Group recalls ’68 walkout, past of student activism

Monday, March 2, 2009

Forty years ago, 65 black students walked off campus and boycotted classes for the better part of a week to protest what they saw as a lack of commitment to minority students at Brown and its then-sister school, Pembroke College.

The boycotters represented more than three quarters of the schools’ combined black enrollment, and a major demand of the walkout – which began Dec. 5, 1968 and lasted five days – was for black students to make up 11 percent of Pembroke’s next incoming class.

On Friday, students, faculty and alums gathered on Pembroke’s campus, now long since merged with Brown’s, to commemorate the walkout and hear a panel discuss the protest and its lessons in front of an audience that filled most of Smith-Buonanno 106.

The panel discussion, “Student Activism: Past, Present and Future,” included seven walkout participants, two other alums from the period and two current students. The event also featured a documentary about the walkout by Julia Liu ’06 and Alison Klayman ’06. Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, associate professor of Africana studies, moderated the event.

Shut out

The protest had its beginnings in a letter sent by a group of black Pembroke women to their dean of admissions requesting changes to Pembroke’s policies regarding black students. But when they weren’t satisfied with the response, they set a deadline for the walkout and were soon joined by a group of Brown students in making the threat. The walkout ultimately lasted five days and earned a number of concessions from the University, drawing national attention.

The former students on the panel, especially the former Pembroke women who helped spark the walkout, said that in 1968 it was hard for black students to feel a part of the larger Brown and Pembroke community. (Life at the two schools, which would merge completely over the next several years, was closely intertwined.)

“We felt this rejection, of being unworthy, disempowered,” said Phyllis Cunningham-Hutson ’69, one of the panelists who walked out in 1968.

“People asked about your hair and why you do your hair differently. It was just very foreign to me, very uncomfortable,” recalled panelist Bernicestine McLeod Bailey ’68 P’99 P’03, who did not participate in the walkout but was involved in black student activism at the time. “I kept telling my mother, ‘I got to leave here. I have to take a leave of absence.'”

Panelist Harold Bailey ’70 P’99 P’03, McLeod Bailey’s husband, said the walkout arose from both the students’ own circumstances and a sense of obligation to others.

“It wasn’t just on a lark,” he said, drawing agreement from the other panelists.

Many panelists said there was a sense that they were not just at Brown or Pembroke for themselves but also for future students. Black students also served an important role in their home communities and in nearby Providence neighborhoods like Fox Point, panelists said.

“People had been struggling for a long time to open the doors for us,” said panelist Ido Jamar ’69 ScM’74 PhD’77.

The Afro-American Society had meetings every Sunday night, often hours long, discussing black students’ lack of support at Brown and possible solutions. “We realized something was not right here,” Jamar said. “It either had to be made right or we could no longer be here.”

‘We’re only visible when we’re not here’

The first step toward the walkout came in November 1968, when 23 of Pembroke’s 35 black students signed a letter to the Pembroke dean of admissions that charged the admissions office with holding a “lackadaisical attitude” toward black applicants. The letter listed 12 ways the college’s racial policies needed improvement.

One of their demands was that a minimum of 11 percent of the Pembroke’s Class of 1973 be black, to reflect the percentage of blacks in the United States. Five of the black students later met with the Pembroke Dean of Admissions, who would not commit to a set percentage.

Talks broke down, and on Nov. 28 the women sent a letter to the The Herald stating that if appropriate changes were not made, “As of 12:00 noon on December 5, 1968 we will cease to be a part of Pembroke College.”

The students said they chose a walkout over other forms of protest because they felt absence was the best way to make their presence felt.

In the screened documentary, Sheryl Brissett-Chapman ’71, who also participated in the panel, said one of the lessons the students learned from Ralph Ellison’s novel “The Invisible Man” was that sometimes “we’re only visible when we’re not here.”

But the University still would not commit to a set percentage, then-President of Brown Ray Heffner said, writing in a Dec. 2 reply to the original Pembroke letter that he did not believe in quota systems of any kind.

But, Heffner also wrote, “Our aim is to have 35 black entering freshmen at Pembroke College next fall and, with the help of a black admission officer, at least to maintain that number in future years.” That number would have constituted 12 percent of the Pembroke Class of 1972.

The University had taken steps to aid black applicants even before the walkout was threatened, The Herald reported in 1968. An article published Dec. 3 of that year noted, for example, that the administration had already made “special considerations” including “admitting blacks solely on the basis of probability of graduation,” hiring a black admissions officer and “considering applications for admission past the usual deadline and keeping some of the scholarship money available for such late black applicants.”

But in the eyes of the black students, the University needed to do more, and Heffner’s proposal was not enough. In letter to The Herald on Dec. 3, two days before the walkout was to begin, the black Pembroke women wrote that they wanted more concrete assurances and detailed plans for implementation.

On the same day, a group of black men at Brown stated that they would join the planned walkout. Recalling that decision, many of the male panelists said they felt a responsibility to support the Pembroke women.

Walking out

On Dec. 5, the 65 students left classes and walked off campus. Their destination was the Congdon Street Baptist Church, a historically black church located just off campus at the corner of Meeting Street and Congdon Street.

The walkout captivated the campus. Some white students expressed their support for the black students’ demands and encouraged professors to discuss the walkout during class.

Other white students, according to Harold Bailey, had the mindset that black students were “just fortunate to be in the door” and wondered why the black students seemed to want to “mess things up.” There was a sentiment that the black students should have worked within the system.

“Blacks haven’t been a part of the system so we aren’t comfortable working within it,” Chapman said then, a statement she read aloud for the documentary that was screened Friday. “The blacks are so far behind that we are afraid to work within the system, because the system has kept us down. There is a stereotype that we are a patient people.”

The walkout also garnered national media attention, including coverage in the New York Times. The panelists ultimately believed that attention led to the University’s cooperation.

On Dec. 9, the Times reported that the walkout ended “after a tense weekend of negotiations” with a commitment from the University to spend $1.1 million to create a “3-year ‘intensive program for the development of black students'” and for black enrollment to better reflect the make-up of American society. Brown also hired a black woman to work in the Pembroke admissions office, which would merge with Brown’s in 1971.

Then and now

Each person’s experience and understanding of the walkout was different, said panelist Glenn Dixon ’70, who was president of Brown’s Afro-American Society at the time. Some, like panelist Ken Grooms ’72, who had walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, were seasoned activists, but others had never been very involved before.

“I didn’t come here to be an activist. The circumstances just brought it out of you,” McLeod Bailey said.

Kristin Jordan ’09, one of the two student panelists, said she was “hoping to see that legacy come back and take off.” She reiterated Morgan’s opening comment that “every ‘back then’ has a ‘right now'” by noting that though progress had been made, minorities at Brown still face some of the same problems that they did in 1968.

Indeed, recent enrollment figures have not reflected the signature goal of the walkout – more than 40 years later, blacks are still underrepresented at Brown when compared to the American population. While black students are admitted at a higher rate than the average applicant, The Herald reported last month, 6.7 percent of entering freshmen this year were black. More than 12 percent of all Americans are black, according to the Census Bureau.

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