We have learned that several factors shape Black student protest – and perhaps much of student protest generally – since the 1960s. However, some results are more fruitful than others. Some of the most prominent factors in whether a protest is effective long term include the strategies used in the protest, how much of the school community (including faculty) was involved, how did the mainstream media portray or distort the events and most importantly, how was the protest entwined with other global, national, local, and campus-wide obstacles relating to racism. This archive can be viewed through the lens of each of the above factors.
This archive is in no order, but the events are often intertwined: Campuses are continually changing- there is an new student body every four years- thus enrolling new ideas, new issues, and new students all at the same time. It is important to recognize that even though the student bodies may be different, the issues from campus-to-campus are connected through the struggle that Black students, especially those at predominantly white institutions, face when they matriculate to universities.
When campuses change presidential administrations, a change in the dynamic tension between students and activism can also take place. Just as there is a new generation of students every four years, administration can change every four to eight years depending on re-elections. The attitude of incoming administrations, towards every subject pertinent to the student body, drastically shapes the atmosphere of the campus, particularly for Black students who’s voices are systemically neglected. The positions, specifically on social issues that lead to protests, of the outgoing administration can be starkly different from that of the incoming administration, which leaves plenty of room for a less than perfect transition between the two. It is interesting to see how protests can adapt, benefit, or be halted by each administration.
Presidents of universities, as well as national political transformations, can have the same affect on college campuses. The shift of federal resources away from the War on Poverty and towards the War in Vietnam, for instance, was an important backdrop for the protests in 1968. While this archive depicts specific Black student protest that happened, their extensive details make the most sense when placed into context of what was occurring in the nation. For a more holistic understanding, we encourage everyone to learn the history of the years surrounding these events, as well as why the protest itself happened.
There are also international trends that align with protests in the USA. The global protests of 1968, for instance, are compatible to one another in the sense that many of them have the same demands and reasoning behind protesting. Protesting the inhumane system of oppression known as apartheid led to student uprisings in Soweto and elsewhere. More recently, protests against built memorials to racist regimes of the past – from campus buildings to statuary – have linked students in South African with the United States. The globe has shown that it can mobilize together when it collectively values true equality over naked authoritarianism or token gesture.
As we began creating this archive, the issue of free speech at private universities was a big talking point amongst students. Debates surrounding what constitutes free speech form an important back drop to Black student protests because the term has often been curbed to favor white students using violence-inciting hate speech against Black students. The politics of this injustice within universities across the country restructure protests and frequently reframe how the community or public perceives Black student protests (adding to the disgusting predominant narrative that Black student protests are petty overreactions).
However, their freedom ends where Black students begin, so no such language will be forced unto Black students on a campus where they have gained “acceptance”. But what does “acceptance” really mean? Yes, into the university, but are Black students, and their ideas, positions, and needs, truly accepted by the student body or administration? This archive depicts several instances in which a protest was needed in order to achieve basic standards of living. Such protests shouldn’t even be necessary, but it has apparently become the requirement for Black students to get what its well deserved: equality.
With a history of failed promises, both before and after protests, it is easy to understand why Black students, or Black people in general really, may have a skeptical, untrusted relationship with universities and administrations in general. The ideas and events that lead to past student protests echo loudly in today’s society. So blatantly that new coalitions are forming in an effort to prohibit history from repeating itself. Although every protest in this archive was not a success, backsliding into the time before it cannot be afforded if we are all to move forward.
If nothing else, these protests symbolize how Black students are willing to organize and fight for economic fairness, equal job opportunities, maintenance of a certain comfort level while on campus, and any other problem that presents itself as threatening to their well being.