Black Student Activism: Why It Is Needed More Than Ever…50 Years Later and Beyond.

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By Paul “Tru1P” Holston

During these current times, I have grown to become the type of person to not shy away from concerns that linger within my mind. Growing up, I did not know how to speak up and speak out against things that mattered to me. No one ever taught me why it was a greater threat to be silent on the things that mattered versus speaking out and becoming involved in uplifting my people into liberation and fighting against the establishment that surrounded me. Topics such as racism (i.e. systematic, industrial, institutional), prejudice, discrimination, police brutality, social, political, economical, environmental, and countless other issues were not so much the main topics of discussion growing up. And yet, I witnessed the hints and glimpses surrounding these subjects not only around where I lived, but also in the media such as newspapers, radio, and television. Almost anywhere where news was published, it was there. Though I did not understand then, I knew as I got older I would learn to challenge myself, step outside my comfort zone, and to get involved someway, somehow. Growing up in South Carolina would be the beginning of opening my mind, serving in the military would be beginning of learning the system, and currently living in Washington D.C. and attending Howard University has given me the realization of just how important that the “Student Activist” and “Student Activism” is needed more than ever. It’s currently 2016, 50 years later from 1966…the year the Black Panther Party was established, the years where the Black Campus movements and counterculture sparked, and where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started to grasp his radical mindset. These key examples would all be birthed into the nation that so desperately needed political, environmental, economic, and social change. Had I been around like minded people that shared this wealth of history to me back then, maybe I would be somewhere different. But as they say, there is a timing for everything, including learning and gaining knowledge, and the time for students across numerous higher education institutions to stand up and speak out about the reflection of our current status in America is now.

“In October of 1966, in Oakland California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Panthers practiced militant self-defense of minority communities against the U.S. government, and fought to establish revolutionary socialism through mass organizing and community based programs. The party was one of the first organizations in U.S. history to militantly struggle for ethnic minority and working class emancipation — a party whose agenda was the revolutionary establishment of real economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines.”

The year of 1966 would be the birth year of the Black Panther Party, an organization that the United States surely was not prepared for. They did not anticipate African-American militants who would no longer concede to the corrupt systematic racism in the state of California, nor did they anticipate its fast growth across the nation and around the world. Americans had never seen such a group of Black people who were prideful and proud of who they were, where their history came from, and what it meant to above all, give power to the people. Even 50 years later, the Black Panther Party and its era are highly regarded and reminisced within the Black community of a time where Black Power and Black Pride was embedded within the heart, mind, and blood of the Black man, woman, and child. Even the intellectuals on college campuses during the 1960s would feel the empowerment of what it felt like to take control of their own destiny, especially Black students across these institutions. Many would emulate and reflect off the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program to their own, tailored demands towards their institutions. By seeing this type of activism in the streets, these college students would bring the activism into their classrooms, campuses, and their knowledge back on the streets, thus sparking the Black Campus movements and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Between 1965 and 1972, African American students at upwards of a thousand historically black and white American colleges and universities organized, demanded, and protested for Black Studies, progressive Black universities, new faces, new ideas–in short, a truly diverse system of higher education relevant to the Black community. Taking inspiration from the Black Power Movement, Black students drew support from many quarters–including White, Latino, Chicano, Asian American, and Native American students–and disrupted and challenged institutions in nearly every state. By the end, black students had thoroughly reshaped the face of the academy.”

The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and racial discrimination were some of the many important subjects surrounding the United States during the ’60s. Much of the non-white population would be fighting against the system in forms of protests, civil disobedience, involving themselves in the political process, among many other actions to demand equality. Within the scheme of these events, college institutions would join alongside those on the streets, as the birth of the Black Student Union (BSU) would be born in 1966. According to an article by Ibram Rogers, author of “The Black Campus Movement (Contemporary Black History),” he stated that “In the spring of 1966, a group of Black students at San Francisco State College (now University) organized the nation’s first Black Student Union (BSU). In the coming years, hundreds of groups of Black students on campuses across the nation would follow suit, organizing BSUs. These BSUs began demanding that American higher education make itself more hospitable and relevant to Black persons and ideas.” Black student activism would be vitalized and birthed in the nation as a turning point for many colleges and universities…as not only would students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) would be fighting to instill Black history and pride that the institutions were founded on, but also many other ivy league and predominately white institutions (PWIs) would follow suit of demanding Blackness and its education into own. Many spectators would deem these acts radical and inhumane, but it was only because people of color demanded to no longer see themselves as inferior and 3/5ths of a clause that the white establishment would be afraid of their power of pride. Through the civil rights movement, one man would soon realize the same ideology for his people…and his name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system. He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement. He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike. He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam. In his critique of American society and his strategy for changing it, King pushed the country toward more democracy and social justice.”

MLK is known to many as the “dreamer,” but many denounce the radical that he truly was. I did not come to truly appreciate his life’s work until learning of the final years of his life. MLK knew that he needed to speak up and speak out not only towards white supremacy in America, but in many cases those closest around him that did not understand his radical ideologies. His critically acclaimed letter, Letter From A Birmingham Jail, was the most prominent and praised penned article that many of us would see a public view of his inner radicalism. From radical actions such as his denouncement of the Vietnam War, his democratic socialism, his call to economic and social equality for his people, King spawned the activism that many college students that followed him would evolve and develop such as Julian Bond, Marion Barry, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC would become an organization that would give the youth a voice in the movement with its radical elements.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day comes on Monday, many will celebrate the birthday, life and legacy of Dr. King, as they should. Most Americans will celebrate by not having to work on this federal holiday, numerous schools will be closed to observe the holiday, and many will let the day pass by. There will be some who will be in the streets of their respectable communities calling to action through protests, conferences, workshops, community services, and giving history lessons to their peers of the civil rights leader. There will documentaries playing on television, radio broadcasts giving highlights, and articles published celebrating the anniversary and holiday of MLK. Through these examples and concluding with giving a small insight of the radical man beyond the “dreamer,” these are times where we need to continue to speak up, speak out, and follow with direct actions. My pastor at Metropolitian AME in Washington, D.C. said something that made me think as he preached to the congregation this morning: “What Is YOUR Excuse for being Silent? The NOT Speaking makes God’s people other people. When we don’t speak, we don’t belong to God. Silent people cannot belong to God. When you get close to God, your Identity changes. No one is going to call on you…stand up and say what God has given to you.” For my fellow colleagues that are enrolled in higher education and whomever is reading this that may have friends/family/anyone you know that is in some type of education system: In 2016, Black student activism is needed more than ever. In 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and beyond, Black student activists are needed more than ever. Be Black and Be Proud.



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