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Toward Black Higher Education in 1968

A large group of young African American men and women sit in a wide hallway, filling the space and making it difficult to pass through.
Demanding a “Black University,” students occupy the Howard University’s administration building in March 1968. Courtesy of DCPL Special Collections, 1968. Via dc1968 project.

The year 1968 captured the essence of the black experience in a temporal capsule.  Black people struggled for freedom and resisted racism at every level.  They met with great cultural triumphs while mourning heart-wrenching tragedies.  As had been the case earlier in the decade, black youth were in the vanguard of liberation battles over education.  The narrative of 1968, perhaps the twentieth century’s most tumultuous year, must highlight the Black Freedom Movement and the social awakening of students that occurred in colleges and universities.

In terms of higher education, 1968 was one of the most significant years in the twentieth century.  More black students than ever before attended colleges and universities with an eye toward freedom.  Just as civil rights as an issue pricked the consciousness of America, the Black Power Movement frightened many citizens.  Young leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) fame and Erika Huggins of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense shook white authority to its core and inspired students. Howard University alumnus Carmichael wrote in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America in America (a volume that many youth read in 1968) that in black students, “humble appeal is gone; a powerful mood has developed based on a black consciousness.” 

White university officials were often dumbfounded when social movements reached campus.  Acting on behalf of black freedom,black students brought predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) into an era of liberation.  By protesting for increased black admissions,curricular inclusions such as Black Studies, and a “relevant” education, they risked their own status for the advancement of others. The Vietnam War and racism invaded all aspects of life for young people in 1968.  The Tet Offensive revealed that winning the war would be extremely costly. Tragically, the shooting deaths of three South Carolina State College students, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy illustrated the price of freedom. The cases of Howard University, Columbia University, and San Francisco State College greatly represent America’s struggle with blackness in 1968.

By 1968, Howard University was undergoing an identity crisis.  The university president, James Nabrit, and trustees strove to make the HBCU a Negro version of Harvard while a progressive contingent of students wanted to make it a Black university.  Howard should serve the needs of the surrounding community and race, they argued; further, they exclaimed, students should have the opportunity to explore the experience and culture of black people by way of Black Studies.  In March, students took over the administration building, challenging institutional elitism and what they viewed as an adherence to white standards.  Student leaders negotiated with trustees, including famed psychologist Kenneth Clark, a key influencer of the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, and eventually won concessions.  The episode at Howard most poignantly illustrated what psychologist Theodore Cross called the “Negro to Black conversion experience, which affected black people—but especially youth— during this period.  As part of the process, youth rejected Negro accommodationism of the past and asserted a new black self-identification.  Despite their privileged education, students shared blackness (and it all it invoked) with the masses of the race.  

Black students from the predominantly white Ivy League came to Howard to be in solidarity with their peers’ protest. Several young learners from Columbia University closely observed the call for relevance to the needs of black people and the effectiveness of building takeovers.  As members of Columbia’sStudents’ Afro-American Society, which Kenneth Clark’s son, Hilton, founded, young activists worked with the college chapter of the new left organization Students for a Democratic Society to challenge the university’s ties to war research and its expansion into the mostly black areas of Morningside Heights and West Harlem.  The well-endowed university took advantage of urban renewal, which funneled federal funding into projects to remove local blight.  Unfortunately, blight often meant black homes, and renewal frequently meant displacement.  As a result of Columbia’s efforts, 10,000mostly black and brown residents were displaced in the surrounding neighborhoods.

In late April 1968, an ongoing conflict over a proposed Columbia gymnasium in a public Harlem park, came to a boil when community members, black students, and radical white students coalesced to take over five campus buildings. They demanded termination of gym construction, an end to war research, and amnesty for students who had been punished for previous antiwar activism.  Again, Kenneth Clark came to negotiate with black occupiers and Stokely Carmichael came to encourage them to continue their efforts.  Using what they learned at Howard, the black Columbia protesters asked white activists to take over other buildings, leaving Hamilton Hall as a black space.  If solely black demonstrators occupied Hamilton Hall, they suggested, the university would have to confront the specter of black people controlling an edifice that had been named for one of the nation’s founders.  White allies likeTom Hayden of Port Huron Statement fame and campus SDS leader Mark Rudd obliged the request. 

