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Students across campuses are protesting against racial injustice. Max Goldberg, CC BY

Here’s how history is shaping the #studentblackout movement

Students are protesting over racism across campuses in the United States. We asked Marshall Ganz, who dropped out of Harvard as an undergraduate to be an organizer in 1964 and now teaches organizing and leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, to discuss the significance of these protests and the history of student activism.

What is the history of student activism in the United States and how has it been a catalyst for change?

Student activism in the US goes back to the 19th century, but I became involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a time when student activism – initiated largely by Black students – played an especially prominent role.

Dr [Martin Luther] King, when he led the bus boycott, was only 25 years old. The leaders of the “sit-ins” in Tennessee and North Carolina were 19- to 21-year-old students at Historically Black Colleges (HBCs). For those of us who were not Black but shared the values of the civil rights movement, it was both challenging and inspiring to see the courage of peers who were “walking the walk.”

Although many of the activists came from colleges, for the most part colleges were not the targets of the movement. The civil rights movement was more focused on issues such as voting, public accommodations, police brutality and schooling.

But the civil rights movement inspired other currents of change that did target colleges. For example, the free speech movement that started in the fall of 1964 was sparked by University of California’s attempts to curb student fund-raising for civil rights groups.

It led to a reaction that spread rapidly across campuses. In the famous words of Mario Savio, one of the key leaders of this movement, students protested against attempts by universities to “fold, spindle, or mutilate” them in ways that denied their dignity and capacity for self-determination.

Then came Operation Rolling Thunder – when the large scale “call-up” of young people to fight the war in Vietnam started. The “draft” meant that every young man had to make a choice – some among the more privileged stayed in school; some went to Canada; some others went to jail.

This was also the time when universities became the focus of the antiwar movement, as that was where the students were. Many viewed universities as being complicit – through war-related research, or the presence of ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) on campus. So they became a focal point for protest.

From your perspective, how does the current #studentblackout movement look?

There is a deep affinity between generational change and social change. Protestant theologian Walter Bruggemann says that “prophetic” or “transformational vision” may occur when a person’s experience of the world’s hurt (a critical view) interacts with a person’s experience of the world’s promise (a hopeful view). Similarly, young people come of age with a critical eye on the world they find, but also, almost of necessity – with hopeful hearts.

The civil rights movement opened a lot of doors. But it left so much undone. It expanded the opportunities for so-called “qualified” people of color to enter the power structure, but failed to reconfigure the power structure itself.

In particular, the economics of institutionalized racism were not really addressed, nor was urban poverty, segregated housing or poor schooling, with all its consequences. Dr King, when he was killed, was organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign.” At the time, racial justice, economic justice and political justice were linked.

Subsequently, they got decoupled. Economics in particular got left behind.

Something similar happened in the American women’s movement that began to open pathways into the power structure but did little to change the conditions faced by working women – who needed access to childcare and family leave policies. Contrast that to other countries where there was less focus on access for the elite.

Students are protesting against racial injustice across campuses. Max Goldberg, CC BY

It is a great thing that this generation has been challenged and motivated to take this fight forward.

In the past, the thrust of student movement as such was not as focused on race in particular. This movement is much more focused. It is a bit ironic that while there has been progress on race and gender equality since the 1960s, we have gone backwards on economic equality.

Should the troubled past of racial history be removed from campuses?

When we did the freedom schools in 1964, we had a book called Freedom Primer – it was a telling of Black history – as nobody knew Black history. What was being taught in the schools was reconstruction and redemption. The narrative was that reconstruction was a disaster – when savages took over. And redemption brought order with the restoration of white rule. Black history had been obliterated.

That racial history is embedded everywhere. The process of reclaiming African-American history was an important part of the claims about dignity. And continues to be. It is all a part of challenging the narratives that try to make you less than a human being – an object.

I like the fact that in Harvard’s Memorial Hall the only names listed are the names of those Harvard students who fought for the Union. White students from the South protest from time to time but, so far, with little success.

You have to take on what you have access to – and that is what the students are doing. The question is whether that is sufficient.

What about students at Princeton asking to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson?

Woodrow Wilson reinforced racism in the US at a time when leadership was needed in the opposite direction. The Japanese at the League of Nations were arguing for racial equality, which he opposed.

Why should schools carry the name of such an outspoken and influential racist?

It still does not shift the economic reality, the criminal justice reality or the political disenfranchisement reality. It’s only a piece of it.

Is dialogue not better than confrontation?

Dialogue becomes possible only under conditions of equal power. It is hard for unequals to have a dialogue. In a posture of inequality, the one with the power sets the terms. The one without power is expected to accept the terms.

The first step toward creating a dialogue may be to shout and speak the truth. Then comes the strategic question: can we build the power we need to create the conditions in which real dialogue can occur? And that’s when movements have to be resourceful enough to find new sources of power. Substituting dialogue for equality is a sham and winds up being a play-act. Power, as it is, is never ceded willingly.

Missouri offers an interesting example. It started with the football team, which has a lot of economic power – you get to a dialogue stage only when you get to a balance of power.

Is a more corporate structure of universities changing who has the power?

Yes, some things are changing. There is pressure to monetize – especially at some for-profit colleges. But the thing is that some structures have not changed – for the most part, especially in the elite colleges, the people who had power are the ones who still have the power – donors, traditional elites. Look who’s on the board of Harvard corporation.

If anything, there is more leverage today – people are willing to challenge and speak up.

Universities will tend to accommodate to the extent they can without ceding real power. They will agree – “okay, we will change the name of X.” That’s important and significant, but it needs to be joined with greater economic opportunity, not only for African Americans able to get into college in the first place, but black youth more broadly.

What about the role of leadership in present times?

On one hand there is the leadership of the students’ movement, which is vibrant, dynamic, emergent and, like most social movements, tends to view structure with skepticism.

On the other hand is the university leadership, which is not very well-prepared. Few faculty have much training in leadership, especially the kind of moral leadership grounded in confidence, clarity about one’s own values and empathetic understanding of role of challenge in creating constructive change. That can be tough when you don’t know how to find the courage to respond constructively in the first place.

This movement is quite extraordinary – a new generation accepting responsibility for confronting the deep roots of racial inequality in this country.

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