in the early 1960s. She hailed from a neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, called "Dynamite Hill" because of the string of Klan bombings of Black homes there. "I chose a Northern school," she says, "so there would be no racism." But said she would not have made it through college were it not for an African American family in Evanston who became a second family to dozens of Black students at Northwestern in the 1950s and 1960s. Another student, Sandra Malone, says she came "not expecting racism." But within minutes of her arrival freshman year, her white roommate requested a transfer. A Wellesley freshman from St. Louis echoes these memories, recalling her arrival on campus in 1965: "This was Massachusetts, the home of the abolitionists. I thought I was escaping segregation." But she soon found herself embroiled in protest against the conservative culture at Wellesley.
The turmoil of the 1960s profoundly altered the liberal and colonialist conception of race and racism that had been forged in cold war America. Notwithstanding the strength of conservative resistance to racial reform in the United States, the civil rights struggle brought the limits of American racial liberalism to the fore, sparking a crisis that pushed many activists to consider more radical strategies and philosophies. Year after year of beatings, shootings, and murders of civil rights workers made growing numbers of African Americans question the morality of the nation and the veracity of its claims to liberal democracy. At the same time, rising unemployment, police violence, and segregation in the North made many Black Americans lose faith in the call for integration and in the sincerity of northern white allies, many of whom continued to counsel patience and gradualism. In 1963 Malcolm X offered a critique of integration: "It took the United States Army to get one Negro into the University of Mississippi; it took troops to get a few Negroes in the white schools at Little Rock and another dozen places in the South. It has been nine years since the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, yet less than ten per cent of the Negro students in the South are in integrated schools. That isn't integration, that's tokenism!"
This critique of token integration would spread rapidly among late 1960s college students who began to pay close attention to numbers and the actual scale of integration. Malcolm X convinced them of the failure of old modes of change, and they would rise up en masse to demand new ones. "Color blindness has led to blacks coming out on the short end of the academic stick," two campus observers wrote. Universities are "seas of whiteness," and student activism is forcing this out in the open. "What the universities have failed to realize in almost every case," they declared, "is that the American educational experience is a white experience, an experience based on white history, white tradition, white culture, white customs, and white thinking, an education designed primarily to produce a culturally sophisticated, middle class, white American."
Many collegiate activists of the late 1960s were first exposed to Black studies as high school students, especially in large cities like New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Oakland, where Black nationalist ideas were already in wide circulation and where large-scale school boycotts and demonstrations had begun to move beyond the call for integration and now called for community control of schools, Black history in the curriculum, and more Black teachers. In 1968 in New York, for one example, community control advocates ran a demonstration district in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn and built on a rich local history of alternative education. Keith Baird was the director of its Afro-American and Latin American studies programs. A veteran public school teacher, son of a Garveyite and longtime Black nationalist, Baird taught in the church-based "freedom schools" during the 1964 New York City school boycott. And from 1965 to 1968, he taught alongside legendary Harlem historian John Henrik Clarke in a youth heritage program in Harlem. Baird taught lessons on freedom fighters Denmark Vesey and Sojourner Truth, and institution-builders Carter G. Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune, as well as one comparing Caribbean calypso, U.S. jazz, and African music. He taught about precolonial African societies and exposed Harlem youth to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, J.A. Rogers, Melville Herskovits, and Basil Davidson. These experiences, as well as the introduction of Black history courses in many urban high schools in these years, demonstrated to young people that Black studies programs were imaginable and possible. A handful of colleges in the country offered Black history or literature courses, but the overwhelming majority did not, and none offered a degree-granting program in African American studies.
Notwithstanding gradual gains in mid-decade, Black student enrollment in public or private white universities in the late 1960s was still small. A nationwide survey of major state universities found that "black Americans are grossly underrepresented in higher education," but noted that many state universities in the North and West, but not the South, had launched special admissions programs. In 1969, white universities in the South had an average Black enrollment of 1.76 percent; in the East, the figure was 1.84 percent, in the Midwest it was 2.98 percent, and in the West if was 1.34 percent-a strikingly homogeneous national portrait.
Many students who entered college in the mid-1960s narrate stories of social awakening, budding activism, and transformed racial consciousness. Initially, according to a member of the class of 1969 at Wesleyan, "they wanted us to pretend we were just like them." But then "we began to see that the whites weren't supermen. They were just ordinary cats with ordinary hang-ups. That's when we stopped assimilating." Like many colleges, Wesleyan had dispersed Black students in the dormitories. The "official policy was to keep us apart," one student remembers. "But it didn't take us long to find each other." In contrast, at Wellesley, the six African American students who arrived in 1965 were given separate rooms away from white students: "You began to realize that racism was alive and well," one of the students recalls. According to Francille Rusan Wilson, "We were these nice little Southern girls, who had probably even brought white gloves with us. This was a period where, literally, you started off as a colored girl and ended up four years later a black woman."
Ramona Tascoe entered San Francisco State College in 1967 after twelve years of Catholic school. Born in Baton Rouge, she moved with her family to San Francisco in the early 1950s because her father had gotten a job at the San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard. Despite the California migration, her cultural roots were firmly in Louisiana. Her father was "a dark-skinned Creole," her was mother was light skinned, and the children were "not raised to be black." Her parents taught her not to speak about race and to "assimilate." She remembers that they were "not permitted to acknowledge our ethnicity, except in the pejorative." Her parents instructed her to "identify white folks who set the standard, and then do all you can to mold yourself in that model." Entering college, she felt like "a dry sponge, ready to absorb all that was missing," and took a Black studies course at the student-run Experimental College, "something I had never been exposed to." A freshman with "long, straightened hair," she "converted to an Afro quickly" and began to question the whole process of assimilation. Tascoe became a leader in the Black Student Union.
