'The Black Campus Movement'

New book aims to put the fight for black studies departments and cultural centers in a broader historical context.

May 1, 2012

Students were dying, chancellors were quitting under duress and Black Campus Movement activists were occupying administrative buildings and demanding that college curriculums reflect a diverse society.

In his new book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan), Ibram H. Rogers examines the root causes of the movement and its salience at colleges across the country.

Placing the movement -- in which students usually demanded black studies departments or cultural centers and a more diverse faculty -- within the broader history of black participation in higher education, Rogers provides a detailed account of the struggle and a critique of how some university leaders responded to it. The book chronicles some of the most well-known episodes of the movement, including the student strike at San Francisco State University; it also discusses the lesser-known fights at Pittsburg State University and how students advocated for African American control of historically black institutions -- including the Jackson State University protests in which two people were killed.

Rogers, an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Oneonta, agreed to answer some questions from Inside Higher Ed.

Q: With decades of hindsight, what is the legacy of the Black Campus Movement? In what ways has higher education adopted the ideals of the leaders of the Black Campus Movement (BCM), and in what ways does that work remain undone?

A: The principal legacy of the Black Campus Movement is the widespread and public embrace of diversity and multiculturalism in higher education. The arms of this current embrace were molded and energized by the BCM from 1965 to 1972. Publicly and officially, like the BCM’s leaders once did, the vast majority of colleges and universities now profess a desire and commitment to racial intolerance, racial equality, eradicating discrimination and diversifying its students, staff, faculty, administration and curriculum.

At the same time, the language of the BCM’s ideals -- equality, discrimination, justice -- are now being used to maintain white privilege and racism in higher education. I coined the notion of egalitarian exclusion, which I define in the book’s epilogue as “the prohibition or limiting of nonwhites, nonwhite authority, or race-specific initiatives using derivatives of equality or ‘reverse’ discrimination as justifications.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current (and historic) debate over affirmative action at historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs). The opponents of affirmative action use the language of equality and discrimination and make pleas for what they term a “race-neutral” admissions process. Yet, there is no such thing as race neutrality in an admission process that draws from the endemically unequal K-12 school system. Let me give one principal example. Grades in college-prep courses are the number one consideration in the admissions decision, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The College Board recently found that 79.7 percent of black students who could have succeeded in an AP course did not take one because their schools did not offer them or they were left out (20 percentage points higher than white students).

Q: To what extent were the strikes, building takeovers and ambitious demands that characterized the BCM on some campuses warranted? If you were able to advise the movement’s leaders with what you know today, what would you say?

A: It appears that in nearly every case, demands and protests led to some measure of racial reform, though usually not as much as the students desired. Thus, the protests and demands were necessary, were warranted, if one appreciates and covets the reforms they produced. During the BCM, the percentage of black faculty and the total number of black students quadrupled, more than 1,000 institutions introduced black studies, and hundreds of black, multicultural and diversity centers and offices were established. I think these reforms have enriched higher education and consequently I do believe the demands and protests were necessary. As a historian, it is difficult for me to assume that those who most resisted the change -- administrators, faculty, and politicians -- would have produced this change on their own.

Yet, there are areas [in which] I would provide advice.  In some cases, students alienated crucial would-be allies.  There were cases in which the demands did not suit the environment; the protests did not befit the demands and/or the nature of the conflict with the administration.  In addition, too many students were killed (13 in total, to whom the book is dedicated), too many students were injured, too many students were arrested, jailed, suspended and expelled.  Often times, militant, unsympathetic administrators and police officers chiefly caused the repression.  But on some occasions, black students could have averted repression by better planning and strategizing. 

Q: You critique the way some administrators dealt with the BCM on their campuses, saying they sometimes were “paternalistic” or responded to protesters “with counter-threats of prison time.” What can today’s administrators learn from those past failures? Did any administrators approach the BCM in a manner worth emulating?

