restricted access Black Folks's Theatre to Black Lives Matter: The Black Revolution on Campus
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Black Folks's Theatre to Black Lives Matter
The Black Revolution on Campus

At a time when the value of a college education, particularly a humanities education, is under attack, the Black Lives Matter campus protesters of 2015 have shown, through their own display of historically informed and intersectional politics, that universities matter.

DR. JENNIFER WILSON

Introduction

Throughout the past three years social media has exploded with accounts of black student protests over racist administrative practices and ineffective responses to hate crimes at institutions of higher education. These protests emerge from a rich tradition of black student activism that spans nearly fifty years. "While the white student movement of the late 1960s has garnered much more attention, black student protest produced greater campus change," writes historian Martha Biondi.1 Inspired by the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and the assassination of Malcolm X, black students across the United States mobilized and participated in roughly two hundred campus demonstrations between 1968 and 1969.2 Driven by black power rhetoric of the era, black student activists demanded that universities revoke racist institutional policies and create an [End Page 301] inclusive environment for underrepresented communities. At times, black student activists used theatrical and confrontational tactics to force universities to increase financial aid opportunities for minority students and establish or broaden affirmative action policies. While student activists often faced criminal prosecutions and retaliation from police and white students, their extralegal efforts resulted in a dramatic increase in black student enrollment on college campuses across the United States. Nearly fifty years later, the struggle to achieve an inclusive academic community continues.

This study privileges two seemingly disparate events in social movement history: the 1968 black student protest at Northwestern University and the 2015 black student protest at the University of Missouri (Mizzou). Collectively, these events demonstrate not only a rich tradition of black student activists staking their claim to education but also an important connection between performance and black student activism. In both cases, black students used performative demonstrations as part of their campaigns to affirm their right to attend college and influence faculty selection and university governance policies. In so doing, student activists created an important ideological space that helped transform their communities. This study begins by exploring the 1968 black student protest at Northwestern University and the subsequent formation of the black student union For Members Only and their artistic branch, Black Folks's Theatre.3 The paper then analyzes the goals, organizational framework, and community outreach efforts of Black Folks's Theatre and how this relates to the Black Arts Movement (1965–1976) ethos of the time. The study concludes by drawing connections between this history and current challenges faced by black student activists at Mizzou. While the Black Lives Matter movement and the Legion of Black Collegians helped bring awareness and some institutional change to Mizzou, the struggle is far from over.

For Member's Only and Black Folks's Theatre

On May 4, 1968, exactly one month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 105 black students locked themselves inside the bursar's office at Northwestern University to protest the university's racist practices. Ironically, the black student protest primarily resulted from Northwestern's valiant efforts to recruit black students a few years prior.4 Unfortunately, the university was unable or unwilling to cope with the concerns of their rising black student population. Many found Northwestern "hostile and callous," experiencing "many instances of fights, of whites refusing to room with Blacks, and of whites [End Page 302] thinking the… Black [students] were maids."5 These hostile conditions caused black students to mobilize.6 Led by graduate student James Turner, all but fifteen of Northwestern's black student population chained themselves together in the bursar's office for thirty-six hours and presented a list of demands to university officials. This dramatic demonstration transformed a historic symbol of black oppression (i.e., chains of enslavement) into a symbol of black power (i.e., racial solidarity). After only eight hours of deliberation, Northwestern officials agreed to form several committees that would assist black students with their concerns over inadequate financial aid support, housing, and admission processes...


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