Wesley Profit entered Harvard in 1965 right after the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles, his hometown. The son of a Southern University graduate, Profit had attended boarding school and considered himself fairly sheltered. Part of a cohort of forty Black students, the largest group by far to enter Harvard at the same time, Profit says, they "were made to feel insecure in a thousand different ways. ... We were an experiment of sorts, and a lot of us had experiences that were discomforting and a little bit alienating." Few whites believed they were actually Harvard students. Clerks in campus and town stores would not accept their checks or charges, questioning their affiliation with the school. One night Profit and a group of fellow Black male students were departing a Radcliffe dormitory at the close of visiting hours, and were asked for identification by a Harvard security officer. They were reaching for their wallets, but upon noticing that a group of white males had not been similarly stopped, one student instructed the others: "Put your cards away!" This slightly older Army veteran announced, "I fought for this country and marched at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and I am not going to be treated this way and submit to a discriminatory request." And in a story that shows both the anxiety triggered by the presence of Black students, and the burden placed upon them to perform integration, a Harvard dean called a group of Black students into his office to object that they had been sitting together so often in the cafeteria and urge them to sit with white students. Profit recalls their effort to educate him, explaining that "the kids from Phillips Andover are all sitting together but you don't see it. You notice us."
The small number of Black students at Columbia University in New York in 1966 and 1967 encountered daily acts of suspicion regarding their status as students. "From day one our life on campus was political protest," says Leon Denmark. Every time he entered a building, he was asked for identification. Angered at this selective treatment, he and a classmate confronted the guard at Ferris Booth Hall: "We're gonna stand here for half an hour and see if you ask every white student for an ID." But the harassment faced by Black students was even more explicit. "People actually called us nigger on campus," Denmark recalls, and says that Black students were "naturally politicized by these things." Columbia student Al Dempsey, who was raised in the South and became a judge in Georgia, insists that "the worst racism I have seen is here at Morningside Heights." Coming together as Black students became a critical means of coping in a hostile environment. Denmark describes how important it was to them to form a chapter of the Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi, and to form study groups where they taught themselves the Black history absent in the curriculum.
Increasingly, Black students had to contend with the charge of separatism-that they were undermining progress toward integration, that they were afraid of competing with whites, or that they were practicing reverse racism and unfairly rejecting association with all whites. Students had a range of reactions to this charge, depending upon their social and political perspective. But those who did reject the assumptions underlying integration did not reject equal access to the rights and resources of the society. Rather, most students wanted to redefine integration-as multiculturalism rather than assimilation into white culture. They roundly rejected the notion that they were in retreat. As one observer put it: "They were not running away from whites, but moving toward Blackness." To be sure, some students vigorously critiqued integration as part of a larger critique of the ills of white American society. In a 1969 essay, "Separatism and Black Consciousness," a Black female student wrote, "The perversion of integration is that Black people are expected to give up a strong, healthy lifestyle, for one that is sick, dying and rotten. ... What can living with white people teach me that is good?" she asked. Finding that "the white man's days of domination are numbered," she saw no point in trying to integrate. "I am an Afroamerican and I want to maintain my ethnicity and humanism. I never want to be an All-American."
In 1969 a researcher visited fifty colleges to assess Black student views, and found idealistic expectations of campus life. "Large numbers of Black students believed that all they had to do was present themselves and they would be accepted." But their disappointment was giving rise to a determination to assert greater control over their education. He reported a "generalized suspicion and distrust of educational authority figures" and a strong desire for student participation in campus decision-making. They were "tired of having to prove their humanity again and again to every white they met" and of "living in a fishbowl." They resented the pressure to assimilate into the white majority on white terms. According to this researcher, the students' "whole conception of integration changed." It should be a two-way process.
A Yale sophomore reinforced this rejection of racial ambassadorship. "I came here to be a student, not to educate whites about blacks. I'm tired of being an unpaid, untenured professor teaching these guys the elementals of humanity." A Wellesley student describes the college's conception of integration in the mid-1960s: "It was very much a one way street, in that there was no recognition of the African American experience. This was our opportunity to become like them, not for Wellesley to become more like us or learn from us. That kind of idea just didn't exist." Moreover, students in this era were increasingly coming to believe that it was white racism, not a deficiency in skills or preparedness among African Americans, that explained racial inequality in society. This new perspective moved Black students to embrace a Black identity, actively reframe Blackness in a positive fashion, push back against white conceits, and organize new, Black-identified social, cultural, and political spaces on campuses, with Black student unions being the most prominent and well-known example. "They never let you forget you were black," a Berkeley student observed in 1967, so "we decided to remember we were black."
In a study of Black student outlooks, political scientist Charles Hamilton, who coauthored Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, found that students had begun to explicitly critique integration, seeing it as synonymous with racial assimilation. "Integration has traditionally meant that blacks should try to be like whites. It has implied that black people were being done a favor by whites. This is part of what the black students are rejecting, and they believe that the institutions of higher learning have been and are insensitive to this." They expressed, he found, a "profound distrust of national government institutions as well as the schools of higher education that they attend." He expressed surprise at the pace of their politicization. These students, Hamilton wrote, "have formed judgments about the nature of political and economic and educational systems much faster than previous generations of activists-especially civil rights activists."
Students expressed this new consciousness in powerful, forceful terms, and they did so on campuses large and small, all over the nation. A recurring theme in the students' activism was a desire to show their loyalty to poor Black communities and not let their entrance into white academia be seen as a rejection of their culture and communities. "They talk of the university being 'relevant' to the needs of the black community," Charles Hamilton observed after visiting sixty-six colleges. "They have in mind the university as a place where not just a few black students come and graduate and move up and out (to the suburbs), but where new ideas and techniques are developed for the political and economic benefit of the total black community. In other words, they look to the university, naively or not, as a beginning place for social reform or 'revolution.'" Protesting Black female students at Vassar wrote this preamble to their demands: "We refuse not only to waste four years of our lives, but to jeopardize four years of our lives becoming socialized to fit a white dominant cultural pattern. For the Black student to be asked to submit to such acculturation is to ask the student to willingly accept his own deculturalization-his own dehumanization. We refuse to have our ties to the black community systematically severed; to have our life styles, our ambitions, our visions of our selves made to conform solely to any white mold."
Along with the critique of cultural assimilation, the turn toward Black Power affected the rhetorical style of Black student leaders. Stokely Carmichael, coauthor of the influential text Black Power and longtime leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was pivotal in the rapid spread of revolutionary rhetoric and a confrontational style among students. Because SNCC was unraveling in the late 1960s, and because Carmichael moved to Africa in 1969 and disappeared from the American media radar, his popularity has been underappreciated. In many ways, he picked up the mantle left by the slain Malcolm X, whose posthumous Autobiography of Malcolm X was a similarly influential text. Also pushing this generation to feel that they were part of a seismic change was the urban unrest, especially the uprisings in Newark and Detroit in the summer of 1967 that rocked the nation, unnerved the establishment, and made many young African Americans feel and understand the power, danger, and threat of widespread Black rebellion. This turn toward militant rhetoric and Black Power not only unsettled and alarmed whites but also divided African Americans. "To be authentically black became highly subjective and depended very much on the eye of the beholder," one scholar found. And militancy raised the stakes, serving "as a means of disciplining black students as a whole and policing the boundaries of blackness." The "scathing epithets 'Tom' or 'Oreo' kept less-militant, less-separatist black students in line."