A: It appears that more than 100 presidents were fired or forcibly resigned during the BCM, beginning, presumably, with South Carolina State’s Benner C. Turner in May 1967 and ending with G. Leon Netterville at Southern University in late 1972. Often these presidencies failed because they refused to take the students' demands seriously, leading to more demands, and they swiftly and harshly repressed protests, generating more protests. Many administrators refused to peer past the traditional notion of students as receptacles to see students as providers, and many administrators seemed unable or did not want to understand or accept their role in planting the roots of the rebellion. For example, in response to Colby College president Robert E.L. Strider’s dispatch urging black students to rely on traditional channels and end their occupation in March 1970, black students said, “Obviously, we would not now be in the CHAPEL if we were confident in the administrative mechanism that you have instituted to bring about change.” In addition, the students argued that “the perpetuation of racism ‘occasions disruption’ of normal human development,” which is why they, like many other groups of black students across the nation, felt justified in their disruptive protest.  In effect, administrators can learn from the BCM that repression of protests poisons campuses with splits, mass distrust and displaced, destructive zealousness. They can also learn that sympathy for racial reforms without sympathy for protest methods is often problematic, intellectually and practically.  One cannot embrace the end while simultaneously rejecting the means of untraditional protest when the traditional means did not, could not or had yet to bring about the end.

Nevertheless, most administrators are worthy of emulation. Most took the demands of the BCM seriously, swiftly engaging in a marathon of meetings and negotiating sessions with students, and creating task forces with the charge to study and more importantly implement the reforms -- which resulted in protests bypassing most campuses.  Surprisingly, many administrators, perhaps most particularly before 1970, were able to ignore rabid off-campus roars for violent police suppression and end protests with peaceful agreements, like Washington University Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot in December 1968 or Roland J. Hinz, Northwestern University's dean of students, in May 1968.

Q: Black studies is now widely respected and accepted as an academic discipline, and you are a faculty member in a department established in the wake of the BCM. Speaking broadly, how effective have black studies departments been? Where is there room for improvement?

A: Black studies departments have been effective at carving out some autonomous space in the academy for scholars to sympathetically and earnestly study people of African descent. This disciplinary space, to put it simply, did not exist before black students carved it out and claimed it during the BCM. Now, there are not merely hundreds of departments, but there are also more than ten doctoral programs in black studies allowing for the discipline’s reproduction. Still though, black studies is principally utilized as a mechanism of merely integrating the faculty, curriculum and scholarship, as the conceding administrators intended, and not a space to foment black liberation, as the BCM also envisioned. In addition, black studies has been continuously underfunded, understaffed and viewed derisively by academics of all races as separatist, mediocre, uniquely subjective and political and lacking in anything binding other than the subject of study.  The conservative and to a certain extent liberal academic champions of the mirages of colorblindness, race-neutrality, assimilation and post-racialization have been at the forefront of this derision.  But they are certainly not its totality. 

Q: In addition to profiling the highly covered events at San Francisco State and Columbia Universities, you also examine the BCM at smaller colleges and those in less diverse parts of the country. What role did those less-publicized BCMs in places such as Kansas or Iowa play in the national movement?

A: In The Black Campus Movement, I mentioned activity at around 300 institutions, including citations from 163 college archives. From data from hundreds more institutions not discussed in the book, I estimate that students organized, requested, demanded and/or protested for a racially relevant education at upwards of 1,000 institutions in 49 states. So preeminent role of these less-publicized struggles is that we can not still reduce the national movement to San Francisco State, Columbia, UC-Berkeley, Cornell, and Howard, to merely urban white institutions, to solely the North and West, to just HBCUs in the South, to purely a struggle for black studies, or to simply a campaign by only black students. To the last point, one of my favorite revelations (shared in chapter 6) was at Augustana College in South Dakota, where black and Native American students mocked in November 1969 the formation of a committee to address their concerns. “We ask now for a little payment for our land and labor, and you set up committees! You, the Good Christian people, did not form a committee to take the Red man’s land or the Black man’s labor.”

