“The Black Man is the big question on the exam” Black Student activism in the 1960s

The late 1960s emerged as the apex of Black student activism in America (Kendi). In the broader context of the civil rights movement, a massive campaign driven by student activism surfaced and challenged the racialized educational standards at many of the historically black and white universities in America. Using Loyola Marymount University as a foundation, this essay will trace the origins of Black student activism in America, as well as examine the revolutionary developments in higher education that emerged during this decade.

The “Proposals to Father Casassa” represent one of the first pieces of evidence connected to Black student activism at Loyola Marymount University. In the 1960s, with a student body of approximately 4,000, Loyola University was home to fewer than 25 Black students. In 1968, these students, who made up less than one percent of the total student body, assembled into what is now known as the Black Student Union at Loyola University. As highlighted by the requests in the proposal, the BSU aimed to expand African American inclusion within the higher education system that governed Loyola University. This approach, one that focused on the racial reconstitution of American higher education from within, must be understood in the broader context of black higher education in the United States.

Proposals by the Black Student Union of Loyola University, to President Charles S. Casassa. Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

Black higher education has its roots in antebellum America. In the American north, the first debate surrounding higher education for African Americans emerged and influenced the construction of early black universities. The debate was between “accommodating separatists” and “colonizationists,” on the one side, and “egalitarian elitists,” on the other (Kendi 11). The question that drove the debate was: should the black man be educated and, if so, how? The accommodating separatists and colonizationists favored a more conservative approach of higher education for blacks. This approach answered both the question of what to do with free blacks in the north, as well as the educational question of what to teach blacks. That is, they believed blacks should be educated, but in support for colonization efforts. By contrast, the egalitarian black thinkers and white abolitionists favored a more liberal approach. Their goal was to help construct a higher education system that would facilitate education for civil equality.

Alexander Twilight, first person of African descent to earn an bachelors degree (1823).

This debate shifted following the emergence of the civil war and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. The function of higher education for African Americans became the primary concern for white college presidents, capitalists, and religious bodies, as hundreds of black universities began emerging throughout the south. By the late nineteenth century, ideas of disenfranchisement and separate public spheres for the African American loomed and influenced the next phases of questions surrounding black higher education.

Essentially, the questions to be answered were: should African Americans be educated to accommodate to their second-class citizenship, or should they be educated with liberal skills that could enable the African American to be intellectually sound in his pursuit for equality? Unfortunately, from the Reconstruction era until the mid-twentieth century, the black higher education system was shaped by Eurocentric ideas of biological superiority, racialized standards of exclusion, and capitalistic motives. African Americans, eager to prove their intellectual capabilities and move past the hundreds of years of oppression, generally did not combat these underlying developments in higher education, until the turn of the twentieth century when the first black student bodies began forming and collectively protesting the higher education system.

Individuals, such as Lucy Stanton, had advocated for black education since the early 19th century.

Though black student activism had existed since the early twentieth century, the instances are scattered and individualistic in nature. The first nationally recognized black student protest occurred at Howard in 1905 (Kendi 33). Howard’s President John Gordon, accused of being prejudiced and restricting power from black deans, resigned within a few weeks, making him the first of hundreds to be removed from their position of power over the course of the twentieth century. Over the following three decades or so, black activism on campus became more common at both historically black and white universities throughout the country. The central focus was for black students to attain basic privileges, such as living on campus among whites, publishing student newspapers if they desired, constructing student bodies, dictating their own personal academic schedules. National Black student organizations began assembling in the 1920s with the specific goal of altering these traditional patterns within higher education at both black and white college universities. In 1923, the American Federation of Negro Students was the first national black student body to emerge (Kendi 38). These developments directly coincided with the massive increase in the African American collegiate population, which rose by 50,000 each year during the 1920s. The collective black student body of America was significantly larger than in any other time in American history. Between 1925-1935 alone, more African Americans graduated from college then in the previous two centuries combined.

What Ibram Kendi calls the “Black Campus Movement” was a unique social movement in and of itself, which occurred between 1965-1972. The BCM refers to the thousands of student activists across the country who requested and demanded to have relevant learning experiences on campus. The focus of Black student activism throughout the 1940s and 1950s, was on civil rights issues both on and off campus. But now, in the 1960s, with the revolutionary successes of the civil rights movement, the focus shifted to matters on campus. Indeed, the early twentieth century had seen the Black student advocate for basic freedoms on campus, as discussed above, but now, in the mid-twentieth century, the Black student advocated for a more extensive role, one that would grant the black student a place in the production of scholarly knowledge (Biondi). The incorporation of a relevant learning experience on campus was now the central focus for the BCM. According to Ibram, a relevant learning experience was one that incorporated African literature, programs and departments. This idea is certainly reflected in the “Proposals for Father Casassa.” Historian Martha Biondi further describes a relevant learning experience as one that

emphasized interdisciplinary study, questioned notions of objectivity, destabilized metanarratives, and interrogated prevailing methodologies. Indeed, the capacious vision of most architects of Black studies is striking they viewed it as an op- opportunity to create Black-controlled institutions and to assume greater authority over research in Black culture and history.

Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley/Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 2012), 175.

Black student bodies on campus, such as Black Student Unions, Black Student Alliances, and other student-led organizations, requested and then demanded that these learning experiences be incorporated into the curriculum. Black Student Unions were the most common student bodies to emerge within the BCM. Not only did the BSUs construct proposals for a relevant learning experience, they also hosted cultural weeks, which included lectures with guest speakers, discussion panels, films, and other artistic events. Black Culture Weeks were often the first public exposure to African American history and culture that had ever taken place at primarily white institutions.

President Merrifield highlights the importance of Black Culture Week at Loyola University. Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

The late 1960s represented the crowning moment of Black student activism in America. After a century of advocacy, Black students had made several significant strides towards equality, which have shaped the modern black experience on campus. From the reconstruction of basic freedoms, such as living in the dorms or creating a school newspaper, to the reformation of more complex components within higher education, such as the incorporation of African American scholarships or programs, the Black experience envisioned by generations of activists had begun to come to fruition by the late 1960s.  

Written by Preston Joiner, History, LMU 2021

For Further Reading:

Administration/ President Casassa. MS3d10a/10. University Archives. Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

Biondi, Martha. The Black Revolution on Campus. Berkeley/Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 2012.

Kendi, Ibram X. The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Student Organizations Records. UA.007.002.  Box 6. Black culture week pamphlet. University Archives. Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University