Lessons for today’s struggles

The Black Revolution on Campus

In moments of social upheaval, it becomes difficult or impossible to sustain the illusion that schools and the academy are politically neutral safe havens that can—or should—ever be fully separated from their broader society. The period that brought the Black power movement to campuses across the country is one such moment. In her book The Black Revolution on Campus, Martha Biondi documents what might be summed up as the answer to the question: what ever happened to students after the civil rights movement? Biondi charts the course of Black students, many of whom had participated in the civil rights struggle or left school to fight racism in the South, and their return to their campuses as seasoned activists, intent on transforming them. 

It is worth stating upfront that The Black Revolution on Campus is an incredibly engaging read. The history it documents is both inspiring and riveting, with each chapter ending on a cliff-hanger pointing to the next campus that will erupt in struggle. The book is the first to deal comprehensively with the subject of Black student activism on campuses during the Black power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a subject that is entirely left out of most narratives of the civil rights and Black power eras. In defining this movement as a “Revolution,” Biondi references the broader social upheaval that produced student revolt and the extent to which Black students—the “children of sharecroppers and factory workers,” as Biondi puts it—succeeded in “transforming overwhelmingly white campuses into multiracial learning environments” and “challenged fundamental tenets” of the institutions from which they had been systematically excluded. Her central argument is that while little-known today, these widespread revolts by largely Black students (initiated on nearly 200 campuses between 1968 and 1969 alone) actually resulted in more tangible change to their campuses than the better-known antiwar movement, if not always in precisely the way the students had intended. Students won the launching of Black studies as an academic discipline, the inauguration of hundreds of Black studies departments and programs, and significant increases in the enrollment of Black students and recruitment of Black faculty. These struggles were not always confined to the campus; they spilled out into the Black community, a fact that meshed well with the goal of many students to make their education into more than an academic exercise for individual advancement. Rather, they sought to turn the campus into a resource for uplifting the most disadvantaged within the Black community, a resource that could play a role in transforming society. Disillusioned with the inability of the academy to address the most pressing social issues right as they were coming to a head, Black students at both historically Black and traditionally white colleges came to view their campuses as upholding a racist status quo and sought to take their education into their own hands, attempting to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and a world that seemed, to many, to be on the brink of revolution.

Through extensive research and interviews with movement participants, Biondi documents how the campus movement began not on formerly all-white campuses (where the often small number of Black students were expected to smoothly “integrate” themselves), but at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While students on these campuses fought to preserve Black universities as sites of “community control” even as the push for integration made their survival uncertain, they also faced off with more conservative administrations (whose material support often came from white Southern elites) and faced a greater threat of police repression for their campus activism than did their mostly white counterparts. Biondi notes how the context of the 1965 Watts rebellion and the buildup of police forces generally in response to civil rights actions framed a more punitive response toward Black student rebellion; she discusses fully three campus shootings (not including the killings at Kent State and Jackson State) that sparked mass student protests across the country and inspired some of the campus struggles that led to the launching of Black studies programs, yet are virtually unknown today. 

At integrated and Black universities alike, Black students launched struggles (with varying degrees of success) to democratize their campuses by demanding a greater role in the decisions of administrators and the hiring and firing of teachers, and for their education to function as an ideological weapon for transformative change. Among the most fascinating parts of the book is the student strike at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), which resulted in a mass arrest of over 800 people and culminated in an FBI-instigated shoot-out involving student members of the Black Panther Party and the cultural-nationalist US Organization. Another is the struggle at the City College of New York, in which Black students protested—with the support of white students—and won a radical experiment in open admissions, along with the launching of a school for social justice field work. In pursuing change, students across the country employed militant strategies with an inspiring boldness and ingenuity: in one instance, Howard University students rushed the stage at an event called by administrators, declaring (unironically) that their HBCU was now a “Black University” and listing their demands, including that students serve on the board of trustees. At another school, students tricked their administrators into thinking they were planning to occupy one building, diverting the police while they occupied another. The consequences activists faced for pursing a revolutionary vision of higher education could be steep; Biondi notes that many students who participated in protests faced significant consequences for their activities, from expulsion or permanent barring from academic institutions to targeting by the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) and criminal records that follow them to this day. The fact that students engaged in such heated conflict and risked so much in pursuit of these demands reflected the radicalization of masses of Black students following the civil rights movement and the critiques that the broader Black power movement had raised of not only white supremacy, but of the entire society.

Despite this expansive vision, Biondi notes the great rift between the more radical goals of the activists and the way the reforms they fought for operate today. Her chapter “The Counterrevolution on Campus” explores how the attainment of students’ demands often provoked a conservative backlash that succeeded in rolling back or dismantling many gains of the movement. For instance, while today’s civil rights organizations struggle to defend the remnants of affirmative action, Biondi notes that affirmative action policies actually represented a compromise between college administrations and the more radical student demand that colleges admit all Blacks, Latinos, and members of other disadvantaged groups that applied as the only way to overcome the enormous obstacles they faced in a racist and unequal society. Biondi also argues that the discipline of Black studies—founded not by academics, but students—has come to be (wrongly) associated with a narrow focus on cultural pride and African heritage, overshadowing the decidedly internationalist framework with which it began, informed by global struggles of the oppressed against imperialism and white supremacy. Despite all this, Biondi concludes that the legacy of this struggle is reflected in many lasting institutional changes and the inestimable contribution of Black studies across multiple disciplines, notably its resistance to early pressures to limit its scope, its methodology, and the ideological challenge it posed to the dominant white ruling-class narrative of history. Moreover, the struggle for Black studies inspired other struggles for ethnic studies departments and programs. 

In assessing the vision and practice of the movement, Biondi notes as a limitation the privileging (with a few notable exceptions) of Black male leadership, arguing that it would take the later rise of Black feminism to launch an overt critique of this dynamic and its ideological underpinnings. The book does not, however, go very far in questioning the potential of the campus to actually serve as a site for change, or why students were seen as such a threat by their own institutions, as well as the state. While Biondi notes the influence of Marxism within some currents of the movement, there seems to have been little effort to connect campus activism to struggles initiated off campus among workers, as there was in Paris during the same period in 1968. Rather than interrogating the limits of students’ social power, Biondi does not examine whether the campus could have truly served as a hub of revolutionary change (beyond once suggesting that students’ insistence on the revolutionary potential of Black studies “may have been a miscalculation”), particularly in context of the backlash against the movements of the 1960s and the impact of neoliberalism in tempering class struggle. Nor does she examine whether these factors informed academia’s shift away from the radicalism Black students had helped to unleash. 

Nevertheless, none of this takes away from the book’s significance in illuminating a forgotten chapter of the Black power movement and its relevance to today’s questions about what our education should look like. Many of the demands students articulated through this movement, as well as the tactics they saw as necessary to winning them, still resonate, particularly students’ demand for a say in what their campuses and education stood for, and their conviction that what we learn should equip us to not only examine the world, but change it. As the Black Lives Matter movement confronts the killings of young people like Michael Brown and Tony Robinson before they could start college, the brutal beating of a Black University of Virginia student, the attacks on ethnic studies and gutting of affirmative action, and the fact that our schools are more segregated than ever, the myth that one can separate the academy from America’s racist society is being shattered yet again, and Biondi’s The Black Revolution on Campus could not be more relevant. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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