In addition, the less publicized and documented campus struggles tell us that there were three facets of the Black Campus Movement. We tend to know and remember the facet in Northern and Western (usually urban or prestigious) HWCUs and the dramatic fight for black studies.  Yet, aside from Howard and the massacres of students at South Carolina State (1968) and Jackson State (1970), many are unaware of the disruptions at nearly every historically black college and university (HBCU) for a black-dominated, oriented and radical “Black University.”  Nonetheless, even more are unaware of the black student struggle at less diverse institutions in states like Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Mississippi and Wyoming. As students at Northern and Western HWCUs demanded black studies and HBCU students demanded a “Black University,” students at HWCUs in suburban and rural settings distant from black population centers tended to principally demand black cultural centers. In effect, black cultural centers may have been demanded on more campuses during the BCM than black studies programs.

Q: Most every campus today has a diversity statement and markets itself as a welcoming place for minority students and faculty. You argue that more must be done to achieve true diversity. Please explain.

A: One of the lessons for our age that we can draw from BCM activists was that conditions of inequity do usually demonstrate intent. They continuously argued that there is no tangible difference between a college that intends to not be diverse and one that accepts a lack of diversity. Intention and acceptance are two sides of the same dull coin, and we must understand this to gain or compel the will to achieve true diversity. They both result in a lack of diversity. Whether an administrator consciously chooses not to divert money and power in the direction of diversity, or whether an administrator consciously chooses to prioritize something else and divert money and power towards that other end -- both result in money and power traveling away from the road of diversity. To me, true diversity is a range of power, perspective and people that closely reflects the racial range of the college’s drawing community. Thus, the tangibility of true racial diversity probably differs on every campus across the country, but it can be measured. How many colleges and universities actually reflect its drawing community -- be it local, state, regional or national?

Q: The original black studies departments were designed to be places for black scholars to explore black issues with black students. Today, many students and some faculty in these departments aren’t black. Is this a positive development?

A: The students were unequivocal in their demand for black scholars in black studies departments for black students to learn how to uplift the black community. Yet, even greater than that demand was their demand for an academic space controlled by blacks where black ideas, perspectives and subject matter were at the center. So generally, BCM activists did not mind the minority presence of non-racist, non-paternalistic, non-black scholars and students. From the standpoint of the founders of black studies, in places today where non-black scholars and students are not merely present but are in the majority and/or in control -- it may not be a positive development. In the same vein, the founders of women’s studies and queer studies probably do not see it as a positive development where men and heterosexuals, respectively, control those programs and departments. 

Moreover, it is not a positive development to see the growing number of students and scholars -- be it black or non-black -- who are unaware of or refuse to act on the founding mission of the discipline. (Many instead enter black studies as paternalists, seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or to receive social or economic capital.) Nor is it a positive development at institutions where non-black scholars and students decide to enter black studies since it is the only counter-whiteness, progressive academic space on campus.  It is better to have other spaces. Fortunately, in the late 1960s and early 1970s taking inspiration from and in some case partnering with the BCM, Chicano, Native American, Latino and Asian students initiated their own campus movements and now have their burgeoning studies programs, departments and disciplines. In addition, in the last 20 years we have witnessed the rise of whiteness studies, which gives primarily white scholars a long-needed space to discuss racism, white privilege, white identity and the historical and current disposition whiteness. 

Q: What can a college administrator learn from reading your book?

A: I think more than anything else, administrators can learn the principal desires of black students from their colleges and universities. Or, more precisely, they can ascertain the definition of diversity from the perspective of the black student, and the mission of the HBCU from the perspective of the black student. Administrators can discover how far black students were willing to go at one point in history (and potentially in the future), even to the depths of death, to combat injustice and racism; how far higher education has come; how, fortunately or unfortunately, black students had to assume the steering wheel of racial progress; and how and where black students are telling us we still need to go.

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Mitch Smith

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