Let academic freedom ring

Martha Biondi on the black student protests of the 1960s and 1970s that transformed US campus life and led to the birth of African American studies

August 9, 2012

Shortly before dawn on 12 May 1969, New York City police officers raided the homes of 17 African American and Puerto Rican students of Brooklyn College. They arrested them and charged them with 18 felonies and five misdemeanours, including inciting riot and arson, which together carried a sentence of 228 years. Active that spring in a protest, the students saw the arrests as an attempt to undermine their demands for greater black and Puerto Rican inclusion at the college. The allegations against them had come from an undercover police informant who had infiltrated the black student organisation and befriended activists at the prestigious public institution. With his big Afro, dark skin and beard, "he looked the part", Leroy Davis, one of the students arrested in the raid, later recalled. "He had the rhetoric, but he was really a cop."

Davis had come up to New York from Georgia just three years before the raids. He had seen the classic anti-colonial film The Battle of Algiers, read Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952), joined the radical Black Panther Party and changed his name from Leroy to the African name Askia. But it was Malcolm X who had the most decisive influence on his life. Throughout his childhood, Davis had eagerly awaited the day he could join the military. "I always dreamed of going to the Air Force Academy", becoming a pilot and dropping bombs, he says. "That was my goal. I was a warrior." He might have gone to Vietnam like his brother if he hadn't encountered The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). "Reading Malcolm X really changed me - really, like, overnight."

The 18-year-old Davis had been named on the original warrant for the New York "Panther 21", a group of Black Panthers charged with, and later acquitted of, conspiring to blow up several buildings, a prosecution that was part of a secret federal programme aimed at crushing black dissent. But Davis was in California when the police had made those arrests a month earlier.

"It was meant to be the Panther 22," he says, which likely explains the overwhelming force they used to arrest the young man that morning in May. He remembers his thoughts when he heard the knock on his apartment door early that morning. "A young lady lived next door. I was basically trying to seduce her. She used to knock at my door; we used to tease and flirt, but nothing ever happened. So I got this knock at five in the morning and I said, 'Wow, she finally gave in.'"

But instead, nine police officers came to make the arrest. They surrounded the building and three barged through his door. "They threw me to the floor; (one) put a gun to my head and cocked the trigger."

When the officer finally pulled the gun back and peered at the youthful-looking student, he said, "God, you're nothing but a kid." The criminal charges against the students arrested that night were all eventually dismissed, and in the short term, such heavy-handed tactics galvanised greater support for the students on campus and in Brooklyn's black community.

The students ultimately won many of their 18 demands, including the admission of more black and Puerto Rican students and the creation of black and Puerto Rican studies institutes - significant changes that made Brooklyn College better reflect the racial demographics of the borough.

This dramatic arc of protest, repression and reform was not unique to New York City. In an extraordinary phase of the black American freedom struggle, black activists organised protests involving tens of thousands of students on nearly 200 university and college campuses across the US in 1968, 1969 and into the early 1970s. Deeply inspired by the black nationalist leaders Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and shaken by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, they were engaged in a redefinition of the civil rights movement at a time when cities were in flames, hundreds of thousands of young Americans were at war in Southeast Asia and political assassination was commonplace.

In essence, student leaders were turning the slogan "Black Power" into a grass-roots social movement. They walked picket lines, conducted sit-ins, took over buildings and went on strike. And they performed the less spectacular but critically important work of forging coalitions, attending faculty meetings, designing new courses, recruiting high school students to the college, interviewing faculty for positions in emerging black studies programmes, and attending endless study groups and discussions. The black student movement was aiming to reshape institutions of higher education in a nation emerging from many decades of legal segregation.

In the 19th century, a racially separate system of higher education had been established in the US. Although several white universities and colleges in the northern states did admit very small numbers of black students during the era of segregation, they usually denied them campus dining and housing privileges. Things slowly began to change in the early 1960s as many universities felt the effects of the southern civil rights movement and began to admit more African American students. But by the late 1960s, black students, influenced by the rising militancy of the black liberation movement, had had enough of "token integration" and began to organise for more thoroughgoing change. Student leaders insisted that public universities should reflect and serve the people of their communities - and in some instances this produced a call for guaranteed or "open admission" for all public high school graduates. They pressured elite private universities to produce a more diverse leadership class by opening their doors wider to black students and creating a space to affirm, rather than deny, black identity and culture. And just as importantly, they insisted that historically black colleges should survive the era of integration but shift their mission away from emulating elite white institutions to fostering black community empowerment and development. At every kind of institution, student leaders focused on demanding wider access, greater affordability and generous financial aid. To a largely unappreciated extent, black student activists broadened the scope of the rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s to include a right to higher education. It was a revolutionary, hopeful time, and their energy and idealism inspired Latino, Asian American and progressive white students to launch and intensify their own campus crusades.

