“Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
A week ago, I attended the History of Education Society annual meeting in Philadelphia. On the program were four or five different papers about HBCUs and their historic traditions of protesting inequity.
HBCU students (and often their faculty) have a long history of fighting inequity on campus and off. During the 1920s, HBCU students pushed back at the White leadership of many Black colleges, refusing to perform as Jim Crow entertainment, fighting censorship of student newspapers, and protesting Draconian rules and poor facilities. In the 1960s, students bravely put themselves on the line in support of civil rights – sometimes with the support of their institutional presidents and sometimes not. Many of these students were expelled from school or jailed by local authorities for their actions. Others were beaten or killed for their willingness to fight for basic rights. Each of the papers at the history conference spoke to the activist spirit of HBCU students throughout history.
However, many in the audience —– quite a few students and faculty from HBCUs — wondered if this activist spirit is cultivated today. Of course, “traditional” forms of activism are not as prevalent today on college campuses as they were in the past, but shouldn’t HBCUs be the place where African-American students learn to productively advocate for their rights? Shouldn’t HBCUs cultivate a spirit of activism — a yearning for change — among their students?
Recently, a student at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania staged a hunger strike and a nonviolent protest over the closing of the institution’s library for renovations. On Sept. 30, Amelia Sherwood posted flyers pertaining to her frustration with a library closed since January 2008 (and not to be completed until late 2010 at the earliest). The campus police questioned her and when she didn’t produce I.D., she says they followed her to her residence hall room and subsequently tackled her to the ground, brought her to the campus police station and handcuffed her to a chair.
Shouldn’t we be happy — even elated — in this day and age that a student wants to visit the library and wants other students to do so as well? All too often, I hear students bragging that they got through the semester without entering the library and here we have Sherwood fighting to get into her library. Sherwood protested for a basic component of a college education – a library. She ought to be applauded. Many African-Americans and others throughout history fought for her right to read and have access to knowledge.
There is a lot to be learned from this incident. First, administrators need to plan ahead, making sure students have the resources they need in order to succeed. In this case, couldn’t the renovations of the library have been done one floor at a time to allow students continual access to at least part of the facility? The library at Lincoln is called the Langston Hughes Memorial Library. Ironically, when Hughes was a student at Lincoln, he staged a protest over the lack of African-American representation on the institution’s all-White board of trustees.
Second, all colleges and universities should embrace students who fight for equity, fairness and to learn — students like Sherwood and Hughes. Nonviolent protest is a hallmark of a democratic society and was the backbone of the civil rights movement in America.
If this kind of bravery and activism spirit cannot be cultivated at an HBCU, where can it exist?
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).