Days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and after months of increasing tension on campus, the students at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama occupied a building on campus where the Trustees were meeting, demanding a number of reforms, including a role for students in college governance, the end of mandatory ROTC participation, athletic scholarships, African American studies curriculum, and a higher quality of instruction in engineering courses.
Joining me to tell the story of the Tuskegee student uprising is Dr. Brian Jones, Director of New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools and author of The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Photo credit: The photo used for this episode comes from: http://sammyyoungejr.weebly.com/the-movement.html.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.
On today's episode, we're discussing the 1968 student uprising at Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, was founded on July 4, 1881, the result of an unusual electoral agreement during the 1880 election. Alabama State Senator W.F. Foster, a former Confederate soldier and slave owner, had asked local Black leader Lewis Adams for help convincing Black residents to vote for Foster in exchange for his support for a Black school in the county. Adams did his part and Foster kept his promise. Booker T. Washington, a then 25 year old teacher at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, was hired as Tuskegee's first principal. Washington led Tuskegee from its founding in 1881, until his death in 1915. Washington oversaw the acquisition of land and the construction of buildings, many of them erected by the students, as they learned the manual and technical skills that Washington thought would be essential to their future success. As Washington told students in 1896, "We are not a college and if there are any of you here who expect to get a college training, you will be disappointed." Washington also threw himself into fundraising. By the time of his death in 1915, Tuskegee's endowment was $1.9 million, the equivalent of around $56 million today. It wasn't until after Washington's death, that Tuskegee properly became a college under the leadership of Dr. Robert Russa Moton, who improved the academic offerings of the school so that students could meet the new requirements for teachers in Alabama, that they hold a college degree. It wasn't the last time in Tuskegee history that students would demand a higher level of academic instruction. Booker T. Washington may have publicly argued that Black people should focus on economic advancement rather than demanding the vote or fighting segregation, but both faculty and students at Tuskegee were publicly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s, Professor Charles Gomillion and the Tuskegee Civic Association, TCA, encouraged and tracked voter registration. As they succeeded in registering more Black voters in Tuskegee, the Alabama State Legislature responded in 1957 by redrawing the Tuskegee city limits, so that nearly all of the Black voters now lived outside the city. Gomillion and 11 other TCA members sued the mayor of the city and Gomillion V. Lightfoot went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Gomillion. The city boundaries were restored, and Macon County registrars were directed to register Black voters. By 1962, Black voters outnumbered white voters there for the first time ever. By the early 1960s, Tuskegee students were joining the civil rights movement, marching in downtown Tuskegee to demand voting rights and civil equality, and forming a civil rights organization called the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League, TIAL. In March of 1965, Tuskegee students, defying instructions from the Tuskegee administration, took buses to Montgomery to march on the Capitol, and they attempted to meet with the governor. Instead, they were attacked by police. On January 3, 1966, a Tuskegee student and activist named Sammy Younge Jr. was shot and killed by a 69 year old white attendant at a Standard Oil service station, after the two fought over Younge's refusal to use the segregated restroom that the attendant had insisted he use. In the wake of Younge's murder, and the acquittal of the white attendant, the Tuskegee students stepped up their activism, demanding Black Power. On December 12, 1967, engineering students at Tuskegee sent a five page letter to their dean with a series of demands for better instruction and classroom materials, to which the administration at first did not respond. Another group of students were growing frustrated with other aspects of student life and made their own demands, including the ending of mandatory ROTC participation, giving students more power in college governance, and increasing African American and African specific curriculum. Student unrest grew during February and March, 1968, erupting in demonstrations and class boycotts, with President Luther H. Foster trying to keep the peace. In early April, a group of 20 to 30 students gathered to plan a protest during the upcoming trustees meeting. They wrote an 18 page document called "The Mandate," with a list of demands, many of which could have been easily implemented. In the middle of their planning, on the evening of April 4, they heard on TV that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. It steeled their resolve for action. On April 5, a group of students showed up at the trustees meeting, demanding to discuss their mandate. The trustees who were present listen to them, but they didn't yet have a quorum to vote, so they asked the students to return the next day. The next morning, a group of students joined the meeting to present the requests. At the same time, 300 some students took over the building, Dorothy Hall, taking control of the switchboards and locking the doors, trapping the trustees inside. At 3:30 in the morning, the sheriff of Macon County led 300 National Guardsmen and 70 state patrolmen to campus. Facing that threat of force, the students left without bloodshed. All students were ordered to leave campus and the college shut down temporarily. Students were dismissed, and their parents were told they needed to reapply for admission, an effort by the administration to screen out the troublemakers. Two weeks later, the college reopened. 13 students who were not readmitted, took Tuskegee to court. The judge ordered the administration to readmit the students, while also prohibiting the students from being disruptive on campus. As I'll discuss with today's guest, despite the apparent failure of the uprising, the student demonstrators did get much of what they asked for. In 1985, Tuskegee became a university and was renamed Tuskegee University. Today, the university enrolls around 3000 students, in bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs, including a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering.