To avoid the sort of violent uprisings that occurred in Harlem after the assassination of the King a few weeks earlier, the Columbia administration agreed to not move forward with the gymnasium. In spite of the administration’s acquiescence, however, violence erupted on campus when school officials called 1,000 police to remove the protesters.  Fearing reprisal for Harlem, black students were arrested without physical violence.  Some police, seeking to teach a lesson,brutalized white students and occupants of other buildings, provoking a six-week student strike.  The alliance that black students made with community activists and organizations reflected their Black Student Power, which was the ability to use their student status to make advancements for the Black Liberation Movement.  The protest at Columbia reverberated throughout the world.  Domestically, and internationally, young people shouted “Two, three, many Columbias.”

Heeding that call, protests erupted in each region of the nation.  In the Bay Area, where the Black Panther Party contested police brutality and called for black self-defense and where the summer of love had blossomed the year before, students activated.  In fall 1968, at San Francisco State College,members of the Black Student Union allied with Chicano, Asian, and Native students to form the Third World Liberation Front. They sought to institute anEthnic Studies College and a Black Studies Department.  After confrontations with the administration over the termination of a professor who affiliated with the Black Panthers, students launched a five-month strike (similar to that at Columbia) for a change in curriculum.  The university president and chancellor stepped down before university officials finally agreed to establish an Ethnic Studies college and Black Studies department, which were both the first of their kind in the nation.  As representatives of the third world, Black Studies advocates catalyzed a national movement to decolonize westernized higher education. That campus movement, on a much less violent scale, mirrored the anti-colonial battles that black and brown youth waged in non-western nations around the globe.  In this way, the American college students were also freedom fighters. As scholars like Ibram X. Kendi and others have shown, Black Studies became perhaps the leading protest issue for collegiate activists in the late 1960s.

In 1968, black students refused to be objects in higher education; they chose to be actors in the drama that unfurled in the nation.  Their legacy endures with the missions of diversity, Ethnic Studies units, and community relations offices that are prevalent in higher education.  Moreover,their legacies live in the spirits of contemporary students who believe it their duty to create access and freedom for others.  In the fall of 2018, students at Seton Hall University, calling themselves the “Concerned 44,” staged a ten-day sit-in in the administration building and made demands similar to those that young people made in 1968.  Then, at Goucher College, black students responded racist threats with a demand for administrative action.  Their contemporary call for increased funding and support for black students, faculty, and staff, as well as their demand of the bolstering of the Ethnic Studies units echoes 1968.  There is no military draft, but there is a rise in racialized incidents and a sense of isolation that black students feel on campus.  Reminiscent of Carmichael’s comment on the changing mood of black students fifty years earlier, at Goucher a contemporary student recently explained that “the mandate for black people in this time is to avenge the suffering of our ancestors and earn the respect of future generations.” Black agitators on campus are part of a lineage that have forced their institutions to confront notions of freedom then and now.

Further Reading on 1960s Social Movements and Black Studies:

Richard D. Benson II, Fighting for Our Place in the Sun: Malcolm X and the Radicalization of the Black Student Movement, 1960–1973 (New York: Peter Lang, 2015).

Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

Stefan M. Bradley, Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

Stefan M. Bradley, Upending the Ivory Tower:  Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League (New York: New York University Press, 2018).

Scot Brown, Discourse on Africana Studies: James Turner and Paradigms of Knowledge (Nyack: Diasporic African Press, 2016).

Jocelyn Imani Cole, ‘“We’re a Winner’: Howard University and Student Activism in the Era of Black Power,” PhD diss., Howard University, 2015.

Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Ibram H. Rogers, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Stefan M. Bradley is chair and associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University.  He is author of the recently released Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League (2018) and Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (2009).  He is co-editor of Alpha Phi Alpha:  A Legacy of Greatness, The Demands of Transcendence (2012).

For more on campus protests, see this archival profile of the San Francisco State College protest, this piece on black student activism in the Civil Rights and Trump Eras, or this reflection on efforts to rename buildings at Oregon State University.