One of the biggest victories of the black student movement, and one of the students' top demands, was the creation of African American studies programmes on scores of campuses. At the time, not a single US higher education institution offered a degree in the history and culture of the African diaspora, and most English, history, political science and philosophy departments did not even offer courses in black subject matter. Black studies signified the inclusion of the histories and cultures of African-descended people, taught from the perspective of black scholars, into the curriculum of higher education. But for many of the student activists who fought to create it, black studies meant more than the creation of a new academic discipline. They hoped it would launch a cultural revolution beyond campus walls, transform the aspirations of black youth and empower black communities. As it turned out, creating black studies programmes generated more controversy on college campuses than initially expected and ended up consuming the attention of scholars and students in the new units. Even though many universities agreed to set up black studies, the promise to implement it was typically followed by another period of struggle. Whether due to hostility, clashing visions, budget cuts, indifference or other challenges, the effort to institutionalise black studies was long and difficult. To the extent that there was a "black revolution" on campus, it was followed, in many instances, by a "counter-revolution": a determined effort to trim the sails of the more ambitious desires of students and academics. As a result, the effort to create and build black studies, and to defend the field's intellectual legitimacy, became its own battle, absorbing the political energies of many administrators and scholars in the 1970s and 1980s.

The seemingly arcane question of whether black studies should take the form of a programme, department or centre became enmeshed in the African American struggle for self-determination in the late 1960s and the academic struggle for stature and legitimacy. A programme typically has a smaller budget than a department, and lacks the ability to hire or to give tenure to scholars, making it reliant on faculty from other departments. Moreover, programmes were equated with racial integration, while black studies departments, fairly or not, were linked to racial separatism. While this political valence has long since faded, it imposed an additional stigma on black studies departments. In a related vein, an intellectual battle over the character of black studies developed at the same time. Pressure to show a rationale for black studies led many scholars to argue for the advantages and need for a "black perspective" in teaching and research. While some observers feared lockstep thinking in such an approach, the defence of a black perspective in academe relatively quickly gave way to a critical search for multivalent ways to understand the black experience.

The struggle at Harvard University to create an Afro-American studies department (which is now known as the department of African and African American studies) illustrates the intense disagreement over the nature of black studies, as well as the widespread view that black studies lacked scholarly heft and was too associated with student radicalism. In early 1969, a Harvard student-faculty committee under the leadership of economist Henry Rosovsky recommended the creation of a programme and research centre in Afro-American studies, a black cultural centre and a sharp increase in the number of black graduate students. It was a strong affirmation of change, but two recommendations became points of contention. Requirements that students majoring in Afro-American studies also complete a second major and that faculty in black studies also hold appointments in other departments implied that the discipline was not sufficiently developed or rigorous to stand on its own. Meanwhile, students in the Association of African and Afro-American Students at Harvard and Radcliffe (AFRO) conducted their own investigation into the best way to establish black studies and concluded that a traditional department was the best means of ensuring stature, permanence and greater autonomy over faculty selection. Similarly, AFRO came to view the requirement for students to have two majors as onerous and a double standard.

When Harvard students went on strike that spring demanding that the university end its support for the Vietnam War, the creation of black studies joined the list of demands. Students and academics engaged in heated debates over the form and nature of black studies, with the faculty ultimately voting in favour of AFRO's vision, even granting a formal role for students in departmental governance. "I consider this a great victory for black students and for American education," a student declared in the wake of the historic faculty vote.

Nevertheless, many administrators and academics deeply resented the rejection of the Rosovsky plan and continued to fight for their vision of Afro-American studies. Martin Kilson, an African American political scientist on the Rosovsky committee, assailed the outcome, blaming the "political threats of the militant extremists" in AFRO for intimidating the faculty into allowing a student role in organising the department, while another scholar defended his vote, believing that students had a legitimate concern over pedagogy and deserved the right to have a voice. This innovation did not last very long, as Harvard terminated student participation in governance just three years later.

Kilson engaged in a full-throated media campaign against the Afro-American studies department in the early 1970s, contributing to an atmosphere of siege and demoralisation that made hiring difficult. "The future quality of the Afro-American elites or professional classes is at stake," he declared in the pages of the Harvard Bulletin, because the Afro-American studies department, "like others around the country, was created with scant concern for academic or intellectual standards". Kilson later revised his harsh judgement of the discipline, but his early appraisal showed some of the scepticism, even hostility, among many academics to the emergence of African American studies. Just before Henry Rosovsky retired as dean of the college, he was finally able to put his mark on Afro-American studies at Harvard. He recruited the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr in 1990, convinced him of the benefits of joint hiring and other aspects of the original Rosovsky plan, and furnished him with generous resources to rebuild the department. But testifying to the foresight of the student leaders of 1969, the departmental status of Afro-American studies was preserved.

The deeper significance of this tumult during the late 1960s is the students' long-range impact on US higher education. Tragically, conservative courts and legislatures have rolled back the affirmative action policies that helped to bring greater numbers of black students to universities in the 1970s and 1980s, and the soaring cost of a university education has burdened today's graduates with staggering debt obligations. But the black student movement launched the modern era of diversity on college campuses, reshaping academic culture, student life and campus employment and leadership, and these changes have endured.

Most notable as an enduring achievement of the movement is the continuing growth and vitality of black studies, or, as it is more commonly known today, African American or African diaspora studies. In light of the heterogeneous nature of the US higher education sector, it is difficult to generalise about the state of African American studies programmes: there is tremendous unevenness in their staffing and finances nationwide. In contrast to recurring rumours of its demise, black studies has survived and at many elite research universities it is flourishing - indeed, 11 universities now confer PhDs in African American studies. But most importantly, in defiance of all the sceptics who have doubted and may continue to doubt the scholarly heft of the field, black studies academics have produced scholarship that has influenced research in the humanities and social sciences more generally, helping to put categories of race, class, gender and sexuality at the centre of academic inquiry.

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