Alongside this process of politicization, social pressure, and rejection of older paradigms was the search for new ideologies. Students were rejecting fundamental pillars of American society but did not have a clear replacement. In Hamilton's view, they were "almost frantically searching for new ideas and ideologies to explain society" and engaging in "endless hours of ideological discussion." Capturing their attention was a new breed of revolutionaries. Fidel Castro, the socialist president of Cuba, had defeated a U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and pledged Cuban support for national liberation struggles in Africa. Castro was also a staunch supporter of the African American struggle, and famously stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem during a visit to the United Nations. Robert F. Williams is another figure whose early 1960s radicalism impressed Black students later in the decade. An NAACP leader in North Carolina, Williams advocated and practiced armed self-defense, faced down the Klan, and fled first to Cuba and later to China. While in Cuba, his radio show, Radio Free Dixie, reached listeners in the United States, and Negroes with Guns, his account of his use of armed self-defense in North Carolina, inspired the founders of the Revolutionary Action Movement, an underground Black organization that for a time in the mid-1960s attracted a coterie of college students.
The phrase Black Power may bring to mind ghetto uprisings and incendiary rhetoric, but the rise of Black Power on campus had a strong intellectual dimension. Campus study groups were extremely significant in shaping new racial identities and consciousness. Coinciding with the Black arts movement, whose poetry, painting, and performance deeply stirred students, an outpouring of new journals, manifestos, newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programming featured debates and discussions of the new ideas percolating through the Black Power movement. Black students across the country read and debated the ideas of Frantz Fanon, Harold Cruse, Melville Herskovits, E. Franklin Frazier, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nathan Hare, Karl Marx, and Malcolm X. The students were passionate about finding ways to translate theory into practice. Their models were wide-ranging: Gillo Pontecorvo's film Battle of Algiers gave Northwestern students a strategy to maintain secrecy in planning their building takeover; at the University of Oklahoma, the Afro-American Student Union applied the ideas of Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky. But "if Alinsky was our tactician, Fanon was our fire," remembers the students' faculty mentor, George Henderson. "His books were widely read by black collegians throughout the United States. It was not a far stretch," he notes, "for most of the black students at the University of Oklahoma to identify with the colonized people of Africa." This identification and solidarity with others struggling in Africa, and in Asia and Latin America too, grew in the 1970s. A key distinction between civil rights and Black Power was internationalism-seeing the past and present of Black Americans as inextricably linked to colonized and formerly colonized people worldwide. Study groups encouraged this new consciousness, and later, overseas travel would as well.
For some, the most startling aspect of the radicalization of Black students was their consideration of the idea of armed struggle. I write idea because this development should not be exaggerated and it proved to be more posture than practice. Moreover, it is important to note that, during the long Black freedom struggle, violence was used overwhelmingly against Black people, not by Black people. Nevertheless, militant rhetorical strategies by student leaders and widespread admiration for the tradition of armed self-defense as exemplified by Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party influenced the media's depiction of student activists-sometimes unfairly and inaccurately-and shaped outcomes. The larger social context is critical in understanding the skepticism, especially among young males, toward the rhetoric of nonviolence and the practice of turning the other cheek that is most associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and the southern civil rights movement.
Many factors propelled this skepticism. Young people in the late 1960s witnessed a sharp escalation in American involvement in Vietnam and very high casualty figures, all for an anticommunist rationale that they increasingly came to reject. For them, Dr. King's statement in a 1967 speech that the United States government was "the greatest purveyor of violence" in the world seemed true, and it heightened the hypocrisy in the government's urging of nonviolence on protesters. Moreover, eighteen-year-olds in 1968 had spent their childhoods watching television news footage of racist violence inflicted on nonviolent Black southerners, including children. The rioting that broke out in cities beginning in the summer of 1964 and peaking in 1967 and 1968 led to hundreds of deaths, mostly of African Americans at the hands of police officers, but the violence also seemed to shake up political establishments and spark efforts to placate restive urban centers. Moreover, many Africans had embraced armed struggle in the fight to overthrow European colonial rule. This context altered the discursive strategies of many Black student activists, leading to new motifs, tactics, slogans, and all-around style. For example, in an episode of Black Heritage, on WCBS-TV in New York, student leaders passionately discussed "racism and education" and "the new role for Black students," and as the show came to a close, an unidentified man offered this suggestion to move forward: "If students took up the gun on the campus and begin to act out on the basis of gun power ... that might be one basis on which you can do some challenging."
Charles Hamilton found that students were seriously questioning nonviolence. "They do not believe in the efficacy of nonviolence as a philosophy or as a tactic. In fact, many are of the opinion that unless violence is used in some form, there is little likelihood of getting attention from 'the power structure.'" Students began using new language: embracing "revolution" and "revolt," questioning "working within the system" and openly challenging "the white power structure." "The rhetoric gave them a meaningful frame that fitted what they saw around them. And their political consciousness developed." Hamilton also found that rhetoric was used to "shock whites," a tactic displayed over and over again in campus confrontations. But at most campuses, even as students embraced many aspects of Black nationalism, they remained nonviolent in both theory and practice. In describing the popularity of anticolonial writer Frantz Fanon among Blacks at the University of Oklahoma, George Henderson stresses the appeal of "his strategies for achieving black solidarity and positive self-images. There was little attraction among blacks on our campus for a violent revolution." Still, a 1970 study of Black high school students found that "nearly half of the activists agreed with the statement 'violence is cleansing,' as did more than a third of the nonactivists." Even more telling, only 7 percent of all the Black students thought that whites could be "persuaded" to change.
