Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: Brown must keep alive the legacy of the 1968 walkout — and act on it

By
Op-Ed Columnist
Thursday, October 18, 2018

A few weeks ago, the University hosted the 2018 edition of the Black Alumni Reunion weekend. This reunion was particularly special as the year 2018 marks 50 years since the 1968 student walkout by black students from Brown and Pembroke College. The weekend was filled with events celebrating black alums of the University. The energy on campus was tangible. But, when the weekend came to an end, everything went back to normal. These three days — filled with so much joy and appreciation for the history of black students and, especially, black student activists — were but a moment in time. This shouldn’t be the case. While every day can’t be Black Alumni Reunion weekend, the acknowledgement and appreciation of black students at Brown — along with the pursuit of the goals laid out by student protests in 1968 — should be ongoing, rather than packed into one weekend that happens every so often.

One of the main events during the BAR Weekend was the First Annual Black Convocation. The event served to welcome black first-year students to Brown. Manning Chapel was packed with first-years, upperclassmen and alums. It was a beautiful event; welcoming black first-year students to Brown in this manner each year is a true commitment to ensuring a positive experience for black students. But the impetus for this event came from students. The Black Student Union spearheaded the initiative and received support from various groups and offices to make the event run smoothly. Students on campus are constantly spearheading initiatives and planning events that don’t get the same kind of exposure that the First Annual Black Convocation did. A weekend isn’t enough time to adequately acknowledge black student activism at Brown. What’s more is that the University administration often receives the praise for such initiatives while the work of students may go unnoticed.

Recognition of black students, the enduring legacy of black alums and the work they’ve done to make the University what it is today should be a normal, ongoing part of campus life. Rather than trying to cover all these bases in one weekend, Brown should be more proactive and consistent in showing that it cherishes the rich history and contributions of its black students and black student activism. As stated earlier, it’s been 50 years since the 1968 walkout and Brown has made the moment a part of its institutional self-image.

However, if the University wants to show that it cares about the walkout in the present, its leaders might consider looking at the demands made by the student protestors in 1968, and seeing which of them have not yet been met. To meet the demands of the students that Brown so greatly appreciated during the BAR Weekend would be a great way for the University to show how much it actually values its black student population. For example, Brown might next consider looking at its proportion of black students in relation to its Ivy League peers and increase that number like the 1968 demands stipulated. While black students constitute 15 percent of college-aged Americans, the University’s freshman class in 2015 was only 8 percent black. In comparison, the students who walked out in 1968 demanded that the incoming class of 1973 be at least 11 percent black.

On the point of Brown being more proactive, earlier this year racist flyers were posted around campus, which resulted in two press conferences. These press conferences were not organized by the administration, and an official statement from the University came more than two weeks after the fliers were first discovered. Brown students shouldn’t have to force the University to care about them and wait two weeks for the administration to take a stand against displays of racism and prejudice in the community.

A major step in the right direction was taken during BAR Weekend this year with the renaming of the J. Walter Wilson building to Page-Robinson Hall. To have a building on campus that memorializes two black graduates of Brown is a real, conspicuous way for the University to integrate the history of black students on College Hill into campus conversations and dialogue. Yet there’s still work that remains to be done in fulfilling the aspirations of earlier generations of Brunonians who fought to make Brown a more inclusive, more just place. All Brown students should have an experience here that fosters nothing less the maximization of our potential. Walking around campus with the knowledge that your university cares about you is critical to feeling empowered and being able to learn. Creating events and renaming buildings is a great start in the process of making black students at Brown feel seen and supported — but we cannot afford to be complacent. We must make the pursuit of justice and the acknowledgement of Brown’s history a living, dynamic and continual part of campus life. As Ido Jamar ’69 ScM ’74 PhD’77, one of the students who walked out in 1968, said, “We realized something was not right here. It either had to be made right or we could no longer be here.”

Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at quentin_thomas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to  letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.