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It’s a Different World: Black Student Activism From the Civil Rights Movement Through the Trump Era

The question caught me slightly off guard. On the evening of September 21, 2011, Troy Davis’s life hung in the balance and the state of Georgia was set to execute a man who many believed was innocent of the murder charges that he was convicted of.  Apparently I missed the memo as one of my students queried me as to why I was not dressed in a black t-shirt that day in order to publicly display my solidarity for Davis. Indeed the call had gone out through social media to don oneself in black that day and the initiative simply failed to register with me. It was in fact a response to yet another tragic event where the campaign and call for “t-shirt activism” had surfaced throughout the Internet and numerous African Americans across the country had willingly participated, some with a sense of fulfillment that they had done their part. I went home that day thinking about Troy Davis, thinking about my wardrobe “malfunction,” and thinking about the contemporary state of activism among Black youth. And then I turned on my television set and was encouraged to see news from Washington D.C. that provided a stunning visual of a throng of students from Howard University that had taken the initiative to march outside of the White House. Their hope that there would be some federal intervention on behalf of Mr. Davis fell short as he was executed by the state of Georgia later that evening.

The events of my day summarized the ebb and flow of Black student activism in the years since the end of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. The insurgency of youth could be at once swift and shallow yet still produce moments rooted in the traditions of a social revolution that transformed America and the world. The catalyst of that revolution was the politicization and militancy of Black youth who subsequently jump-started the turbulent 1960s with a brand of direct action protests that was unparalleled in our nation’s history. Emerging from Black colleges across the South, scores of youth engaged in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and a host of other strategies in order to effectively challenge and ultimately dismantle Jim Crow throughout the country. Their actions were not spontaneous or conceived out of sheer will. Since the inception of these institutions, Black youth had been deliberately exposed to idealism, cultural nationalism, and a steady diet of race consciousness that aided in their conversion to social and political change agents. As the activist energies of post World War II America grew, seeds of radicalism took root on Black college campuses and dramatically spilled out in February of 1960.

Stokely Carmichael wearing a Howard University sweater.

Yet as the 1960s drew to a close, a host of developments transpired that served to pacify and mitigate the militancy of Black youth. Following a decade of effective protests, African Americans integrated white institutions of power in far greater numbers. Many of them channeled the energies of the Civil Rights Movement into those institutions, forcing those corporations, universities, and other private and public industries to adjust. The fruits of this movement produced Black Studies Departments and Black student centers on predominately white college campuses and supported affirmative action hiring that brought well trained Black students into the fold of corporate America for the very first time. While these advances were critical in the development of Black empowerment, they conversely left a wake of devastation in their path that slowly weakened traditional Black institutions. Black colleges, secondary schools rooted in Black communities, and even neighborhoods themselves underwent vast transformations that greatly changed the historic roles that these institutions had played in buttressing the advancement of African Americans.

The tone and tenor of Black student activism radically transformed due to these changes. An expanding Black middle class and a “brain drain” from Black college campuses effectively placated the levels of militancy emanating from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). For years the student-teacher relationship had served as the principal crucible in which the politicization of Black students had occurred. As the 1970s unfolded, the best and brightest of these scholars were now being attracted to predominately white campuses leaving a void between Black America’s sharpest scholars and the critical mass of Black students that still attended these institutions. Meanwhile, the universities themselves were undergoing sudden changes. The humanities were once the intellectual powerhouses of Black colleges. As the doors to corporate America swung open during the late 1960s and into present day, STEM fields increasingly drew students away from disciplines that had prepared them as teachers, social workers, ministers, and even activists. A tide of students swarmed towards the more financially lucrative fields of engineering, business, and the hard sciences, and thus eroded the intellectual traditions and training that had previously challenged students to not only think critically about racial barriers that affected African Americans, but to serve as change agents as they encountered those obstructions in their various walks of life.

In spite of these changes, Black student activism on both Black college campuses and predominantly white institutions persisted through the 1980s and 1990s. As had been the case in the late 1960s and 1970s, much of the student activism generated on predominantly white college campuses targeted the colleges themselves. Inclusion had long been a dominant theme of Black activism yet what many Black students found was an absence of empathy toward the Black experience, both on campus and at large. Many students felt threatened and isolated; feelings that were compounded by the failure to address systemic racism found at various levels across the nation’s predominantly white colleges. A failure to see themselves reflected in the curriculum or other key places on campus contrasted with the fact that many of these institutions raided Black communities for star athletes who were historically a talent source that almost exclusively attended the nations Black colleges.

As for HBCUs, the activist energies that had been one of their signature characteristics in years past quickly subsided. Black student protest objectives in the 1980s and 1990s became far more reactionary as opposed to the proactive crusade for social and political justice that had defined student activism in years past. Nevertheless, Black college students targeted issues such as South African Apartheid and became involved in the campaigns of a host of politicians who infused themselves into local and national politics. However, the seduction of hyper-capitalism and mass consumption that defined the 1980s blinded many Black college students to rampant mass incarceration, environmental racism, and other forms of institutionalized white supremacy that continued to plague the Black experience in America. Furthermore, an intense generational divide created a chasm between the crusaders of the Modern Civil Rights Movement and the new Hip Hop Generation. Indeed numerous veterans of the movement have noted that there had been a failure to adequately pass the torch of activism from one group to the next. Without the direction and instruction from past generations of how to channel their energies, historic moments such as the Million Man March in 1995 often fizzled out with little fruit to bear.

Howard University students protest police violence in 2014.

Recent spates of police brutality and newfound concerns with justice delayed or denied has produced a new round of movement activity that has indeed found traction within the latest generation of Black student activists. As was the case in the 1960s, technology has factored greatly into broadcasting the challenges that still confront Black Americans. While the Civil Rights generation depended heavily upon the new medium of television and print media to transfer and translate their struggles to America and the world, Black youth today have leaned heavily upon social media to exponentially increase the volume and range of their message. In doing so, the revolution has not only been televised, it has been streamed, tweeted, “liked” and downloaded which in itself proved problematic to a degree. The Florida based organization The Dream Defenders, which was created by former Florida A&M students in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, placed a brief moratorium on the organization’s Facebook and Twitter posts, after concerns that they were failing to make significant and meaningful inroads into the Black community beyond cyberspace. The organization addressed the situation by publicly declaring, “Social media is a microphone—it amplifies the grassroots organizing work that we are doing to transform our circumstances. It does not, and never will, take the place of building deep relationships, which are at the core of organizing.”

The Trump Era has already intensified and galvanized activist’s voices across the nation, and students comprise a large portion of those who are concerned about the tone of our 45th President’s rhetoric and the policy being drafted under his watch. Trump’s presidency has created a media torrent that is bringing new meaning to the phrase “24 hour news cycle.” While organizations such as Black Lives Matter, The Dream Defenders, and a host of other activist oriented groups thrive upon student involvement, they will need to skillfully balance their social media presence with true “boots on the ground” community organizing in order to maintain their relevance and their potency. While student activism is still indeed a powerful force for change, keyboard courage, fleeting slogans and hollow chants, and the always-popular t-shirt activism, has the potential to shorten the lifespan and effectiveness of social movements in the twenty-first century.

Jelani M. Favors is an Assistant Professor of History at Clayton State University. His first book, Shelter in a Time of Storm: Black Colleges and the Long History of Student Activism (University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming) examines the role of Black colleges as incubators of student activism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.