Black student organizations became the most common vehicle for Black student protest. Some Black student organizations began in the early 1960s and were more social than political, but most began in 1967 or 1968 and were steeped in activist culture. The title Black Student Union was common on the West Coast, while many groups on the East Coast were named Student Afro-American Society, but there was great diversity. At Northwestern University, the new organization was called For Members Only, after a sign students had seen on an exclusive club on Chicago's north shore. The word Black had negative connotations among most Americans, but Malcolm X, in particular, reversed its meaning for a younger generation of African Americans, who ushered in a lasting change in group nomenclature and identity. By "thinking black" as Malcolm X urged, they "transformed blackness from an inherited set of physical characteristics to a deliberate political and cultural stance." There were many attempts to establish regional and national student formations. In the spring of 1968, Black students from thirty-seven colleges in nineteen states met at Shaw University and formed the Congress for the Unity of Black Students. There were efforts to unify Black students in regional alliances over the next few years, notably in California, but also in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. Most striking is the similarity of student grievances and reform goals, given this autonomous, local organizational structure.
The Black Power movement elevated male leadership, reflecting the patriarchy of the larger society as well as the tactics and ideology of the late 1960s Black liberation movement. The reappraisal of nonviolence and embrace of more militant rhetoric increased the visibility of male leaders, as did the fallout from a report authored in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the U.S. Labor Department, which identified a rise in female-headed Black families as a worrisome economic indicator and unnatural social development. The Moynihan report would eventually help propel the rise of Black feminism, but at the time it dovetailed with the rise of Black nationalism, which had typically seen the cultivation of patriarchal gender roles as essential to race advancement.
In a sign of the masculine tenor of the times, Darlene Clark Hine, an undergraduate at Roosevelt University in Chicago in the mid-1960s who went on to become a leading scholar in African American women's history, remembers reading, studying, listening to, and valorizing Black men almost exclusively. Black men and their words and experiences represented the race. She found "ample opportunity to study and learn about black men, including, for example, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver." She applauded their strong images, calling them a "powerful antidote" to the widespread negative depictions of Black men in U.S. culture. "Articulate, handsome, fiercely self-conscious freedom fighters, these men garnered massive media coverage" for their demands for Black rights and social transformation. Like thousands of other Black college students of her generation, Hine read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am, Richard Wright's Native Son, James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. And like so many of her peers, she listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Pharoah Sanders. She was "oblivious" to the lack of attention paid "to black women's experiences" and even felt she had developed a "black masculine consciousness" by the time she entered graduate school in 1968.
But male dominance did not go entirely uncontested. On several campuses, female leaders of Black student organizations were pressured to give way to male leadership: some relented, others held on. Deborah Gray White was president of her college's Afro-Latin Alliance when a rise in Black student admissions in 1968 spawned demands for a separate Black organization. "Some of the more nationalist black students called those of us who wanted to keep the Afro-Latin Alliance names like Oreo or Uncle Tom." White felt "particularly set upon as president of the Afro-Latin Alliance because the new students demanded masculine representation." She "never got used to being a moderate among black nationalists," but she "persevered."
In his survey of Black student activism, Charles Hamilton found an occasional but "conscious effort to distinguish the roles of men and women. This was especially the case," he found, "where the groups had, as at one midwestern university, adopted a Nation of Islam (Black Muslim) motif. The men served as snappy, disciplined, military-type guards. The women studied their role in the revolutionary vanguard." Whatever the outcome, he found that the Black consciousness upsurge had sparked "serious questioning of the relation of the sexes." On many campuses, "some of the males, sensitive to the theory of black male emasculation, argued that leadership roles should be assumed by men-especially in such matters as occupying buildings, negotiating with school officials, and talking to the press. Their view was that the black man had to speak for the 'Black family of students and be out front in a position to protect the black women.'" But Hamilton also observed some young women push back. "Some of the women were reluctant to give up the egalitarian method of rewarding position," he noted. In the end, he emphasized an important feature of the movement: "Whatever the situation, it was quite evident that men and women students, generally, were about equally active in the groups." Notwithstanding the popularity of patriarchal norms or rhetoric, this was an era of youth revolt, incipient women's liberation, and overall questioning of authority. Young women were full participants in the Black student movement.
Black women students on white campuses had particular grievances that arose from the interplay between their racial and gender experience. The social scene became a point of tension and contestation. A student at the University of Bridgeport told a reporter: "It's much easier for a boy to get along here. If he's a good athlete and a good dancer, he can get into a fraternity and no white girl is going to turn him down if he asks her to dance. But we can't ask a white boy for a date, and you can be sure they don't ask us. With lots of the black boys dating white girls, we just sit around the dorms and get angry." Still, Black women students were hardly passive participants in the negotiation of campus gender relations. Charles Hamilton recorded "a vivid example" of such a negotiation in a meeting at Northwestern University in March 1969. "A black co-ed had accused a white fraternity member of insulting her," and "Black students subsequently invaded the fraternity house and damaged some property." At the meeting "the black co-eds were asking for commitments from the black male students to defend black womanhood. One after another, the black men spoke-some vehemently in defense of the co-eds (they were judged Men); some equivocated in their willingness to fight 'by any means necessary' (they were put down as Mice). The session became very heated; egos were strained and challenged. Physical blows were almost passed... . 'It really got rough there at one point,' a black graduate student said. 'Cats were outdoing each other and that whole black masculinity thing was coming out. At one point, I was sitting there just hoping that some white person would throw a brick through the window just to bring us together again.'" He continued: "The Sisters were really coming down hard on the dudes who didn't sound right."
Black nationalism married the repudiation of interracial dating with authentic Blackness. Greensboro student leader Nelson Johnson remembers being exposed to Black Power ideas and Pan-Africanism by the charismatic activist Howard Fuller. His critique of interracial dating stood out. "He talked a strong black power line," he says of Fuller. "There was a lot of interracial dating among activists at that time and he challenged us to stop it. He whipped on any black man dating white girls so hard it was no longer in vogue." Some students who persisted in dating or marrying "outside the race" felt their loyalty to the cause was unfairly called into question. This was true for a Black female student leader at a major midwestern university whose white boyfriend marked her as racially suspect in the eyes of many Black nationalist students, even with her tireless work and devotion to the movement.
