This past spring, the nation somberly noted the 40th anniversaries of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations. Those anniversaries provided time for reflection about the progress Americans have made socially and politically since 1968.

In this edition, Diverse takes yet another look at 1968. In American higher education, 1968 proved a pioneering and momentous year. With King’s assassination, the nation’s colleges and universities experienced the shock of recognizing their own complicity in helping uphold a segregated American society. The experience of the civil rights movement in the early to mid-1960s had already stirred the consciousness of White Americans, particularly those in leadership positions, but the traumatic events of 1968 led many to take decisive action to address racial inequities. I have to admit that I get a little emotional reading the stories in this edition about the struggles 40 years ago for equality at San Francisco State University and, especially, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater.

Like many institutions looking to respond to Dr. King’s assassination and open its doors to minorities in a meaningful way, U of I jumped head first into an ambitious plan, known as Project 500, to enroll 500 Black freshmen that fall. The university, with a Black student enrollment of less than 1 percent at the time, originally planned to achieve that goal by 1973, but the times dictated otherwise.

As you’ll read in “Diversity Now” by Raven Hill, with little time to address financial aid, housing assignments and campus life for these students, the plan did not go off smoothly. The activist-minded students demonstrated, were arrested and unfairly labeled in newspaper accounts as rioters.

These were difficult times for the students, seen as unappreciative, disrespectful and unqualified to be there, and university administrators who supported them. The project did, in fact, result in the substantial and sustained increase in minority enrollment. So, it’s personal for me to recall what students did to pave the way for me to attend Illinois’ flagship university.

The students showed the way.

“You can understand the loneliness, but they were able to blaze the path for us (the university),” says U of I Chancellor Richard Herman. “By their success, they were able to show us what could be done.”

Likewise at SFSU. The president acknowledges, in “Writing Their Own History” by Molly Nance, the students’ actions back then — a tumultuous five-month strike for a School of Ethnic Studies, among other demands — made the institution, and the academy, a much better place. SFSU president Robert Corrigan, then a professor at the University of Iowa, recalls how the San Francisco strike prompted that university to found one of the first Black studies programs.

Says Corrigan: “It was an extraordinary thing that was spreading across America: the notion that we had to open up universities to a population that was being excluded, expand the curriculum and bring into focus the contributions that ethnic and national minority groups had made to the history of our nation and the nature of our society.”

Extraordinary, indeed.

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