- Tigers in the Tempest: Savannah State University and the Struggle for Civil Rights by F. Erik Brooks
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are pillars of the black freedom movement in the United States. The collective contributions of students, alumni, and administrators effectively challenged and transformed the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape. A handful of scholars have recently paid closer attention to the critical roles played by these institutions. F. Erik Brooks has added to this growing body of research with his latest book, Tigers in the Tempest: Savannah State University and the Struggle for Civil Rights.
Brooks’s longitudinal study focuses on Savannah State University (SSU) as an incubator for activism. Brooks achieves his goal of outlining the history of the freedom movement in Savannah; however, the centrality of SSU to the long movement for black liberation is at times unclear. Brooks pays careful attention to several key players in the Savannah freedom struggle, which had its origins in the black church during slavery. However, by the time Brooks begins to discuss the nascent development of the city’s only HBCU, the reader is left wondering how the militant politics of Richard Wright Sr., who served as president of SSU for thirty years, impacted the school’s curricular development and set the tone of campus politics, and how major figures in the movement, such as the inimitable Westley W. Law, were shaped and molded as students at SSU. The sources that would normally provide this intimate portrait (student newspapers, alumni bulletins, diaries or memoirs of [End Page 735] former faculty and alumni) are noticeably absent from this section of the manuscript. Such valuable primary resources may have been inaccessible to the author or even nonexistent, but their omission weakens the author’s narrative on the importance of SSU to the struggle for black freedom.
Brooks finally provides more detailed attention to the origins of student activism on campus with the arrival of the turbulent 1960s, yet much of student life and the critical development of on-campus dissent in the first half of the twentieth century goes unaddressed. Brooks only tantalizes the reader with superficial discussions of professors Miken Pope and Asa Gordon, failing to dig deeper into their roles in creating the radicalism that eventually blossomed in the second half of the twentieth century. Specificity surrounding the role of SSU shrinks even further as Brooks discusses the failures of post–civil rights era politics in the city. He discusses “‘new school’ African American leaders” who emerged to counter the traditional black leadership of Savannah, but he fails to highlight what connection (if any) these new leaders had with SSU (p. 139).
The strengths of the book come from Brooks’s discussion of the rise of the modern civil rights movement in Savannah. For this analysis he finally turns to student newspapers as sources to give insight on how students saw the burgeoning struggle. Another positive attribute of the book is the meticulous discussion of the 1996 campus revolt over the poor conditions of the campus infrastructure. However, the author fails to adequately contextualize the adverse effects of segregation and the deliberate underfunding that particularly plagued public HBCUs across the South.
Throughout the text, the author overly focuses on details of campus and city life that fail to unveil the rich tradition of activism that the author claims SSU embodied. If SSU served as the epicenter of black citizens’ struggle against white supremacy and segregation, the reader lacks specifics about how “Tigers” weathered the “tempest” of the early twentieth century. With vague details and often glaring omissions, the book leaves the reader wondering exactly to what extent the university served as an instrument for social and political change in the long history of the struggle for civil rights in Savannah.