What were the social origins of the students who engaged in such militant action? Student activists were a mix of preaffirmative action children of college-educated parents, first-generation college students from migrant, working-class families, and some (hailing from either group) who had already had some experience in the Black freedom struggle. While many colleges and universities began to implement modest Black student recruitment programs in the early 1960s in response to the stirrings of the southern civil rights movement, the 1965 Higher Education Act propelled greater desegregation and also sparked change in the class composition of Black students. Between 1966 and 1968, crucial seedtime for subsequent demonstrations, there was a dramatic increase in students from low-income families in predominantly white colleges. Leon Denmark recollects that of the approximately thirty-five Black students who entered Columbia College in New York in 1966, "all were from public school." And "we had a certain attitude," he recalls.
According to a study Charles Hamilton conducted in 1969 with 264 students at fifteen colleges, half were getting some kind of scholarship aid. Only one-third of students reported a parental contribution. The vast majority of students were financing education through a combination of sources: scholarships, employment, parental contribution, and loans. Seventy-four percent of the parents had no college education. The single most-frequent parental occupation was "blue collar worker," a category that would virtually disappear in twenty years. These students hailed from what Hamilton termed upper-lower- or lower-middle-class families. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree entered college in 1971, and remembers that the experience was a jolt for all of them. "Most of the black students who entered Stanford in the fall were the first members of their families to attend college." And of those parents who had attended college, most had attended historically Black colleges. So they were all integrating. Interestingly, Hamilton found a pronounced break from religion among these students. Eighty-five percent of students in his sample grew up in religious families, yet 65 percent of them indicated that they were not personally followers of a religion. "Today's black student is clearly rejecting the organized church of his parents," Hamilton reported.
In addition to the politicization of Black students on white campuses, students at historically Black colleges underwent their own process of politicization. The spread of the Black student movement at both white and Black colleges helps account for its national breadth. Black colleges have a reputation for conservatism. They do not typically come to mind as locations that give rise to protest. But the first large-scale protests by Black college students directed at campus policies occurred at historically Black colleges and then spread to white colleges. Given that popular and scholarly accounts so often portray the Black Power movement as taking place in the urban North and West, it is important to acknowledge that Black student protest around the country was largely inspired by southern campus struggles that were part and parcel of the Black Power upsurge. "Without question, the Black Power-Black Consciousness movement has been felt in the South," wrote Charles Hamilton, formerly a professor at Tuskegee University. A tidal wave of protest swept historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by a range of student grievances, most notably white financial and administrative control, excessive regulation of student life, excessive discipline, inferior facilities and faculty, and outmoded or Eurocentric curriculum.
Given that schools like Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the Atlanta University Center had been home to pioneers in Black scholarship-such as historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, political scientist Ralph Bunche, historian Rayford Logan, philosopher Alain Locke, and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier-what provoked the charge of Eurocentrism? Darwin T. Turner, dean of the graduate school at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, argued that a move away from studying Black subjects emerged from the optimism spawned by early legal decisions supporting desegregation, the defeat of Fascism, and postwar affluence. Political repression, too, was most likely a factor. "The tendency for black educators to neglect materials related to Afro-American heritage intensified, I believe, during the early 1950s," Turner wrote. The many "indications of opening doors persuaded many blacks to discourage any education which emphasized the existence of Afro-Americans as a body separate from the rest of America." As a result, "studies of Afro-American history, literature, sociology, economics, and politics were stuffed into the traditional surveys, which were already so overcrowded that important materials must be omitted." He felt that "integrated surveys" were necessary but insufficient "to provide Afro-Americans with the necessary understanding of their culture." Indeed, in 1968, several members of Howard's board of trustees "were shocked that courses in Black history, jazz and literature were not presently offered. 'We had many of these things in the 1930s,' commented one member." A 1968 graduate of the prestigious Spelman College complained of "being taught a super kind of European history." Of fifteen courses in a literature department at the Atlanta University Center, she said, "fourteen of them will be on European Renaissance or medieval literature, Elizabethan poetry." She also lamented a "super kind of paternalism" and "Puritanism," but nevertheless acknowledged the important history of black scholarship at the Atlanta University Center and what she termed "a healthy kind of racialism."
Students at scores of Black colleges organized campaigns to reverse these trends, a story that will be taken up more fully in chapter 5, but events at three campuses need to be highlighted because they marked the beginning of the national Black student movement. Clashes at HBCUs in 1967 and 1968 inspired Black students nationwide, in part because students on these campuses faced extraordinary police invasions. In May 1967, police led a full-scale assault on Texas Southern University in Houston. One night a person or persons threw rocks and bottles from a dormitory and allegedly fired a gun as well. At two o'clock in the morning police officers invaded the campus, firing "3000 rounds of pistol and automatic gunfire" into the dorm. Their rampage left one of their own killed by a police officer's bullet, two other officers wounded, at least two students wounded from gunfire, several students bitten by police dogs, and many other students with physical injuries. The Houston police invaded the building, tore up rooms looking for weapons, and arrested 488 students. "No bull horns were used to inform the dormitory residents of the impeding attack and no tear gas was used at any time. Instead, there was a barrage of rifle and pistol fire that could have killed scores of students." Mrs. Hattie Harbert, a housemother in the dormitory, said police "made me lie on the floor and two or three of them walked on me." She also saw police carry out "five or six students bloody as beef."
As an NAACP official wired to the U.S. Attorney General the following morning: "It is clear that Houston police engaged in a vengeful and destructive rampage against persons and property at Texas Southern University." The confrontation came after two months of almost continuous demonstrations against police mistreatment of TSU students and substandard conditions generally in the Houston Black community. No weapons were ever found in the dorm. Five students, known as "the TSU five," were charged with the officer's murder, even though he was felled by an officer's bullet. All the students were ultimately cleared, but their prosecution distracted attention from the true culprits. According to opinion surveys shortly afterward, the TSU police riot increased pro-Black Power sentiment among African Americans in Houston; and with the extensive print and broadcast media coverage of the riot, this effect was likely felt beyond Texas.
Perhaps the massive firepower at TSU resulted from the highly militarized riot response plans developed in police departments after the Watts uprising of 1965; perhaps it reflected a particular hostility toward increasingly assertive Black students. Whatever the explanation, the invasion was a disturbing harbinger of things to come, and while it prompted many regional protests by Black students, it did not give rise to a national outcry. But this national outcry was soon to come. Less than a year later, in February 1968, officers with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division shot and killed three African Americans-Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton-on the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Known as the Orangeburg Massacre, the killings outraged and mobilized Black students nationwide. However, the rapid string of assassinations, street clashes, global upheavals and military battles of 1968 soon overshadowed the Orangeburg killings in the major media, leading to the mistaken impression that they had generated little impact.
