On the first morning of Senate confirmation hearings this month for Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, the Alabama Republican was struggling to deliver his opening remarks over interruptions from protesters. Meanwhile, across the hall from the hearings, demonstrators were protesting his nomination by staging a sit-in inside Mr. Sessions’ office.
Jacquelyn Grant, president of Howard University’s chapter of the NAACP, was among them. She presented a demand to Mr. Sessions’ staff: Unless he resigned from the nomination or Mr. Trump withdrew it, the protesters would leave only if removed by force.
"I mean, you have a person who couldn’t even become a federal judge because of the racist remarks that he made — now wants to become an attorney general," Ms. Grant said in an interview later. She was referring to a controversy in 1986, when Mr. Sessions was denied a judgeship after facing accusations that he had made racially insensitive comments. "It was something that we could not stand for," she said. "We were aware there could be consequences."
There were. Among the protesters arrested that day, five were Howard students, including Ms. Grant, a junior. The students were held for several hours, and released periodically throughout the evening. Some face charges of unlawful entry, to which they pleaded not guilty this week.
Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science who has been at Howard for 38 years, said that acts of civil disobedience were to be expected from students at the historically black college. After all, Howard "as an institution is a form of protest," he said.
Founded in 1867, the university took its name from a Union general in the Civil War who later played a key role in helping former slaves integrate into American society. Howard’s mission was to give educational opportunities to recently freed African-Americans. Howard students and professors have since established a tradition of political protest.
In the first half of the 20th century they fought Jim Crow laws and demonstrated in support of anti-lynching laws. Later, a wave of student activism crested during the civil-rights era. More recently, 300 Howard students, their hands raised, formed one of the first campus protests of the shooting, in 2014, of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo.
"This didn’t start with the nomination of Mr. Sessions," Mr. Thornton said. "It’s important to contextualize this responsibility of our students to be the vanguard of people that are still very vulnerable in our democracy."
Legacy of Activism
The demonstration at Mr. Sessions’ office was not Ms. Grant’s introduction to activism at Howard.
In the fall of 2015, when the university received an anonymous online death threat that referred to student protests then in progress at the University of Missouri at Columbia, Ms. Grant and others met at an iconic spot on the Howard campus, between a flagpole and a series of steps leading up to Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall.
Ms. Grant credits her professors with emphasizing questions of what it means to be black in America. "Whether it be Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, or Sandra Bland, we talk about those things in class," she said.
But she added that Howard’s history of high-profile activism plays a major role in developing students’ sense of civic engagement. Ms. Grant said there was a reason many of the nation’s civil-rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, had paid visits to the Howard campus.
The legacy at Howard includes leaders such as Mordecai Johnson, the university’s first African-American president, a son of two slaves, who spoke alongside King and who traveled throughout the country addressing racism, segregation, and discrimination. Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, studied law at Howard; Stokely Carmichael, a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee later known as Kwame Ture, was a philosophy major there; and African-American intellectuals such as Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates are among the alumni.
"They knew that the student body is not afraid to resist what needs to be resisted," Ms. Grant said. "We’ve never been the type of university where we just silence our dissent."
Ms. Grant said students at Howard were in a unique position to join national protest movements because their campus is so close to the country’s halls of power. "When you’re right there next to the White House, or you’re saying, I’m going to protest on the U.S. Department of Justice steps, that sends a message," she said.
Allyson Carpenter, a senior and president of the Howard University Student Union, was not present when the protesters were arrested in Mr. Sessions’ office, but she helped lead conversations between the student union and the campus chapter of the NAACP that evolved into the protest. She was motivated by the senator’s mixed record on voting rights.
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Devon J. Crawford, a graduate student in divinity at the University of Chicago who graduated from Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black institution in Atlanta, went to the police station where the arrested students were being held that night as an NAACP organizer. "What we saw was the best of our HBCU traditions, which is to raise our voices in civil disobedience in order to advocate for the most vulnerable in our society," Mr. Crawford said. "This will only be, I believe, a catalyst for other students at HBCUs and all around the country."
Ms. Grant said the efforts would continue. "We had the spotlight for 15 minutes, but in the 16th minute, we’ll still be working," she said. "We’ll still be in our communities making sure we’re educating, making sure we’re mobilizing, making sure that we uplift our community as a whole."
The People’s Inauguration
One form of uplift occurred at an African Methodist Episcopal Church, a few blocks from the White House, on the Saturday after Mr. Trump’s inauguration. There, before the Women’s March on Washington kicked off, students from Howard and NAACP chapters of other colleges held a rally called the People’s Inauguration.
One speaker at the rally, the Rev. Stephen A. Green, national director for the NAACP’s youth and college division, advises and supervises about 300 youth and college chapters embracing about 30,000 members. Howard was the first college to start its own NAACP chapter, and it led the groups representing the NAACP at the Sessions protest.
Mr. Green said the People’s Inauguration rally was planned immediately after the election. "We decided that we needed to do something inauguration weekend to develop a ‘what’s next’ strategy," he said.
A theme of the day’s discussion: What does leadership in resistance look like?
Mr. Green told students they were among a "renaissance of leaders emerging" as a baton is passed from an older generation of activists — like Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the first March on Washington — to a new cohort on campuses.
At the rally, Symone D. Sanders, formerly the press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the Democratic presidential candidate, told attendees she was reminded of the leadership role students took in fighting apartheid in South Africa. "It was black people on college campuses all over America, historically black colleges, who were organizing their campuses," said Ms. Sanders, who is not related to the senator.
Glenn Vaulx, a Howard sophomore who attended the People’s Inauguration, called it a moment that reflected the history of activism on Howard’s campus. He said he and his classmates were constantly reminded of student leaders in previous generations, and were encouraged to revive that legacy for today’s issues.
"I’m very proud to be a part of that," he said, "and to be a student at the school."