Black campuses in revolt

IBRAM H. Rogers’ The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972, is one of the best books yet published analyzing the long history of struggle by African Americans to achieve equality in American higher education and the contradictory role of the university in Black freedom struggles. The book smashes the image that many hold—of Black student campus protest as a “1960s thing.” Rogers shows how beginning in the 1920s Black students used direct action, nonviolent protest, and carefully planned strikes, walkouts, and boycotts to fight for everything from better food and living conditions to more control over their studies and curriculum as well as more Black professors in the classroom. These protests gradually merged with and became an independent stream in wider social protests of the 1950s and 1960s.

Rogers demonstrates repeatedly that small historically Black colleges were the leading edge of these demonstrations because they were subject to chronic under funding and because students felt greater group solidarity than on largely segregated white campuses. The book also shows that the roots of COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program) were planted in state and federal surveillance and repression of Black student protests dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1960s, elevated Black student consciousness was the cutting edge of social revolution. The demand for Black studies as an academic discipline was the culmination of nearly 100 years of effort by African Americans to articulate what W. E. B. DuBois called the “half-strangled” cries of Black people for recognition of their role in emancipating themselves from slavery, oppression, and racism.

Even before Black people were free in America, they wanted to go to school. Mary Jane Patterson, the daughter of fugitive slaves, was the first African American woman to receive her B.A. degree in 1862. Even before formal emancipation, writes Rogers, “legions of African American revolting nationalists and egalitarian elites” began building colleges in territories occupied by Union forces. Between 1865 and 1867, seventeen Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) were established. Due to economic underdevelopment and restricted civil rights, Black self-activity in education necessarily depended on the federal government and white patronage.

Congress chartered Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1867. In 1868, General S.C. Armstrong founded Hampton Institute using a formula reflecting the same material contradictions besetting African Americans after emancipation that would provide the seeds of their rebellion. Hampton was a “model of education for paternal conservatives and accommodating separatists that would take hold of black higher education with the support of Southern segregationists and Northern capital when they deconstructed the gains of Reconstruction” (13).

The next wave of Black access to higher education was the World War I era. HBCU enrollments increased 81 percent between 1914 and 1925. More Black students enrolled in college between 1926 and 1936 than in the previous 300 years combined. The surge coincided with several social developments. First was the great African American migration resulting in new schools and desires for economic advancement. Second was the so-called New Negro or Harlem Renaissance begun about 1919. The Renaissance drew together the first wave of elite-educated African Americans (W. E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke, Carter Woodson and E. Franklin Frazier) with an upstart cadre of writers, artists, and scholars who began the first wholesale assessment of Black contribution to American life in literature, painting, and culture.  Rogers names the 1920s the birthplace of the “Long Black Student Movement” (LBSM) and New Negro Campus Movement to show the contributions of both to what academics have come to call the Long Civil Rights Movement.

The advantage of this paradigm is that it incorporates struggles by women and demonstrates Black student self-activity and self-organization as part of a fightback against corporate paternalism and capitalist discipline in education. For example, the great Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Ella Baker got her start as a campus organizer at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina when she petitioned to allow female students to wear the latest fashion trend—silk stockings. 

Students at Fisk University were inspired by speeches by DuBois, a Fisk graduate, who according to Rogers “was to New Negro campus activists what Stokely Carmichael became four decades later to black campus activists—a beacon of resistance.” DuBois railed against the “Power that furnish the Cash,” i.e., white benefactors who wanted to use HBCUs to “train servants and docile cheap labor.” In response, students began a strike wave to demand a change in university leadership and more control of campus policy.

In 1923, Black students from a range of schools convened at Howard to form the American Federation of Negro Students, the first national Black student organization in the United States designed, according to one student, to “work from the bottom up” to change Black higher education. By the late 1920s, a strike wave of Black students protesting against various forms of “benevolent despotism” by mainly white administrators had established claims for “basic freedoms” by Black students—the right to socialize, publish a student newspaper, organize student governments, and receive decent food and housing.

The Great Depression brought a sharpening and widening of Black student struggle. The movement also moved left. In 1931 James Jackson, who had joined the Communist Party in that year, formed the Cooperative Independence Movement (CIM) at Virginia Union. The CIM joined white students at University of Virginia in presenting to the Virginia legislature a set of grievances against fascism, war preparation, job shortages, and retrenchment in education. Fisk graduate student Ishmael Flory—later an active Communist labor and housing organizer in Chicago—organized pickets of Jim Crow theaters. More than 400 Black youth met in Richmond, Virginia, in 1937 under the auspices of the Communist-led National Negro Congress to establish the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). Members of the SNYC helped to unionize Richmond’s 5,000 tobacco stemmers.

Marx famously wrote that capital comes into the world “dripping from head to toe. . . in dirt and blood.” In two extraordinary chapters about the 1960s and 1970s Black campus movement, Rogers demonstrates that the same was true of Black studies. As happened more famously at Jackson State in 1970, in February 1968, police murdered in cold blood three protesting South Carolina State students in an episode known as the “Orangeburg Massacre.” African American students in turn armed themselves against police violence and COINTELPRO intervention into student movements and went to jail by the hundreds, foreshadowing what Rogers calls in his epilogue “Backlash and Forward Lashes of the Black Student Movement.”

While the movement brought into fruition more than 300 new Black studies programs, increased Black admissions and more Black faculty hiring, it also, writes Rogers, “created new contradictions in the racial constitution of higher education—the use of new ideals, supposedly to eliminate the old, to maintain the old.” Now, in the age of the first Black president, Rogers writes:

We live in an era in which pleas of reverse discrimination are used to discriminate. Color-blindness blinds us from racism. The Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment are used to extinguish African American rights on campus. Standardized testing standardizes the class of students. Racial affirmative action is labeled as racial warfare. Meanwhile, class affirmative action (parental wealth, legacies, networks, superior K-12 schools) is not seen as class warfare.

Rogers’s excellent reconstruction of Black student self-activity across the twentieth century demonstrates the need for revitalized antiracist mass movements today that can dismantle the still prevailing conditions he so astutely describes. His documentation of the university’s contradictory position in both defending and challenging state power and its ruling ideas reminds us of the critical potentiality of the university campus for making real revolutionary change.

Most powerfully, Rogers’s view of history as a struggle between oppressed groups and capitalist elites reminds us that the Old Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow wear a common face and can only be torn down through organized mass movements led by the most militant members of society. 

Ibram H. Rogers’s book should be required reading for those involved in contemporary freedom struggles.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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