Students at Orangeburg had been engaged in protests against a city bowling alley and other public facilities that were still refusing service to African Americans four years after passage of the Civil Rights Act. On February 8, state highway patrolman, newly outfitted with the latest antiriot armaments, converged on a campus gathering and opened fire into a large group of students. Most of the students were already fleeing, so the bullets hit them from the back. The white police officers killed three youths and wounded thirty more people. As at Texas Southern, this was an extraordinary display of firepower, and shows how law enforcement nationwide reacted to the urban uprisings by amassing greater weaponry and firepower and, in some instances, unleashing it on student protesters. Afterward, the police rushed to whitewash the incident, claiming falsely that the students had opened fire. Under pressure from civil rights leaders, the federal government stepped in and tried nine officers, but the white jury acquitted them. No officer was ever held accountable for these murders, and incredibly, the only person ever convicted and sentenced as a result of the Orangeburg Massacre was a SNCC activist who had been shot in the back, Cleveland Sellers.
The Orangeburg Massacre is widely considered one of the "forgotten tragedies" of the civil rights and student movements, but it sparked a wave of sympathy protests by Black college students across the country. These students identified with the slain young men. From Howard University in Washington, D.C., to Crane College in Chicago, students were hurt and angry and held their own commemorations and memorials for the students. "The Orangeburg massacre went through the emergent black power movement like a bolt of lightning," recalls Nelson Johnson, who was a student leader at North Carolina AT. Black student leaders from sixteen colleges in North Carolina gathered in Durham and agreed to hold "creative demonstrations" on their campuses. At North Carolina AT, they burned the governor of South Carolina in effigy and conducted a mock funeral procession for the slain young men in what became one of the largest demonstrations in Greensboro. The Orangeburg Massacre was one of a series of catalysts that generated a national student demand for Black studies. In just one example, a year later a commemoration of the massacre at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte led to the creation of a Black studies program.
Students at HBCUs inspired and shaped the Black student movement nationally not only by their martyrdom but also through their efforts to improve and preserve Black colleges. In an extraordinarily important, though strikingly forgotten, dimension of the Black Power movement, students fought for the survival of Black colleges in this era of desegregation. The quest by militant Black youth to "save" Black colleges was an outgrowth of their commitment to Black self-determination, yet it dovetailed with the professional desires of Black administrators, who tended to be more politically and socially conservative. Despite this shared long-term goal, conflict and hostility defined the student-administrator relationship. Struggles at HBCUs brought into sharp relief the twin targets of Black Power: white control and integrationist Negro leadership. Students often criticized administrators in biting, acerbic terms, as "Uncle Toms" working to manage the plantation at the expense of a younger generation of Black people eager to transform racial dynamics across American society. The students were seeking to make Negro colleges "blacker," and this was controversial among African Americans. At the same time, the students assailed southern white legislatures for inadequate funding of public HBCUs, and whites on the boards of directors of private HBCUs for their paternalistic control of Black institutions. And there were undeniable generational cleavages as well. Students opposed the strict curfews, dress codes (especially for women), and other in loco parentis rules, which they increasingly framed as excessive and oppressive. Indeed, in a sharp rupture, the students were forgoing the "politics of respectability," forged in the era of Jim Crow, in favor of more assertive forms of Black representation and protest.
Many students at Howard, most famously Stokely Carmichael, had been involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and even interrupted their schooling to go south and join the movement. By the mid-1960s their gaze had shifted to the universities themselves. Howard students staged a series of major campus protests in 1967, 1968, and 1969. They protested the war in Vietnam, the draft, and in loco parentis, but most controversially they argued that Howard should declare itself a "Black university" in service to Black communities. Surprisingly, the curriculum at Howard had few courses in either African American studies or contemporary urban and social problems. According to one observer, "Professor Sterling Brown was for years alone in including Negro writers in literature courses," and "the college had made few efforts to study or actively participate in the black community around it." The rise of Black Power inspired protest at dozens of historically Black colleges: Howard was simply one of the first. A catalyst for the surge in Black nationalist feeling was President James M. Nabrit Jr.'s declaration in the fall of 1966 that Howard should raise its admissions standards and admit more white students. This statement came amid a larger context of anxiety over what integration portended for Black institutions. In response, students, along with Nathan Hare, a professor of sociology who became an important mentor and ally to Black student activists nationwide, organized the Black Power Committee to promote Black consciousness among the students in order to prepare them to challenge the university's new direction.
In addition to students, a cohort of young Black professors began to envision a new and leading role for historically Black colleges in the post-Jim-Crow era. Charles Hamilton first articulated the conception of a "black university" in a 1967 speech, "The Place of the Black College in the Human Rights Struggle." He called on Black colleges to reject the white middle-class character imposed on them by white funders and to redefine their mission to provide greater aid and assistance to Black communities. Later published in the Negro Digest, Hamilton's article spawned a yearly tradition of devoting an entire issue of the Negro Digest (later the Black World) to the idea of a Black university. According to Hamilton, the mission of the Black university was to develop a distinctive Black ethos; to prepare students to help solve problems in poor Black communities; and to offer a new curriculum, one that was relevant to contemporary needs but which also required a course in ancient African civilizations. "I am talking modernization," Hamilton asserted. "I propose a black college that would deliberately strive to inculcate a sense of racial pride and anger and concern in its students." The ideas in his essay illustrate the emerging view that the Black intelligentsia was a relatively untapped and potentially radical leadership resource for the Black liberation movement. In some respects, Hamilton was advancing an updated version of W.E.B. Du Bois's idea of a "talented tenth," an educated elite cadre who would advance the interests of the race as a whole. "We need," Hamilton declared, "militant leadership which the church is not providing, unions are not providing and liberal groups are not providing. ... I propose a black college," he wrote, "that would be a felt, dominant force in the community in which it exists. A college which would use its accumulated intellectual knowledge and economic resources to bring about desired changes in race relations in the community." It would dispense with "irrelevant PhDs," he wrote, and "recruit freedom fighters and graduate freedom fighters."
