Unity and Diversity in the Black Student Protest Movement - Allison Badertscher, Douglass College '01
The 1960's civil rights movement led to a change in our perception of the American political system. Through the activism, particularly of the late '60s, citizens became aware and confident of their right to dissent, and to protest. Most important in this movement was the legacy to future activists, and knowledge of the power of a unified community as well as a single voice.
Though legal and political gains were made, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965, this progress revealed the limitations of the movement's politics. Yes, "civil rights" existed in the technical sense, but the new legislation led to no real change in the condition of most black Americans' lives. The civil rights movement began to transform, to incorporate new strategies, still concentrating on the exclusionary political system, but equally on the need for a strong black community - a renewal in black pride, culture and power. Education was at the basis of this process. Because of its role in the formation of ideas, but more so in its institutionalization of long existing biases and discrimination, education was at the forefront of discussion and protest in the late 1960's. And college campuses nationwide became one of the primary locations of development and direct action.
At Rutgers, because of the division of campuses and colleges, the black student movement protests of 1968 and '69 were manifested in varying ways and degrees. The campuses of Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers- New Brunswick - Douglass and Rutgers College- provided very distinct environments that influenced the methods and responses of student activism. In Newark, where the most forceful and influential protests were made, student leaders had ties to the city beyond the campus, and gained much experience and support form community activists. They were demanding change within the university, but also within the city, focusing on the way in which the two communities affected and reflected each other. In contrast, in New Brunswick, both at Douglass and Rutgers, the activism was campus-centered, with reforms concerning university admissions, faculty, curriculum, and student-life. However, the two colleges in themselves, encountered different obstacles and results. Rutgers College, still all male, was larger and had a longer history of tradition and discrimination to work through and dismantle. Douglass, though already with its own traditions, was relatively new and still flexible in its academics and the formation of its culture.
In the spring of 1968, Rutgers College was engrossed in Vietnam War protests. Douglass College was in the midst of debates over the abolishment of curfew regulations. Though civil rights was prominent and racial tensions certainly existed, there was no cohesive movement to provide constant pressure on university officials. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th was a mobilizing force for African Americans across the country. His message of peaceful but unrelenting protest was made more urgent and necessary through his death. At Rutgers classes were canceled the day of the funeral, and over the next week numerous actions were taken by the administrators and black student population. Special meetings of the Rutgers Student Council and Government Association at Douglass were held to discuss the demands of black students at the colleges. And an impromptu meeting of the Board of Governors was held specifically to provide a dialogue between student groups and administrators, in which certain demands were made for changes in University admissions, faculty representation, course offerings, and minority programs.1
However, the real impact of King's death was not fully felt on the Rutgers campuses until the following winter. In the fall of '68, there were only 95 black students at Rutgers College out of a total enrollment of 6,416. At Douglass it was slightly better - 115 out of 2,860.2 Promises made the previous spring now seemed like tactics of placation meant to quiet the black student body. No real results were seen the following semester. SAS (Student African-American Society of Rutgers College) made no direct public actions; the fall semester was spent fortifying the black community, creating unity between the colleges, and planning strategies for the future.3
Karen Predow (James) DC '70,
African-American student leader, Quair, 1970
On Douglass, the newly formed DBSC4 (Douglass Black Student Committee) maintained a dialogue between students through the Caellian's Letter to the Editors. The newspaper frequently reported on DBSC's continued actions and demands for progress, and the Dean's responses. The women at Douglass, though concerned about and protesting the low number of black students and faculty (only one out of 200), focused more on the "oppressive white milieu"5 of Douglass. It wasn't simply that they represented a small minority of the population, but that the curriculum and campus activities and traditions were rooted in white culture. McCormick states that, in contrast to the SAS, the women at Douglass "were, in general, less militant and less separatist that the men at Rutgers College, but they shared the sense of being in an alien environment."6 Rutgers College was the main focus of the tensions, but the actions taken at Douglass and their effects were no less traumatic. The single-sex college created a different environment for their protests, but they were no less nor was the response less strong.
In February of 1969, Rutgers College, Douglass, and the Newark campus developed a unified plan for the protests which required careful timing and good communication between different colleges. On February 21st, as tensions culminated, a letter entitled "Black Demands" written by DBSC was printed in the Caellian. In it, the authors state:
...Dean Foster and Douglass College have refused to act upon the demands brought forth last year following the death of Martin Luther King. In the wake of possible disruption of the campus then, the administration was quick to agree to the demands of black students, but apparently because we have received from members of the Douglass community. We are forced to take action to insure the fulfillment of the needs of black students at Douglass.7
DBSC coordinated protests to coincide with action by BOS (Black Organization of Students) in Newark and SAS across town. Their unity emphasized the urgency of civil rights implementation on campus, and the seriousness of the student movement. The protests could not be construed as isolated events, but rather must be seen as a strong University-wide movement, addressing the issues of each campus individually and collectively.
