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HBCUs Stayed Silent During Civil Rights Movement

I know I will be criticized for writing this article, but I’m ready for it. It won’t be the first time I’ve been judged for pointing out an inconvenient truth, and it certainly won't be the last. As we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and commemorate his work through our annual Martin Luther King Jr. March, the largest in the country, I wanted to revisit a more taboo aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. The unspoken fact is that many of our HBCUs denied their students the right to participate in the movement. These students faced expulsion and even outright dismissal from these institutions.The most prominent of these institutions was none other than the Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee Institute, led by its president Robert Moton during the 1950s, adopted a conservative approach and discouraged students from participating in civil rights demonstrations. Moton feared that student involvement in protests could jeopardize the institution's relationships with white philanthropists and government funding sources. Tuskegee had a history of emphasizing vocational education, and Moton was focused on maintaining a positive image to secure support from white benefactors. Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, led by President Moron during the late 1950s and early 1960s, expressed concerns about the potential impact of student activism on the institution's reputation and relationships with donors. There was a general apprehension by the administration about becoming too involved in the political turmoil of the era. Over at Howard University, another one of our historically prominent institutions, there was a complex relationship with the …

I know I will be criticized for writing this article, but I’m ready for it. It won’t be the first time I’ve been judged for pointing out an inconvenient truth, and it certainly won’t be the last. As we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and commemorate his work through our annual Martin Luther King Jr. March, the largest in the country, I wanted to revisit a more taboo aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. The unspoken fact is that many of our HBCUs denied their students the right to participate in the movement. These students faced expulsion and even outright dismissal from these institutions.

The most prominent of these institutions was none other than the Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee Institute, led by its president Robert Moton during the 1950s, adopted a conservative approach and discouraged students from participating in civil rights demonstrations. Moton feared that student involvement in protests could jeopardize the institution’s relationships with white philanthropists and government funding sources. Tuskegee had a history of emphasizing vocational education, and Moton was focused on maintaining a positive image to secure support from white benefactors. 

Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, led by President Moron during the late 1950s and early 1960s, expressed concerns about the potential impact of student activism on the institution’s reputation and relationships with donors. There was a general apprehension by the administration about becoming too involved in the political turmoil of the era. Over at Howard University, another one of our historically prominent institutions, there was a complex relationship with the Civil Rights Movement. While many faculty members and students actively participated in civil rights activities, there were instances where the administration, led by President Johnson, expressed concerns about the potential repercussions of activism on the university’s image and relationships with external stakeholders. And then there was Fisk University, where President Wright and other administrators were cautious about the level of student involvement in protests, reflecting concerns about the institution’s stability and reputation. However, it’s important to note that Fisk was also a center for activism, and many students and faculty were actively engaged in civil rights activities despite the administration’s admonitions not to. And I’m not letting Morehouse off the hook. They, too, had a complex relationship with the Civil Rights Movement. While President Mays supported social justice causes, there were instances where administrators expressed concerns about the potential impact of protests on the college’s reputation and relationships with external stakeholders. These were not the only institutions that actively tried to stem student involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, almost all of the others did, too. They all had a simple equation: they wanted to protect their reputations and keep the white money flowing. It all boils down to the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.

Please don’t get me wrong, and make no mistake, many Civil Rights leaders, including John Lewis (Fisk University), Diane Nash (Fisk University), and Julian Bond (Morehouse College), emerged from HBCUs. These individuals played pivotal roles in forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. SNCC became a driving force in organizing nonviolent direct actions against segregation and discrimination. Despite administrative concerns, numerous HBCU students actively supported SNCC and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. But even so, there is a simple truth: these students played vital roles in advancing the cause of social justice and equality, not because of their HBCU administrations, but despite them.

Why am I digging up this dirt at this point? Before I answer that question, let me make something abundantly clear: I love and support our HBCUs. They are everything to me. But I was raised to believe that if you love something, you have an obligation to make it better, to let them know where they are slipping, and to point it out from the standpoint of love. 

Just as in the 1950s and 1960s, our communities still face these same challenges. Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Affirmative Action are all under assault. Affirmative Action is dead. There is an assault on Black history and Black access to higher education. Take Texas, for example. They have followed other states to limit DEI practices, including in hiring. Students want to go to institutions that look like them to feel welcomed. Additionally, Texas public colleges/universities are fearful of doing anything in the category of DEI, or their state funding could be in jeopardy. Our HBCUs shied away from these conflicts in the past, and we need them now more than ever to get engaged today.

Our HBCUs should have one mission and one mission only: to educate young Black minds. When that is under assault, our HBCUs must step up. HBCUs have taken the stance that the on-campus learning experience is determinative of a quality education at an HBCU. The few of them that offer online education degrees offer programs of no real relevance. We don’t need degrees in pastoral studies and divinity; we need degrees in AI, Computer Science, Engineering, and other STEM fields. We need educational opportunities that will prepare us for the jobs of tomorrow, and many of us cannot afford to travel, live, and study at one of these institutions out of state. And so, we need our institutions to bring the education to us. 

Giving us access to the same brilliant faculty online that teaches in class does not diminish the quality of the learning. We don’t need to attend a step show to take pride in the institutions that educate us. Our HBCUs need to not revert to the Conserva-negro thinking of the 1960s and lead the charge into the 21st century of educating young Black minds using the available technology to make educational accessibility as widespread as possible. We love Tuskegee, and we understand the thinking of the time, as well as its institutional heritage, but if we are offered a Manichean or dualistic choice between Booker T. and DuBois, let’s roll with DuBois this time.

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