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On the orders of Alabama’s governor, Lurleen Wallace, some 300 National Guardsmen assembled at the institute’s gates, bayonets affixed to their rifles. Bloodshed was not out of the question: Earlier that year, police officers in Orangeburg, S.C., had shot and killed three Black students during a protest. Tuskegee’s dean of students, Bertrand Phillips, spoke to the guardsmen, hoping to persuade them to turn around and avoid a bloodbath. One soldier heard his concerns but told Phillips that they would enter the campus regardless. “You all at Tuskegee,” the guardsman explained, “have been too uppity for a long time.”
In some ways, the Tuskegee Institute was an unlikely incubator of that kind of radical activism. The institute’s founder, Booker T. Washington, advocated racial progress via education and entrepreneurship, and was seen as accommodationist for publicly denigrating demands for political equality. Washington was also careful to present his educational agenda in ways that wouldn’t offend the college’s powerful white supporters. In Tuskegee’s early years, students and professors could be penalized for carrying too many books on campus (the pathbreaking social scientist E. Franklin Frazier was admonished for this), lest they give white people the impression that “too much” learning was going on. But no matter how they moderated their presence and presentation, for some white people any advance for Black people at the Tuskegee Institute was too much. After a new hospital for Black veterans was established at the institute, in the early 1920s, 700 Ku Klux Klan members marched through the campus.
Yet the institute also had a long history of activism and deep ties to regional and national civil-rights organizations. In the mid-20th century, Tuskegee student activists such as Gwendolyn Patton, George and Wendell Paris, and Sammy Younge Jr. joined civil-rights marches in nearby Montgomery, Ala. Venturing out into the rural counties surrounding the campus, they connected with brave members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As Tuskegee students joined the struggle for democracy in the Black Belt, they found themselves repeatedly threatened by state troopers and racist vigilantes.
In January 1966, Younge, a Navy veteran, was murdered by a white man for trying to use a segregated gas-station restroom. Citing the murder, SNCC became the first civil-rights organization to openly oppose the Vietnam War. Both the student activist and Vietnamese civilians, the organization wrote, were killed for “seeking to secure the rights guaranteed them by law.” Later that year — and against the counsel of their elders — Tuskegee students successfully campaigned to elect the first Black sheriff in the South since Reconstruction: Lucius Amerson, who would go on to win four re-election campaigns. Thus, when Kwame Ture (né Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton published the Black Power movement’s definitive text, it was no surprise that they devoted an entire chapter to Tuskegee’s prospects as a model. “Tuskegee, Alabama, could be the model of Black Power,” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote in 1967. “It could be the place where black people have amassed political power and used that power effectively.”
Stephens proposed an alternative model, an education that would help students to grapple with the realities of Black life. The Black university, he wrote, should “speak to the needs of the nation by speaking first to the needs of its oppressed black population.” His essay pushed readers to rethink the overall philosophy and purpose of higher education, and emphasized revising the curriculum to include 350 years of oppression. As he put it, there could be “no realistic solutions to black oppression until the problems are clearly understood.” Stephens believed that trustees, administrators, and faculty members were unlikely to push through such a radical reinvention of higher education. The work would fall to students.
The Black University concept, as it spread among historically Black colleges and universities, served to connect local demands to the national and global context, including the Black Power movement and anticolonial uprisings throughout Africa. Thus the Tuskegee students called for the creation of a required course in African American history, a stronger emphasis on the Black experience in social-science courses, and required foreign-language classes in Igbo and Swahili. Their proposal to reform the School of Education stated that professors need to “be aware of the special problems that are peculiar to Black people, and to provide the essential proficiency in the techniques of dealing with Black people.” Calling for student control of the campus theater, they argued that the theater must “address itself to the expression of Black needs, Black ideas, and Black talent.”
But there was another important dimension to the 1968 uprising, one that sought not so much to reorient the institute as to upgrade its academic offerings and student life. Some students, including many in the School of Engineering, repudiated radical politics. They wanted a better education while they were students, and better career prospects once they graduated. Their demands were aimed at raising academic standards: imposing stricter research requirements on faculty members, improving teaching in the Schools of Mechanical Industries and of Engineering, providing better service at the hospital, and allowing students to withdraw from a course at any time.
Yet even the engineers were willing to take militant action in pursuit of their goals. In March 1968, engineering students had occupied their program’s building en masse, barricaded the doors, and left the administration’s missives burning in a nearby trash can. That occupation was still in progress in early April. “It is impossible,” the editor of the student newspaper wrote of the engineering students, “to not admire the cool, professional, and dead-serious attitude that they have shown during the period of protest.”
The dynamism of the 1968 Tuskegee student movement lay in the skillful way that activists merged their peers’ ambitions for both personal advancement and social change. The students demanded, on the one hand, a university fully equipped to help them compete in white society, and on the other, an education aimed at transforming that society.
That duality is evident in the typed document presented to Tuskegee’s trustees in April 1968. It articulated demands in 13 domains: faculty research, education, ROTC, the School of Mechanical Industries, engineering, fine arts, music, speech and drama, John Andrews Hospital, a free student theater, withdrawal from courses, checks and balances, and assigning of names to nameless dormitories. Of those, only three were explicitly framed around the “Black University.” The more prosaic demands lack the philosophical flourish of the others, but make up for it with often-greater levels of detail and specificity.
It was an inspired marriage. Without the specific demands for upgrading Tuskegee’s academic offerings and quality of student life, the movement would have lacked numbers on campus, but without the Black University concept, it would have lacked the moral force of the global movement. Tuskegee’s students fought for reform under the banner of revolution. Some of Tuskegee’s administrators and trustees came to understand that. The State of Alabama did not particularly care to interpret the difference.
Tuskegee’s administration then closed the campus indefinitely and dismissed the entire student body. In an attempt to weed out the organizers, every single student was forced to reapply for admission. The institute reopened its doors two weeks later, and most students returned. A court injunction reinstated expelled student activists, who still faced an internal disciplinary process.
The momentum of a powerful movement had been effectively checked, but the Tuskegee student organizers nonetheless registered an impressive list of accomplishments: student representation on all committees of the institute dealing with student affairs; abolition of the second year of compulsory ROTC; full scholarships for athletes; 50 new course hours devoted to Black culture and an African-studies program; upgrades in the School of Education; improvements in the School of Mechanical Industries; student control of the campus newspaper; an independent student theater; improvements in health services at John Andrews Hospital; students’ ability to withdraw from courses at any time; and buildings named for famous Black people.
Some Tuskegee students saw their movement as a repudiation of Booker T. Washington’s legacy; others saw it as an extension. Like student uprisings at other HBCUs, the 1960s Tuskegee student movement was animated by intense loyalty to the institution. Tuskegee student activists didn’t want to tear down Tuskegee; they wanted to “redirect” it. Despite the ever-present threats of white-supremacist violence, they successfully pushed the institute to live up to their personal and political aspirations.
Black students have ever shown higher education its future. Animated simultaneously by personal ambition and a vision of social transformation, Tuskegee students in the 1960s stepped off campus to make major contributions to one of the most important battles for democracy in the country. Then they brought that energy back to campus.
With democratic institutions currently under attack on and off campus, the power of savvy, organized college students should be not just a memory but a hope.
Parts of this essay are adapted from the author’s recent book, The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History (New York University Press).