Suddenly it feels like the 1960s again. The passionate, sometimes purposely disruptive energies of the Black Lives Matter movement have ignited a campus-based movement for racial justice that came of age last week. After months of protesting against an intolerant school culture at the University of Missouri, the group #concernedstudent1950 (named after the year the university started to accept black students) received unexpected momentum, and national media attention, when the football team vowed to go on a work strike until the university president resigned. The president did just that, and the system chancellor announced he would step down at the end of the academic year.
Meanwhile, students at Yale University have organized similar demonstrations, accusing the Ivy League school of institutional racism against African-American students and students of color, culminating in the kind of roiling protests unseen on the school’s New Haven campus since the Black Panthers captivated student activism in 1970.
Campus activism in Missouri, New Haven, and, most recently, Ithaca College, has caught the national zeitgeist, making the subject fodder for journalists, scholars, and even presidential candidates. Like the #BlackLivesMatter movement that transcended its pragmatic focus on the criminal justice system, the racial justice movement now spreading on campuses across the nation goes beyond the contours of university life.
Institutional racism, especially as practiced at elite universities, can be measured in the lack of African-American faculty, staff, students, administrators, boards of trustees and advisors, and presidents. During the 1960s, the dearth of black faces on campus helped spark the creation of black student unions and a push for African-American studies departments and programs that helped fundamentally change higher education.
Critics who denounce nonviolent demonstrations at Missouri and Yale as reckless abuses of power ignore American history, especially the civil rights and Black Power era, when students held sit-ins and at times took over parts of campuses in pursuit of social justice. In 1970, the same year four unarmed students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsmen during antiwar protests, more than 500 campuses went on strike, with over a million students participating.
The current wave of campus activism grows out of the same political tradition — civil rights — that produced Black Lives Matter protests. That earlier movement targeted public and private institutions in an effort to reimagine American democracy and redefine citizenship. Despite great victories, many of the era’s achievements, most notably voting rights, remain under assault in our own time.
Indeed, as the national movement inspired by the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and of other African-Americans killed by law enforcement have illustrated, overt racism still thrives in America, if only we have the courage to look. These racially charged spaces range from prisons to public schools, from housing projects to Harvard, state universities, and community colleges.
The pushback against the movement’s use of the term “white privilege” to describe the material, legal, and psychological benefits derived from structural racism — and that constitute slavery’s inheritance to white Americans — is not new. Almost 50 years ago, a civil rights activist named Stokely Carmichael introduced the term “institutional racism” into the national lexicon in a manifesto titled “Black Power’’ (cowritten with political scientist Charles Hamilton). The now widely used term struck many critics as fanciful.
A half-century after the demonstrations, protests, and violence of the civil rights movement’s “heroic period,” the nation once again finds itself at a racial crossroads. Fifty-five years ago, young student activists launched a similar national movement by sitting down at segregated lunch counters in the Deep South. Ella Baker, a veteran activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., advised the students that their struggle, notwithstanding sympathetic if too facile media coverage, was about “more than just a hamburger.” Baker’s wisdom applies to contemporary student activism as well, which goes beyond the resignation of university presidents and participation of student athletes. Instead, it’s rooted in the insistence that this nation’s institutions, and fellow citizens, both accept and acknowledge that, indeed, black lives matter, and finally behave accordingly.Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and author of “Stokely: A Life.”