Celebrating 40 Years of Activism
Calling for more Black students, faculty and programs, Black Student Unions fundamentally changed American college campuses, but did they change themselves in the process?
By Ibram Rogers
Armed with well-honed leadership skills, established organizational techniques and a fearless demeanor, James Garrett rode the wave of Black activism onto the campus of San Francisco State College (now University) in 1966.
The sit-ins in 1960, the Freedom Rides in 1961, the massive demonstrations by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi and the Watts Riot in 1965 — Garrett was involved in them all as a teenager. He was arrested seven times and survived many vicious beatings.
So when the 20-year-old arrived at San Francisco State as an undergraduate, he was not about to assimilate quietly.
“I went to the campus for two reasons,” says Garrett, who grew up in Dallas and Los Angeles, “to avoid being called in the military and to organize.”
It was the activism of San Francisco State students like Garrett that gave birth 40 years ago to the first Black Student Union. The establishment of other BSUs wouldn’t be far behind.
In 1966, traditionally White colleges and universities were admitting more Black students than ever because of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which banned discrimination in education. But the climate on most campuses was decidedly inhospitable to the newly arrived Black students. Thus, there grew a desire to create a political group that would unite Black students and demand a weather change, in addition to organizing social and political activities.
BSUs began demanding of their respective administrations more Black students, faculty, administrators, athletes and coaches. They added to that list their need for student publications, financial aid, offices of black student affairs and cultural centers. And academically, the BSUs insisted on schools of ethnic studies, Black studies departments and resources to help uplift Black communities. In many cases, the students’ demands were met.
Eventually — some point to 1975 — many BSUs began to revert back to the socio-cultural focuses that defined them before the Black Power boom. Today, most BSUs are less activist and more politically reactionary, Garrett says. As they’ve lost their activist edge, they’ve also been losing a battle for membership to other social and cultural organizations, such as fraternities and sororities. With a growing movement toward race neutrality working its way through higher education, the future of BSUs is unclear. But despite these impediments, BSUs continue to be established on college campuses across the nation.
1966: The Year the Negro Became Black
Garrett’s future as an activist was certain as soon as he stepped onto San Francisco State’s campus.
The college already had a Black socio-cultural organization in 1966, the Negro Student Association, in place in 1966. But its scope was too limited for what Garrett had in mind. So, in March of that year, he called for a name change.
“The idea was to politicize the growing consciousness into a formation of a union,” says Garrett, now dean of instruction at Vista Community College in Berkeley, Calif. “It was not simply an alliance or an association, but a union. It was a coming together of a broad base of Black people. So Black and student and union all had meaning and were connected.”
That April, eight students, including Garrett, Benny Stewart and Jerry Varnado, met to formalize the nation’s first Black Student Union. Garrett was to serve as its first chair. Students across the country followed suit either creating new Black student organizations or politicizing those in place, and within a decade there were BSUs in an assortment of forms on campuses across the country.
Garrett says the battles won by BSUs through protests, strikes, building takeovers and other methods were the catalyst for many of the improvements students of color now enjoy on college campuses.
“They are all a direct result of our struggle,” he says. “[People of color in academia] owe us a tremendous amount. They don’t pay it, but they owe a tremendous amount to the sacrifices of people who lost their hands, their fingers, their eyes; people who spent time in prison — students. That’s the last generation of [Black] leadership.”
Dr. Joy Ann Williamson, assistant professor of education at Stanford University and author of Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965-75, has written extensively on student activism in the 1960s. The establishment of San Francisco State’s BSU was a reflection of the “Black Power movement’s ethos” on campus, Williamson says.
The year 1966 was pivotal for the Black Power movement, which espoused self-defense, self-determination and political and economic self-reliance. Historians describe it as the year the Negro became Black.
It was summer of that year when Kwame Toure (aka Stokely Carmichael), took over as chairman of SNCC and first chanted “Black Power.” The Black Nationalist Floyd McKissick took the reins as national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1966, and Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale initiated the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, Calif. The Black Panthers and San Francisco State’s BSU were connected through George Murray, a member of the BSU’s central committee and also the Panthers’ national minister of education.
“Negro died. The word ‘Black’ killed the word ‘Negro’ and turned it into a derogatory term,” Williamson says. “So these students who were part of the Black power movement created Black student associations instead of the Negro student associations to demonstrate that they would be much more aggressive, proud of their Blackness, would self-define and self-direct.”
