The Battle for Black Studies

By Malveaux, Julianne | In These Times, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Battle for Black Studies


Malveaux, Julianne, In These Times


On May 4, 1970, four unarmed students were killed and nine wounded when the Ohio National Guard stormed a student demonstration at Kent State University. These students have been, justifiably, immortalized in music and in histoiy. Yet our society has collective amnesia about the African -American students who

were massacred in the same era. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, two students were killed and a dozen wounded just 11 days after Kent State, And two years before, at South Carolina State Universify, three students were killed and 28 injured, including a pregnant woman who was beaten so badly that she suffered a miscarriage.

Martha Biondi challenges our collective amnesia in her new book, The Black Revolution on Campus. For this reader, it was like a walk down memory lane, with footnotes. Entering Boston College in 1970, 1 missed many of the major anti-war protests, such as a campus shutdown in the spring of 1970, but I had the privilege of participating in campaigns that strove to overhaul a racist university system. We marched for a Black studies department; for an increase in the number of AfricanAmerican students, especially from the inner city; and for a boost in the financial aid they received. As Biondi so aptly relates, African-American students of that era were absolutely convinced that by influencing the university and building black self-determination and intellectual leadership, they could effect social and economic change in our nation.

In her meticulously researched account, Biondi, an African -American studies and history professor at Northwestern University, goes far beyond nostalgia to provide a deep look at the mechanics and conflicts of the student protests of 1968-1973, the opposition they faced and what they ultimately accomplished.

The first seven chapters of the book trace the brick-by-brick building of the Black revolution. Biondi describes the creation of on-campus organizations such as Black Student Unions, the energy stoked by various meetings and conferences, and the critical role of off-campus efforts, including independent schools and organizations such as the Institute of the Black World. She threads together some of the most important campus protests, including those at San Francisco State, Northwestern, Harvard and City University of New York (although she puzzlingly excludes Cornell University, where African-American students famously seized a university hall).

Alarmed by the protests, academic administrators responded in a variety of ways. Some were willing to compromise, others resigned, and others, such as S.I. Hayakawa at San Francisco State, reveled in their obduracy. In an attempt to crush a student strike, Hayakawa called in hundreds of police officers for a series of bloody crackdowns that had the unintended effect of galvanizing the movement.

Biondi's chapter on the Black revolution at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), such as Howard University and South Carolina State, is especially absorbing, speaking as it does to the conflicts in the AfricanAmerican community around issues of social change. Too many AfricanAmerican college presidents were invested in the status quo, either because of their own conservative beliefs or because of pressure from hinders. Many HBCUs had grown less radical over the past decades - amazingly, Howard had a stronger Black studies focus in the 1930s than in the 1960s. But students at HBCUs were adamant about change and confronted administrators, taking over buildings, striking and making curricular demands.

At predominately white schools, some black faculty enthusiastically supported student protests even at risk to their careers, but others were skeptical. …

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