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Worth Fighting For: Notes on Black Student Protest

This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the Jackson State killings.  In May 1970, as student activism roiled university campuses nationwide, Mississippi police opened fire on protestors at the HBCU campus in the state’s capital, wounding 12 and killing 21-year-old Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old James Earl Green.

The Jackson State tragedy has become a point of departure in my first-year seminar on “Politics and Protest.”  The course was established two years ago in an effort to honor the legacy of Dr. Robert Brisbane (the founder of the Morehouse political science program, who for decades taught a signature course on Black protest) and augment the College’s exciting new heritage-based general education curriculum.

This spring we set out to do more on student protest and to consider what movements born on Black college campuses can teach us about the political world.  We read Roderick Ferguson’s We Demand: The University and Student Protests(2017).  This is a concise but wide-ranging book, and an inspirational commentary in many ways.  One chapter explores how the Jackson State tragedy, along with the earlier massacre at Kent State, where National Guard troops gunned down four antiwar protestors, ushered in a new era of political and cultural repression in the United States, one that has had a marked impact on subsequent waves of student activism and the democratic aspirations of Black youth.

Just a week after the state violence in Jackson, the Nixon Administration convened the Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest.  While the “commission emerged presumably in response to the senseless deaths of student protesters,” and while the “students were the victims killed by state violence,” those very students were made to be “the cause of social disorder.”  As Ferguson points out, the commission turned a crafty sleight of hand, casting “student activists as threats to democracy rather than as people whose freedoms should have been protected under democratic law.”  The Jackson State episode and its aftermath thus gives us a harsh introductory lesson in white backlash politics.

The early 1970s signaled the dawn of “law and order,” a reactionary and wide-ranging conservative strategy designed in part to manage minoritized student populations.  As state repression was expanded and publicly legitimized in this era, the effects were felt across college campuses of all kinds.

For the purposes of our freshman seminar, the post-Jackson backlash provides historical context for what was supposed to have been class discussion of another key moment of Black student activism, the 1989 Howard University protests.  What was supposed to have been…  The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into our plans to read and discuss a book we had put on reserve at the library.  So, regrettably, we’ve had to forego engagement with Joshua Myers’s outstanding new book, We Are Worth Fighting For: A History of the Howard University Student Protest of 1989.  But I offer a few comments here (and implore my students to read the book in full as soon as they’re able to get back to campus).

We Are Worth Fighting For tells the story of the Black Nia F.O.R.C.E (Freedom Organization for Racial and Cultural Enlightenment), a student organization that emerged at Howard in the late 1980s.  Building on Black nationalist ideals and the burgeoning “message hip-hop” of the era, the group sought to combat “student apathy,” to cultivate political consciousness on campus, and to improve relations between the campus and the surrounding communities.  Ultimately the BNF, led by students April Silver and Ras Baraka and with a deep roster of committed student organizers, staged an occupation of the University’s administration building, demanded the removal of the racist political operative Lee Atwater from the University’s Board (Atwater was a key figure behind the conservative “southern strategy,” which used racist dog whistling to stoke white fear and resentment), and pressed for an institutional commitment to a Black Studies curriculum.  With broad support from the student body and the surrounding off-campus community—as well as the Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Berry, who cut his teeth as a SNCC activist during his college years in the 1960s—the group ultimately succeeded in securing Atwater’s resignation and made significant inroads in what remains an ongoing struggle to institutionalize an African-centered curriculum.

In various ways these books demonstrate how student organizing and movement work can transform the lives of those involved—spiritually, psychologically, vocationally.  Myers quotes extensively from the students involved in the 1989 struggle, many of whom recall how their activism changed them, strengthened them, elevated their consciousness, forged bonds of community and solidarity, enabled them to confront fears and challenge power.  In many ways their “extra-curricular” school work seems to have become the most impactful educational exercise of their college experience.

These books also remind us what is at stake for the field of education, especially at HBCUs.  The histories of Black student protest and the broader Black Studies movement prompt us to keep thinking and dialoguing about what Du Bois called the “field and function" of the Black college.  It is important that we ask, as Myers puts it: “under what conditions would Black thought and thinking traditions determine the nature of what it means to fulfill the goals of our institutions?”

One takeaway from Ferguson’s book is that any demands put forth by Black student activists are always fundamentally efforts to transform the world, to exercise collective determination, to refashion, from below, any notion of the demos.  Myers argues that the 1989 Howard protest, which he situates in a much larger tradition of Black radicalism (and on this, see the excellent new collection of writings by the late Cedric Robinson, the legendary theorist of the Black radical tradition), was ultimately not “about any formulaic notion of democracy or access to a decision-making apparatus.”  Black protest, he says, “is not simply the pursuit of a set of demands.”  The political stakes are much higher.  I close out this brief set of book notes with a very moving passage from Myers’s concluding chapter: 

Black student protest was and is this categorical rejection of this world, this way of being in it.  The desire to struggle and create carries with it the literal memories of a world where Black people are more than this world has rendered them, where they are other than this world.  This otherworldliness, this sacred and spiritual energy that resolves, rather than distorts, is what makes Black radicalism what it has been and must be… The student protest of 1989 was, above all, a feeling.  And none but those who felt it will ever know.  It is available if we are open to feeling, imagining.  We can all connect to that knowing and to that movement so that we can feel ourselves what we must do in the name of liberation.  And if we feel it, we, too, can envision a future where Blackness, Black being—a backward-gazing improvisation of a rhythm for our present situation—structures and orients our imagination of what the future world can be.  It is a dream, but it is an imagination where we find what makes the struggle beautiful, where we find what is worth fighting for.

 

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Andrew J. Douglas is an associate professor of political science and faculty affiliate in Africana studies and international comparative labor studies.  He is the author of two books, including W.E.B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society, and is currently finishing a book-length project on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s economic theory (coauthored with Jared Loggins, Morehouse c/o 2015).