Similar actions were taken at Rutgers College concerning the unfulfilled demands of the past spring, such as requesting a progress report from Dean Grobman. The ultimate action that forced attention on civil rights at the University, however, was the February 24th seizure of Conklin Hall by BOS members in Newark. This action was followed by the occupation of the Camden Student Center by Black Student Unity Movement,8 and dining-hall protests at Brower Commons, Cooper and Neilson. The organized synchronicity of events was crucial to the awareness of University unrest. The following days chaos continued with students walking out of classes, vandalism, and bomb threats. "In addition, bathroom doors in Jameson were locked; drains in Gibbons were clogged, and the water left running, with the result that tunnels flooded."9 Tensions between white and black students rose as confrontation seemed immanent, and classes were canceled the following Monday and Tuesday. One student remarked: "We're tired of being 'niggers', of taking bullshit... Everybody has a breaking point; you can push only so far... We're sick of taking it..."10 "The Rutgers Administration must change its policy of racial castration and take necessary steps that will clear the air of deceit, contradictions, and repression."11
On Douglass, the activism was less physically confrontational, but no less effective. The particular strategy of the DBSC was perhaps more so in its continual pressure on the faculty and the student body, forcing discussion and dissent through weekly articles and letters in the Caellian. Immediately following the height of protests during the week of February 4th, DBSC drew up leaflets stating:
"We, the black students of the university, feel that the well being of blacks in this state is as important as the well being of everyone in this state. Rutgers University administration has been unwilling to deal with two problems of the black community... Blacks can no longer tolerate this."12
This statement emphasized a crucial aspect of the Black Student Protest Movement -that Rutgers, as a state school, had an obligation to provide an education and environment of equal standards for all students, and to represent the population of the state accurately. Also as the University of New Jersey it had the ability to set a standard for other universities and colleges in its admissions and academic programs.
Douglass certainly benefited from its small size in its response to the protests. While classes were canceled, students attended workshops to learn about and discuss racial issues. DBSC and Dean Foster agreed to set up six committees, all with black student representation, to create resolutions and plans dealing with "admissions, scholarships, counseling, personnel, curriculum, and lectures."13 Also because of its size and "closely knit community"14 Douglass was more readily able that other Rutgers colleges to focus on that community in more than just an academic sense. An effort was made to implement change that would create a diverse an integrated college culture.
Included among DBSC demands were "the right to participate educationally in an atmosphere that is positive and conducive to our modes of being... the right to dissent... the right to self- determination."15 To this end, the DBSC worked to include cultural activities for black students into the negotiations, including a Black Arts Weekend, and trips into New York City to visit black theaters and art galleries. "We have a totally different background which calls for other needs and cultural activities," stated one student in a Caellian article about the progress of the college's compliance with DBSC requests.16 One of the results of these committees was the support of Douglass College for the University's development of an Afro-American Studies Major, as well as the establishment of an Afro- American House on Douglass campus, similar to the language and cultural houses already in existence.17 The progress to meet a fair resolution of the black students' demands at Douglass was slow, but constant. Its smaller size allowed for easier access and relations between the Dean, faculty and students, which encouraged a more continual and equal flow of communication.
In a survey of Douglass Alumnae taken during this period, Evelyn Field, a black student from the class of 1949 responded to a question about the encouragement of leadership at Douglass. Though sent during the midst of the co-education debate at Rutgers and Douglass, I think her answer is revealing of the community that influenced the activism of the DBSC, and which, in turn, its members helped to further. She stated:
I am by nature a rather quiet person. I feel that my experience at Douglass, although not directly preparing me for the leadership roles that I later accepted, helped me develop as a person and recognize that I had valuable contributions to make. I would probably have gone unnoticed at a co-ed institution.18
Though it is difficult to quantify the difference in the black student protest movement at Douglass as compared to other Rutgers colleges, Douglass' single-sex status no doubt played a role in the methods used to gain a voice within administrative decisions, and contributed to long-standing and continued results from the deans. Nevertheless activism of the separate colleges of Rutgers University must be perceived within the context of a University-wide movement, with strategic synchronicity and inter- campus communication. Differences that existed among the black student bodies on each campus were necessary to ascertain the specific situation of their individual colleges -and to develop plans of action appropriate to each.
Douglass Collge '01
1 McCormick, Richard P. The Black Student Movement Protest at Rutgers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 24-30.
2 McCormick, p.47, 56.
3 Ibid., p.48.
4 Caellian, September 27, 1968.
5 McCormick, p.56.
7 Caellian, February 21, 1969.
8 Ibid., February 28, 1969.
9 Caellian, February 28, 1969.
10 McCormick, p.51.
11 Douglass College Dean's Office Records (RG 19/A0/01), April 4th, 1969. Box 25, folder 4.
12 Caellian, February 28, 1969.
13 McCormick, p58.
14 Ibid., 60.
15 Douglass College Dean's Records. Box 25, folder 4. April 4, 1969.
16 Caellian, March 13, 1969.
17 Caellian, March 14, 1969.
18 Douglass Dean's Office Records. Box 25, Folder 4. October, 1971.
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