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HBCUs as Liberatory Agents

Black colleges maintained vital resources for sustaining the Black freedom struggle of the middle 20th century. Logistically, they were institutions with a pre-organized group of constituents, established leaders, networks and meeting space. Emotionally and ideologically, they bolstered collective enthusiasm, built on a common mission and served as an outlet for discussion and social expression. Still, the transformation of Black colleges into liberatory agents was not inevitable. Their conversion into movement centers actively plotting against White supremacy was made possible by constituents determined to use any and all means for their cause. Activist students, in particular, appropriated and politicized campus organizations and used them as weapons against White supremacy.

Students at Mississippi Vocational College initiated a boycott to demand the right to create a Student Government Association in February 1957, marking the first large-scale disruptive event initiated at a Black college in Mississippi during the middle 20th century. Their actions did not directly attack White supremacy. But, they were influenced by the increasingly aggressive nature in which Blacks advanced their grievances in the immediate post-Brown v. Board of Education era and the tactics popularized in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Forty percent of the Mississippi Vocational student body staged a 36-hour walkout to demand their own student government to act as a liaison with the campus administration. President James White and the all-White board of trustees promised to discuss the issue with students, and the walkout ended peacefully. However, it was not until the 1961-1962 academic year that students were allowed to create such an organization, and even then it was heavily censored by the administration.

Mississippi Vocational students never stated an intention to use the group for off-campus political aims. The movement had yet to gain a foothold in Mississippi at the time of the boycott, and students were more interested in campus advocacy issues. But, their demand for a democratic voice on campus rattled White trustees and Black campus administrators and demonstrated that students would take drastic steps to achieve their ends.

To the horror of the board of trustees, Jackson State College students appropriated the Student Government Association for civil disobedience. Their first organized act of defiance occurred when Jackson State students mobilized to support Tougaloo College students who had been arrested at a sit-in at the Whites-only city library in March 1961. Seven hundred Black youth, including some not affiliated with Jackson State, demonstrated on the campus the evening of the Tougaloo sit-in, and protests continued the following day.

Governor Ross Barnett threatened to close the campus, and Jackson State President Jacob Reddix threatened expulsion if students persisted. Students disregarded the threats, boycotted classes and planned a march to the city jail. According to Walter Williams, president of the Jackson State student body, Medgar Evers and the NAACP supported the demonstration, but students coordinated the entire affair. As marchers approached the jail, police swiftly and violently reacted to the demonstration with blockades, tear gas, billy clubs and — for the first time in Mississippi civil rights history — attack dogs. Reddix and the board of trustees clamped down on students, enforced stiff rules and penalties regarding student conduct, and dissolved the Student Government Association after accusing it of “embarrassing” the school. Reddix also expelled Walter Williams and created a dummy-government in the student government’s stead.

It was fitting that students at Mississippi Vocational and Jackson State would demand a student government and enlist it as a change agent and that their efforts would be thwarted. A student government, some Black college officials and many Whites worried, would shift the hierarchical structure of the university and give students a measure of authority and input. It was not that Mississippi’s White officials and Black college administrators believed that citizenship training was irrelevant; Black colleges included the notion of education for proper citizenship in their mission statements. Such learning, however, was supposed to be confined to discussions in the history, government, or economics classroom. Students challenged this assumption when they deigned to translate republican theory into practice by demanding the right to form an advocacy organization and using it to challenge the administration and White supremacy.

Dr. Joy Ann Williamson is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. This column is an excerpt from her new book, Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008).

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