Howard became the locus of this struggle, but the quest for a Black university did not take place in isolation. It coincided with the broader social justice movement of the era, especially the struggle to end the war in Vietnam, the draft, and compulsory military training courses. A visit to Howard by General Lewis B. Hershey, head of the Selective Service System, in the spring of 1967, triggered an escalation of protest on that would shake the campus for the next two years. Someone in the audience yelled, "America is a black man's true battleground," and about forty students rushed the stage, preventing Hershey from speaking. In the aftermath, Howard suspended twenty students and dismissed six politically active professors, including Nathan Hare. The university labeled these faculty members, four of whom were white, as "a dangerous element" for allegedly promoting Black Power. But the student newspaper, the Hilltop, reminded readers that the charge of communism had been used in the McCarthy era to discredit reform in general. "In effect the university used public hysteria over black power," the student-editors wrote, "to cloak its efforts to get rid of controversial teachers who encouraged students to ask questions about the administration of the university or the position of black people in this country." Nathan Hare was immersed in student radicalism at Howard and in his next job, at San Francisco State College; at both he adopted the rhetoric and style of student leaders and stood with them shoulder to shoulder, a choice that landed him in hot water with his employers on both coasts. Upset that Howard had no code of conduct or student inclusion in disciplinary procedures, the suspended students hired attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and sued Howard in federal court.
Protest continued the next academic year, including a victorious sit-in in the fall that brought an end to compulsory ROTC classes. Michael Harris, president of the freshman class, led many of the anti-ROTC protests and also served as political director of the Black nationalist student organization, Ujamma. The son of a police officer and a secretary, Harris said that his Catholic high school experience in Chicago had turned him off to integration because he couldn't be himself. In his view, "Howard University should serve another purpose other than preparing people to fill slots in white society." Students, he felt, "want Howard to belong to the black people in Washington, D.C., the black people surrounding the university." Harris's comments in 1968 reflect the intense pace of change in the country and the sense that the United States was undergoing unprecedented confrontation that was likely to intensify. "I think that in about five years there's going to be an all-out race war," he declared that summer, fresh from visiting the Poor People's Campaign's encampment at the Capitol, known as Resurrection City, where he says police were threatening a violent takeover and using tear gas against women and children. "To me, black power is simply a means of getting ready for the confrontation."
In February 1968, hundreds of students at Howard staged a sympathy demonstration for the slain students in Orangeburg, which quickly turned into a protest against Howard's administration. They called for the resignation of the president and issued a long list of demands pertaining to student rights, reinstatement of professors, and Black awareness that came to be known as the "Orangeburg Ultimatum." Reportedly, Nabrit and the faculty found it "reprehensible." A month later at the Charter Day ceremony celebrating the anniversary of Howard's founding, students stormed the stage and took control of the podium. They passed out an alternative charter for a Black university, which renamed Howard "Sterling Brown University," gave control of academic matters to faculty, and gave students a seat on the board of trustees and responsibility for regulating student life and conduct. According to student leader Anthony Gittens, "We are trying to bring democracy and a concern for the black student to Howard."
But not everyone saw it this way. It was an extraordinary disruption of Howard decorum. "In a monumental show of rudeness, discourtesy, and vulgarity," wrote a New York Amsterdam News reporter, who was a 1966 Howard graduate, students grabbed the microphone and said, "We declare today the end of Howard University. A new Black University is being born." She noted that firebombs had recently been thrown into the homes of Dean Frank Snowden and President Nabrit. Two students were later arrested. Indeed, Black Power was a critique of liberalism for having failed to eradicate racial inequality, and of the civil rights old guard for still hewing to this failed course. SNCC leaders Charlie Cobb and Courtland Cox echoed this view: "In the eyes of many students, the Howard administration has come to represent all that is negative of older generation Negro leadership." They were colluding with white America to resist the inexorable rise of Black Power.
When the administration summoned thirty-nine students involved in the protest before a judiciary board, it rekindled widespread student displeasure with the disciplinary process. At a rally in protest, student leader Ewart Brown called for a sit-in at the administration building, and hundreds gathered there in the president's office and throughout the building, causing administrators to make a hasty exit. For five days in late March, roughly two thousand students gathered inside or around the administration building. Even with the recent history of tumult, this was a dramatic, unprecedented act of student rebellion at Howard. The administration quickly suspended most classes and closed down the campus, inadvertently furthering the students' sense of having seized power. The Howard sit-in became a focal point of the budding Black Power movement and attracted visitors from around the region, including SNCC leaders like Stokely Carmichael. The students' sixteen demands included "a black democratic university," the resignation of President James Nabrit, greater faculty and student rights, African American studies, a "black awareness institute," and the dropping of charges against the thirty-nine students, because "Howard is run by a dictatorial system."
Students worked hard to project the protest-to administrators, the media, and supporters-as respectful and disciplined, yet, as in most such protests, they also sought to construct a visible counterculture. There was "a continuous atmosphere of black awareness and cultural pride," one professor noted. Leaders in the Black arts movement came to perform, and many parents came to offer solidarity. Robert Anderson, the parent of a freshman, said the sit-in "was done in such a manner as to make parents proud to have a child here." Howard administrators, including the president, largely absented themselves from the conflict, leaving a leadership void that was eventually filled by a group of distinguished members of the board of trustees-Judge Miles Paige, Dr. Percy Julian, and Dr. Kenneth Clark. Clark was a well-known advocate of integration, having testified before the U.S. Supreme Court for the plaintiffs in the Brown case. But he knew that bringing the police on campus risked a bloody confrontation. In contrast to most Howard leaders, these prominent trustees did not want to use force to clear the building. As the protest wore on, students increasingly demanded that Howard declare itself a "Black university," but this proved unattainable. In the end, Howard agreed to grant the student assembly power to create a disciplinary system; to make Howard more attuned to the times; to create a student/faculty board to work on student problems; and not to discipline students involved in the takeover.
