When Doors Were Chained on State Street
February 18, 2013 | by James Tobin
At 7:15 A.M. on April 9, 1968—the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was to be buried in Atlanta—some 100 members of U-M’s Black Student Union (BSU) entered the University’s old Administration Building (now the LSA Building) and chained the doors. If their demands for an endowed faculty chair and a scholarship fund, both in King’s name, were not met, the students said, then “we will continue to live in a basically racist university.”
Their act of dissent set in motion a process of soul-searching and debate that would culminate two years later in the founding of the Department for Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS). A look back at that time reveals the University in the throes of culture shock—a traditionally white and often complacent institution painfully adjusting to a minority’s urgent demands for inclusion.
The Protest’s Roots
The Administration Building protesters were part of the new wave of black college students recruited in the wake of the civil rights movement, who saw too clearly the predominance of Western European cultures in the classroom. Many of them resented the assumption among white faculty and students that they had come to college to be “whitewashed” for success in a white-dominated society.
Amid these concerns—and amid the larger trend of black and ethnic studies protests at universities across the country—black studies had become the rallying point. It was a symbol of something that might be “ours” not “theirs”; a tool for opening the curriculum to non-Western experience; and a chance for direct aid to inner cities in crisis.
That morning in April, protesters opened the doors to admit U-M President Robben W. Fleming. After a long talk, Fleming emerged and the lockout ended.
“We’re not really at odds,” Fleming told reporters. The University wanted what the students wanted, he said—more African American students, faculty and staff; more teaching and scholarship to ameliorate the crisis of black America. But precisely how these goals were to be accomplished was to be a matter of intense and often agonizing debate.
Discussion, Compromise, Expansion
All the following year, as a fledgling program for Michigan undergraduates took its first steps, the nationwide demand for black studies intensified. In the spring of 1969, the BSU (in a plan authored by J. Frank Yates, later director of DAAS and professor of psychology and business administration) proposed that Michigan establish a full-fledged center for black studies.
Fleming and other U-M leaders were open to the idea but wary, too. Would they be caving to political pressure? Who would control the curriculum? Would standards be rigorous? And what would be the mission? To educate in the traditional sense? Or in the parlance of the New Left, to “raise consciousness?”
The debate was aired in a two-day conference at Inglis House—the University-owned retreat overlooking Nichols Arboretum—in May 1969. The 26 participants included administrators and faculty; outside advocates of black studies; and students.
A record of the proceedings is preserved at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. Even a sample of the comments shows the crosscurrents that shaped not only the U-M entity that would become DAAS, but the entire black studies movement.
On the first day, urgent advocates of change seized the initiative:
Ivanhoe Donaldson, a leader of the radical Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): “The Afro-American program must be community-oriented. Otherwise, it will only be an exercise in an ivory tower…is vitally important that black people be taught how to gain and maintain control of the black community.”
An unidentified student: “Perhaps the University should not control a black studies program in terms of hiring, firing, or administration.”
Lonnie Peek, a graduate student at Wayne State: Universities have locked arms with political and religious institutions to maintain the status quo of white domination. To break that status quo, “we must destroy the present system and implement new ideas.…”
Others envisioned a black studies program consistent with the mission of a public university:
William L. Hays, dean of LSA: Is U-M really equipped to take action in the inner city? Is there not “a graduate and research function at this University which could make some contribution to the understanding of and action in the black community and its problems?”
Allan Smith, former dean of the Law School and Fleming’s top aide as vice president for academic affairs: Even a semi-independent unit such as U-M’s Institute for Social Research must reside “within the University framework.” It was “almost inconceivable that the University could take tax dollars or student fee dollars and transfer them to a truly independent unit.”
Regent Otis M. Smith—first black member of the Michigan Supreme Court and the General Counsel of General Motors, and one of the tiny minority of blacks educated at major colleges before the 1960s: “This is a public university and does not operate without some basic conformity to what the regents and administration think the Michigan public will accept…Do you want a black psychological crutch? Or do you want to probe into the historical and cultural situation dispassionately to see what really happened and why? Research and advanced training could result in all kinds of productive advances.”
Photo: Bentley Historical Library
Even after 1970, when student members of the Black Action Movement staged a campus strike to demand a full black studies center and other concessions, the entity that emerged represented a compromise between the two camps at that two-day retreat. It would foster research and teaching, but it would also include a community-outreach arm.
One other major element was added, thanks largely to a proposal by Niara Sudarkasa, the U-M anthropologist who would become associate vice president for academic affairs, director of DAAS, and president of the historically black Lincoln University. Sudarkasa ensured the new center would deal not only with the African American experience, but also with sub-Saharan Africa itself.
Sudarkasa’s proposal foretold the field’s future. By 1980, black studies had been reconceptualized as the study of black Africa and its entire diaspora. As the former U-M Africanist Godfrey Uzoigwe wrote, “DAAS is one of the few black studies programs in which the comparative emphasis was built into its structure from the beginning.”
Sources for this article include the records of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and of the vice president for academic affairs at the Bentley Historical Library; Nathan Huggins, “Afro-American Studies: A Report to the Ford Foundation” (1985); “Black Studies Programs and Civil Rights” (Special Report, American Council on Education, 1969); and Godfrey Uzoigwe and Niara Sudarkasa, “Center for Afro-American and African Studies, 1970–75” in The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey (supplement).
This article originally appeared in the fall 2010 edition of LSA Magazine.
Photos (top and homepage): Bentley Historical Library