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Commentary: Seeing History – Students Against Mass Incarceration at Howard

As a historian, it is brings me joy to see through the window of the past and report to our world what I observe.

Yet, if looking back at history brings me joy, then seeing people make history in the present leaves me spell-bound. I not only take pride in developing my intellectual and methodological ability to view and reveal the past, and use the lessons of the past to examine the present and shape the future. I take pride in developing my intellectual and methodological ability to see through the atmosphere of the present to identify when someone is making history, when something is historic, or even could become historic.

As a historian of Black student activism, I am seeing history, witnessing something historic taking place at Howard University. In February 2011, a group of students organized Students Against Mass Incarceration, which they call SAMI for short with the “I” pronounced “E” and “SAM” pronounced like the prominent name. 

I had first learned of this organization during the international campaigns to secure a new trial for Troy Davis, who was executed last fall for allegedly killing a white off-duty Georgia police officer. Recently, I gained a thorough education about this group at the National Council for Black Studies conference in March.

The more I learned about this organization, the more I contextualized them in the current moment of mass incarceration as the principle injustice decimating Black America, the more I realized that this organization was/is/will be historic.

We have student organizations challenging racism in higher education. We have student organizations opposing war and budget cuts. We have student organizations protesting against Wall Street and poverty. And all of these organizations are indispensable, dynamic, creative, and necessary for change. But racism in higher education has long been a problem in this country, and Black students have been organizing against it for more than a century. Students have opposed every war, and have been crusading against budget cuts, poverty and the excesses of capitalism for more than a century.

Yet, mass incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon. It is The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander titled her popular book on the subject. When one out of three Black men are in jail, on parole, or in prison (compared to 1:27 white men), and many of them are legally disallowed from voting, financial aid, and public housing; when they are legally discriminated against in employment; when racial profiling, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, is widespread and legal; when the budding privatized prison industry and American corporations using prisoners as sweatshop workers are lobbying for tougher laws and more prisoners to increase their wealth; when local communities are lobbying for prisons to be built in their backyards to increase their job base, public resources and voting power through a higher local population with the disenfranchised prisoners — well, this mass incarceration, has become the problem of this century.

The students guiding SAMI may go down in history, just like other students who have been at the center of sparking movements against racial problems on and off campus over the last century.

On February 5, 1925, students at Fisk University, led by George Streator and inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, launched a nationally renowned student strike that lasted 10 long, tumultuous weeks. There had been student strikes before this one. But this protest largely galvanized the decade-long New Negro Campus Movement of the 1920s against stringent student codes, oppressive White philanthropy and paternalistic White presidents.

On December 1, 1955, enthused by Rosa Parks’ arrest earlier in the day, two Alabama State College students joined professor Jo Ann Robinson on campus and stayed up all night long cutting stencils and mimeographing more than 50,000 leaflets announcing a bus boycott on December 5. There had been boycotts before this one. But this protest these students helped to announce opened Martin Luther King’s door to history and largely galvanized the civil rights movement against Jim Crow over the next decade.

On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeill, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, and David Richmond — four North Carolina A&T freshmen — walked into a Woolworth in Greensboro and sat down at its restricted counter, unaffected by the refusal of service, and remained until the store closed. There had been sit-ins before this one. But this sit-in largely galvanized students across the South and within months thousands of students in hundreds of cities were “sitting-in.”

In March 1966, students at San Francisco State College, inspired by the burgeoning Black power movement, gathered for a meeting and decided to rename their Negro Students Association, the Black Student Union, or BSU. There had been progressive Black student groups before this one. But these organizers and their organization’s name literally and figuratively traveled widely and largely galvanized Black power student activism during the Black campus movement that refashioned higher education from 1965 to 1972.

In 2012, in the Trayvon Martin moment, after the moment of Troy Davis, more and more Americans are learning that America ominously jails the most people in the world, and these Americans are entering into what activists like Angela Davis calls the new abolitionist movement: opposing mass incarceration, opposing racial profiling, opposing prison-slave labor, opposing the death penalty, opposing the wrecked American criminal justice system.

It seems to me that SAMI is or will soon find itself as an integral layer of the human vanguard of this movement. SAMI chapters have already begun spreading to other campuses up the East Coast. Students at my small campus in Oneonta have already heard of the group.  It will not surprise me if in the next few years chapters spread down South and to the West.

SAMI will make history, is making history, and will give me a reason to one day write history as I chronicle the student movement that ended mass incarceration.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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