Not everyone was happy with the settlement. Many of the more militant students saw it as a betrayal of the longer list of demands, and former professor Nathan Hare urged rejection, saying too little would be gained. Adrienne Manns, a leader of the sit-in and a rare female spokesperson in the Black student movement, supported the settlement. She had headed the student negotiating team. The cry of "nonnegotiable demands" would take off in the coming year, but Manns employed a pragmatic approach to resolving the five-day protest; moreover, she hoped to avoid a violent showdown. "We came under fire," she reflected later that summer, "for selling out the students from local organizations like the SNCC and other people. I guess they had been down in Orangeburg and have seen people get killed, and they thought that's what should happen up here." Manns felt that reaching a victory was more important than continuing confrontation; still, her comments reveal the difficulty many student leaders faced of knowing when to call off a protest. "I was not going to stay there to satisfy my ego. I wanted to stay very much, but I realized it was a totally emotional reaction to the situation. I was not prepared to sacrifice things for people next year because of my own emotional needs." Some people, she said, wanted a violent confrontation with police, but she "refused to go along with the cowboy-on-television revolutionary stuff about just dying for its own sake." In her view, the threat of retaliation was real and would do little to advance their cause. "We have been subject to police action for a long time, and we don't need that novelty experience of getting our heads beat," she said.
The media gave extensive coverage to the sit-in-WNET in New York even produced Color Us Black, an hour-long documentary devoted to the Howard story. This coverage sparked protests at other HBCUs, including Fisk, Morgan State, Cheyney State, and Tougaloo. According to a visiting lecturer at Howard, the "dramatic occupation" of the administration building ended an era "of internal calm, led to a series of demonstrations on other Negro campuses, and laid their peculiar institutional problems before a public audience." To some extent, this effect was obscured by the assassination a few days later of Martin Luther King Jr. His murder galvanized Black student protest all over the country, leading many observers to miss or forget the emergence of Black student unrest prior to April.
Booker T. Washington might have rolled over in his grave if he knew what students were up to at the school he founded, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, in late March and early April 1968. The Howard protest had spurred student activists there to boycott classes in order to end compulsory ROTC training, gain scholarships for athletes, and upgrade conditions in housing and dining halls. A week later, frustrated with administrative apathy, students locked twelve trustees in a guesthouse for twelve hours. The police response was swift, and as at other protests at Black colleges, dramatically disproportionate to the offense. Three hundred National Guardsmen and seventy state troopers converged on campus, but departed after an African American sheriff persuaded the students to release their influential captives. They had already released retired General Lucius Clay so he could catch his plane to New York. "There was no threat of violence," Clay said. We could have called for assistance at any time." Nevertheless, the college closed for three weeks, ten students were charged with crimes, fifty others were suspended, and seventy-five students were placed on probation. U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, lion of the liberal judiciary throughout the civil rights era, later ordered that the fifty suspended students be readmitted, because they had not been permitted a hearing.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 intensified the sense of responsibility among African American college students that they needed to become leaders and wage battles to widen opportunities for Black youth. Yet the murder of the foremost advocate of nonviolence embittered many, causing them to see the fight for inclusion as less about moral suasion and more about organizing student power. Moreover, the assassination seemed to stand for the crushing of nonviolent means to social change, making many young people feel increasingly justified in resorting to confrontational tactics to spur change. That spring saw an upsurge in Black student protest. At Wellesley College, an all-women's liberal arts college in Massachusetts, Black students, including future historian Francille Rusan Wilson, threatened a hunger strike to get the college to admit more Black students and hire Black professors. Students at Boston University demanded that the school of theology be named in honor of their slain alumnus Dr. King. Two hundred male students at the predominantly Black Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania seized a building, while their female allies formed a human chain of support outside. They demanded a student voice in governance, more courses in African American and African history and culture, and, crucially, more scholarships. The president resigned a week later under pressure. Confrontational tactics became commonplace: at Ohio State, Black students occupied the administration building and reportedly held two vice presidents and four employees "captive" for eight hours. What demands prompted such radical action? They wanted more Black professors, counselors, and courses. This upsurge of Black protest at so many campuses across the country began to assume the shape of a movement. Only three months after expressing outrage at the behavior of Howard students, a reporter for the Amsterdam News now gave voice to a rapidly shifting national mood: "These comparatively new student campus seizures have triggered a much needed re-examination, re-evaluation, and revamping of the future of America's universities," she wrote.
In addition to students at HBCUs, Black students in California were pioneering in launching this new chapter of Black Power campus activism. Many factors pointed to the significance of California. In the early 1960s, the state greatly expanded its system of higher education in order to guarantee a seat in college for all high school graduates. For southern Black migrants and their children, this would prove critical to social mobility and went a long way in shaping their political activism. Harry Edwards, an activist sociologist who wrote about and organized "the revolt of the black athlete," helped turn Black collegiate athletes in California into a leading force for social change. Finally, the Black Panther Party played a galvanizing role in California student activism, especially in the Bay Area, although, oddly, studies of the party have neglected this.
Before they founded the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton had participated in the Berkeley-based Afro-American Association, a study group promoting Black history and Black consciousness. As students at Merritt College, a two-year public college in Oakland, they helped to win the addition of a Black history course in 1965-1966, and with little fanfare or media attention a Black studies department was launched in 1968. The demographics at Merritt College forecast the racial change occurring in many American cities. Black student enrollment shot up, from 10 percent in 1963 to 40 percent five years later, giving Merritt the largest concentration of Black college students in the United States.
For the students at Merritt, winning Black studies was just the beginning of an effort to gain Black power at Merritt, and beyond. Charles Hamilton visited there in 1969 and quoted a student leader's summation of their remarkable achievements: "For the last seven years the Soul Students Advisory Council ... of Merritt College has fought a long, hard battle without compromise for a Black studies department. During this time, we have increased the number of our Black faculty, acquired a Black president, gained total control of our student body, and Black students sit on the major decision-making bodies of this college." Community colleges were, in many cities, the first large, public institutions where African Americans assumed administrative leadership. Student activism played an important role in hastening and shaping this demographic shift. But as would occur again in the Black studies movement in California, the students almost immediately launched a critique of the Black studies department for allegedly depoliticizing the struggle and reorienting Black studies toward academic respectability rather than community engagement. "We watch as the Black studies department we fought so hard for is bastardized by and pimped off by Negroes and Whiteys," they wrote.
According to historian Donna Murch, "Merritt clearly demonstrated how the integration of black youth into 'historically white' institutions inspired new and influential expressions of racial militancy." San Francisco State College, another public institution of higher education in the Bay Area, did so as well, but on a much larger, more contentious, and more publicized scale. The Black Power movement among students had important southern origins, but it very quickly spread nationwide, and San Francisco State was its most momentous battle. Here the students aimed for revolution.
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