This article is the third in a 50th anniversary commemorative series on the 1968 black student walkout.
On Wednesday morning, community members gathered on the Main Green to celebrate the legacy and activism of the students who participated in the 1968 black student walkout.
“When these students walked out, they spoke not merely for themselves, but for the countless generations of students after them,” said Kuno Haimbodi ’22, an organizer of the 2018 walkout, while addressing the crowd. “Through their own commitment, they paved the way for future students to recognize and understand that their voice on campus was not only to be present, but … to be heard.”
“We’re not here because of a moment of explicit racism,” said Jai Chavis ’21. “We are here because we love each other and because we want to celebrate the work and legacy of the students of 1968.”
In addition to reflecting on the protest that occurred 50 years ago, the students who organized the event demanded that the University fulfill the unresolved demands from the historic walkout. Specifically, students called attention to the fact that the representation of black students within the undergraduate student body is not at least proportional to the national percentage of black Americans, which currently stands at 13 percent.
“Institutions like (Brown), built on black people — through black people — are not representing us,” said Abiola Makinde, a RISD student who attended the event.
After gathering on the Main Green, walkout participants held a moment of silence before the Slavery Memorial on the Quiet Green before walking to Pembroke Campus, where they honored the legacy and contributions of black women to student activism at Brown.
People frequently call the 1968 protest the “‘black walkout,’ but we must highlight that it all started with the organizing work of black women in Pembroke College,” said Abrielle Moore ’20 while speaking on the steps of Alumnae Hall. “Let’s acknowledge the fact that we would not be here if it (were) not for black women.”
The walkout organizers then invited all attending students of color to walk with them to the Congdon Street Baptist Church, where black students participated in community-building activities.
Wednesday’s event allowed community members to commemorate the walkout and also reinforced the significance that the 1968 activism continues to hold for students at Brown today.
Legacy of the walkout
The 1968 walkout “means a lot to me, in terms of being a black woman at a predominantly white institution,” said Daneva Moncrieffe ’21. “There is this rich history of activism of black students taking a stand and fighting for change.”
The Department of Africana Studies has an intellectual predecessor in the 1968 walkout, said Halle Bryant ’21, a concentrator in the department. “I can’t even begin to explain how much (the walkout) has shaped my trajectory at Brown.”
As the protesters risked their academic standing “for demands that were intrinsic to their academic experience,” they “paved the way for black students (like) me to come to Brown (and) more people of color to come to Brown,” said Roysworth Grant III ’21.
Present-day students have found joy and solidarity through their involvement with black student organizations on campus. “When I first came to this campus, the black community was so loving and helpful, and this was something I was so grateful for,” Grant said. The Black Student Union is “my home base, my sense of community and the people I resonate with on campus,” he added.
But students also mentioned the challenges they still face as students at a historically white institution. “Being a black student at an institution that has roots that trace back to slavery and, in many ways, continue to disrespect communities of color, … I wonder about my role in perpetuating oppressive systems,” Moncrieffe said. “It is something that I haven’t fully reconciled, and I’m not sure I ever really can reconcile.”
“I’m proud of my identity, but sometimes it is difficult to be the only person of that identity in the room,” said Azeez Adeyemi ’21. “That’s the importance of the 1968 walkout, … to try and adjust those issues.”
“Here at Brown, we pride ourselves with being student activists, and we have a mentality that we are open to change,” Adeyemi said. “The 1968 walkout was that first step, but we have yet to make that next step.”
Continuing to make the University “a truly inclusive environment” should be “everyone’s responsibility — students, faculty, administration,” Moncrieffe said.
The demands of the 1968 walkout still haven’t been met, Bryant said. “It’s easy for Brown to celebrate everything 50 years later, but now it’s a wakeup call for black students to put the pressure back on to achieve everything that (we) set out to do.”
This week, a group of black students identifying themselves as NEO published a list of 32 demands with the goals of promoting transparency, representation and a more equitable distribution of power. Within their list of demands, the students called on the University to increase the proportion of enrolled black students, with “an explicit emphasis on descendants of American chattel slavery as well as black students from the City of Providence,” among other measures.
“We are fully committed to continuing to identify and expand on initiatives to ensure that we have full representation from the full spectrum of student backgrounds,” wrote Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark in an email to The Herald. “What we don’t employ is numerical formulas or quotas — we use an individualized, holistic review of applications because we believe that all applicants deserve to be reviewed one case at a time.”
Maintaining momentum and progress
Ultimately, the changes set in motion by the students in 1968 laid the groundwork for campus activism that would take place over the next 50 years. In their interviews with The Herald, alums who participated in the historic protest offered support, advice and understanding to younger generations of student activists.
Though the 1968 walkout would serve as a model for later walkouts to follow, the alums did not realize how their actions might inspire younger activists in the moment, said Glenn Dixon ’70. “We weren’t projecting future protests; we were projecting future solutions to the concerns of alienation of the African American and black community at Brown and at other schools like Brown and in the society as a whole,” he said. “We were looking to begin the progress of implementing future solutions.”
Despite the scale of the 1968 walkout, Ido Jamar ’69, a Pembroke College student who helped organize the protest, said activists should not feel pressured to place themselves in uncomfortable situations for their work. “Activism doesn’t necessarily need confrontation to have a feeling that you’ve made a difference,” she said. Instead it should acknowledge a problem and find “a way to solve it,” she added.
In addition, students attempting to enact change should be mindful of their organizing tactics, wrote Zylpha Pryor-Bell ’72 in an email to The Herald. “Remember that you have a future, so try not to jeopardize it, regardless of how passionately you may feel about the issues at hand,” she added. “The walkout served as an excellent example of peaceful, but effective student activism.”
But activists must keep raising their concerns even when faced with pushback, said Bernicestine McLeod Bailey ’68, a trustee emerita of the University. “You have a voice — use it,” she added.
And when forced to confront opposition, students should consider how they frame their agenda and goals, said Kenneth McDaniel ’69. “Ask questions if you can. At all costs, don’t make any statements, just ask questions. If they happen to be well-structured and potentially embarrassing questions, all the better,” he added. “If you have to fight somebody, try to get things into a position where you’ll only have to fight them once. You line up your data, you line up your facts, you consider the arena.”
Though the University has become more inclusive since 1968, there is still progress to be made, McLeod Bailey said. While the University’s implementation of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and appointment of “an African-American president … are great accomplishments, … the work goes on,” she added. “There are areas where we could still (better) support our students of color.”