Developing Their Minds without Losing Their Soul: Black and Latino Student Coalition-Building in New York, 1965-1969

Article excerpt

This essay focuses on late-1960s African American and Latino student coalition-building on two New York City campuses: Lehman College in the Bronx and City College of New York in Harlem. Based on oral histories, archival documents and printed sources, the two case studies show parallels, contrasts, and linkages between New York City student activism and student movements in other regions. A tentative framework emerges for explaining why the black and brown student movements happened and why they became confrontational. In addition, these case studies provide an understanding of how black and Latino students worked together to fight institutional racism within and beyond their college campuses, the conditions that made these coalitions successful and the reasons they faltered. Black and brown students' class backgrounds and racial-ethnic identities played an important role in shaping the outcome of many late-60s campus radical initiatives, especially those that sought Black-Latino unity. In the late 1960s, young blacks and Latinos both shared impatience with the institutional racism of educational institutions and the resulting cultural marginalization of minority groups. The City College and Lehman College case studies indicate how interethnic political relationships on campuses tended to be strongest, and campus radicalism most impactful, when it was among younger African Americans and Latinos who shared the same class status and ethnic-group identity. (1)

Black Power and Brown Power politics, as well as international liberation movements, linked together several different factors that defined late-1960s African American and Hispanic campus radicalism: local campus protests and demonstrations for the establishment of programs in Black and Latino American Studies; increases in black and Latino student admissions, and an increase in the number of black and brown faculty members. In New York, these student movements illustrated the explicit tensions rooted in the limitations of Black Power ideology when it came to inclusion of and sensitivity to Latino perspectives and objectives.

This article's analysis of campus radicalism at City College and Lehman College responds to two trends in the historiography of the Black Power movement and late-1960s student activism in general. First, scholars contend that the Black Power movement and the advent of Black Nationalism inspired black separatist militants and confrontational student movements. Second, scholars theorize that the Black Power movement and its leaders influenced the student movements, and that the movements thus spread from historically black colleges and universities to predominately white campuses. The article's case studies, however, reveal some elisions within these approaches.

Within the first trend, there is a tendency to obscure the complexities of "Black Power" and to sometimes ignore altogether its complex relationship to "Brown Power." The Black and Latino student movements in New York emerged as part of the larger civil rights, Black Power, and Brown Power movements, and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Black power in its various manifestations (depending on the group espousing it) was rooted in the black revivalism of Malcolm X, in direct-action protests, in the political and economic organizing campaigns of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and in the armed resistance against police brutality of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In addition, in the 1950s and 1960s militant African independence movements and student anti-Apartheid movements in South Africa had stirred black and brown students to action, producing a new "brilliant" generation of black intellectuals that rivaled the generation of the Harlem Renaissance. (2) Both the urban riots that followed the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and several other important figures within the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the failure of American liberalism shaped the development of student movements on college campuses. …