The Black Revolution on Campus
By Martha Biondi
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2012 Martha Biondi
All rights reserved.
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 Coar 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 it 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi. Copyright © 2012 Martha Biondi. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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