Celebrating 40 Years of Activism: Calling for More Black Students, Faculty and Programs, Black Student Unions Fundamentally Changed American College Campuses, but Did They Change Themselves in the Process?

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ARMED WITH WELL-HONED LEADERSHIP SKILLS, established organizational techniques and a fearless demeanor, James Garrett rode the wave of Black activism onto the campus of San Francisco State College (now University) in 1966.

The sit-ins in 1960, the Freedom Rides in 1961, the massive demonstrations by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi and the Watts Riot in 1965--Garrett was involved in them all as a teenager. He was arrested seven times and survived many vicious beatings.

So when the 20-year-old arrived at San Francisco State as an undergraduate, he was not about to assimilate quietly.

"I went to the campus for two reasons," says Garrett, who grew up in Dallas and Los Angeles, "to avoid being called in the military and to organize."

It was the activism of San Francisco State students like Garrett that gave birth 40 years ago to the first Black Student Union. The establishment of other BSUs wouldn't be far behind.

In 1966, traditionally White colleges and universities were admitting more Black students than ever because of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which banned discrimination in education. But the climate on most campuses was decidedly inhospitable to the newly arrived Black students. Thus, there grew a desire to create a political group that would unite Black students and demand a weather change, in addition to organizing social and political activities.

BSUs began demanding of their respective administrations more Black students, faculty, administrators, athletes and coaches. They added to that list their need for student publications, financial aid, offices of Black student affairs and cultural centers. And academically, the BSUs insisted on schools of ethnic studies, Black studies departments and resources to help uplift Black communities. In many cases, the students' demands were met.

Eventually--some point to 1975--many BSUs began to revert back to the socio-cultural focuses that defined them before the Black Power boom. Today, most BSUs are less activist and more politically reactionary, Garrett says. As they've lost their activist edge, they've also been losing a battle for membership to other social and cultural organizations, such as fraternities and sororities. With a growing movement toward race neutrality working its way through higher education, the future of BSUs is unclear. But despite these impediments, BSUs continue to be established on college campuses across the nation.

1966: The Year the Negro Became Black

Garrett's future as an activist was certain as soon as he stepped onto San Francisco State's campus.

The college already had a Black socio-cultural organization, the Negro Student Association, in place in 1966. But its scope was too limited for what Garrett had in mind. So, in March of that year, he called for a name change.

"The idea was to politicize the growing consciousness into a formation of a union," says Garrett, now dean of instruction at Vista Community College in Berkeley, Calif. "It was not simply an alliance or an association, but a union. It was a coming together of a broad base of Black people. So Black and student and union all had meaning and were connected."

That April, eight students, including Garrett, Benny Stewart and Jerry Varnardo, met to formalize the nation's first Black Student Union. Garrett was to serve as its first chair. Students across the country followed suit either creating new Black student organizations or politicizing those in place, and within a decade there were BSUs in an assortment of forms on campuses across the country.

Garrett says the battles won by BSUs through protests, strikes, building takeovers and other methods were the catalyst for many of the improvements students of color now enjoy on college campuses.

"They are all a direct result of our struggle," he says. "[People of color in academia] owe us a tremendous amount. …