Word spread quickly of the newly established BSU at San Francisco State, and consequently, Garrett and other founding members were in high demand as BSU organizers. Yet, a major increase in the number of BSUs didn’t occur until 1968 — the apex of the Black Power movement and also the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down.
King’s assassination spurred a dramatic upsurge in the creation of new BSUs and in the membership of existing BSUs. The University of Florida, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Ohio State University, for example, all established BSUs that year. By spring, Garrett chaired the Western Region Alliance of Black Student Unions, an umbrella organization of 60 BSUs — just on the West Coast.
Traveling student-speakers like CORE’s McKissick, who urged Black students across the country to organize, also led to the BSU boom. A week after his speech at Michigan State University in 1967, a group of Black students founded the Black Student Alliance. “We were a bit embarrassed that we did not have a group,” says Dr. Richard Thomas, original co-chair of the group and now a history professor at the university.
In 1969, eight of the nine Black students at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, formed a BSU. Among its demands were increased financial aid for Black students, more Black faculty and more courses on Black history and culture.
“It is not enough to merely admit the Black student to the college,” read the BSU’s original policy statement. “What is also needed is the admission of the Black man’s culture.” The demands were met without incident, says Ulysses Hammond, a freshman from Washington, D.C., in 1969, who is now Connecticut College’s vice president for administration.
However, some BSUs did resort to what some would consider extreme measures. On April 19, 1969, more than 100 heavily armed Black students famously took over Cornell University’s Willard Straight Hall. The takeover was the culmination of a two-year struggle by Cornell’s Afro-American Society for more Black students and a Black studies program. It ended the next day, when the university ceded to the students’ demands.
Many of the protests were inspired by the nationally publicized five-month strike organized by Black students at San Francisco State. The BSU had previously led several smaller protests on campus, demanding, among other things, the enrollment of more Black students as well as autonomy for the Black studies department. But in 1968, the BSU convinced many students and faculty of all races to remove themselves from academic spaces. The strike, which began on Nov. 6, 1968, didn’t end until March 21, 1969. Dr. Nathan Hare, who holds doctorates in both clinical psychology and sociology, was named chair of the Black studies department, the first of its kind in the country.
“They were the most sophisticated student group I had encountered anywhere,” says Hare, who is now in private practice in San Francisco as a clinical psychologist. “I would say that all over the country I never saw any group of students that were more adept than they were.”
A ‘Lull of Activism’
The activism of BSUs dwindled as the initial wave of Black student activists began to leave campus. Some graduated, but others were expelled, jailed or killed, says Garrett. He is among those who says the mid-1970s is when the “counter-revolution” occurred and BSUs began reverting back to socio-cultural organizations, only becoming politically active if an incident occurred.
“[We] were replaced by a second generation who knew more about militancy and less about organizing,” Garrett says. “We did not pass on the organizing skills to the next generation.
The counter-revolution ended up overtaking and redirecting the energies of the Black student unions.”
Adding to the decline of Black activism was the emergence of a new Black cultural ideology. According to Hare, the BSUs were taken over by cultural nationalists, who advocated that Blacks needed to revolutionize their minds before they could revolutionize society.
“Everybody turned away from social combat and started trying to patch up their self-esteem collectively and individually,” Hare says.
There was also a lull of activism in the later part of the 1970s and 1980s, primarily because many grievances of the BSUs had been addressed, says Stanford’s Williamson. “They became much more diffused,” she says.
“There was an ideological transformation,” Michigan State’s Thomas adds, pointing to the founding of Black Enterprise magazine in 1970 as an example. “Several Black students became very much a part of the Black capitalist movement.”
Students became more focused on their own studies, neglecting the Black campus community and certainly the larger Black community, Thomas says. And he maintains that they are definitely needed in that larger community. He recalls how his BSA in the late 1960s had a breakfast program — modeled after the Black Panthers — that fed Black kids each morning.
“Black student organizations have to be that transmission belt between the Black community and the academy,” Thomas says. “We’ve got a crisis, a Black youth crisis in these communities, so those Black students that can make it to colleges and universities have to reach back and do some modeling and some community service work and make sure these kids are in the pipeline and they are on the transmission belt.”
BSUs should not rigidly model themselves after the original BSUs, Garrett says. They should instead build on them.
“They should develop a worldview about what education should be in the 21st century for young Blacks and then move to organize around that,” Garrett says. “And that may serve to eclipse Black student unions just like Negro student associations were eclipsed. And that’s okay. But it ought to be eclipsed in a progressive sense around a progressive program of action.”
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