Joining me now to tell the story of the Tuskegee student uprising is Dr. Brian Jones, Director of New York Public Library's Center for Educators and Schools, and author of "The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History." Hi, Brian, thanks so much for joining me today.
Dr. Brian Jones 10:17
Thanks for having me.
Kelly Therese Pollock 10:19
Yeah, so I am thrilled to have learned about this story, and it's a coming a little bit full circle for me. This podcast really started with an interview I did with my parents about the time when they were at Kent State University in 1970. So this feels like kind of a full circle moment. So I'd love to hear a little bit about the background, how you got interested in this story of Tuskegee in 1968.
Dr. Brian Jones 10:43
Well, the short version is that I was an elementary school teacher in Harlem for many years, but at it in the early 2000s, and at a moment when it felt like there was this attack on public education by people with very deep pockets. And they seem to be really focused on the fate of Black students, and Black students featured prominently in their kind of advertising and propaganda in films like "Waiting for Superman." And I thought that was really strange and interesting, and my Black coworkers, largely, but not entirely Black coworkers, and I seemed to be as the teachers like, "We were the enemy, and these elites were the heroes." And I wondered about the history of this, and the ways in which I wondered how we got to this moment. And so I started delving into Black education history. I came across a book by James Anderson called "Education of Blacks in the South," in which he showed that after the overthrow of radical reconstruction, after the Civil War, then after the kind of brief moment of democratic experimentation was overthrown, and to the extent that there were "little D" democratic regimes in the south, they were overthrown with violence and terrorism, Klan rows, and all of this, and Jim Crow, you know, what we came to know, as the Jim Crow regime, that in that moment, too, there had been a same kind of movement, but there had been a movement to reorganize Black education in the South and put it on a certain basis, that would hopefully, according to people who were deeply investing in it, basically accommodate Black people to their new subordinate role in the South. And the person who kind of bought into this plan and wielded it, you know, there's a huge historical debate about why he bought in and what his purposes were. But their, their, one of their greatest assets was Booker T. Washington, you know, the nation's most famous Black educator, founded Tuskegee Institute, on this plan, plan to kind of suppress political and democratic aspirations, and focus on moral training and kind of like, you know, Black people are just going to put their heads down and kind of do the best they can and in the marketplace of the new south. And there seemed to be this kind of resonance between that era and what I was living through. And so I started digging into it, and my dad went to Tuskegee. We got to talking about this, and we just, he decided that or he proposed that we take a road trip to together to Alabama. Neither of us, you know, he's not a professional historian, and I had never been in an archive before. So we together, the blind leading the blind, went down to his alma mater, to Tuskegee to look through the archives, because I had noticed in the literature, there was this footnote of or few footnotes about students protesting and speaking out during Booker T. Washington's tenure as director of Tuskegee. And I thought that's really interesting, because, you know, the little bit that people do learn Black history, they kind of learn WEB DuBois, as you know, Booker T. Washington's opposite, and as someone who's critiquing it. But you know, DuBois is in Massachusetts, DuBois went to Harvard, you know. Booker T. Washington was born in slavery, he came up from nothing. So it's, it's it's hard to see. You know, there's a way in which sometimes people dismiss DuBois' criticisms because of that. He's, there's so much distance between these two men, but the students are a different story. The students were from Alabama and Louisiana and Mississippi. So I thought, I'm gonna write a book about Tuskegee students going on strike in 1896 and 1903. We get there, we drive all the way down from Ohio where my dad lives down to Alabama, and there's very little. It was very disappointing as anybody who's gone hunting in the archives knows, it's yeah, it's not for the faint of heart. So we found very little. And it was one of the librarians there who said, "Well, you know, if you're interested in, if you're interested in student protests, you know, there's something else you might want to look at." And she pulls out this giant leather bound volume of the Tuskegee student newspaper in the 1960s. And my dad graduated in '61. So it's what we were looking at, as we were flipping through the 1960s student perspectives on the 1960s in print was really new to both of us. And it was wild. I mean, I didn't know about any of these stories, and even other scholars and you know, more senior people I consulted and asked them about it, very few people had heard anything about these stories. I thought, "Wow, with this kind of an origin story, this is a remarkable turn of events," that in the 1960s, Tuskegee students fanned out off the campus and gotten deeply involved in all of the phases of the southern movement for democracy and civil rights, liberation. And then one of their number was murdered in an off campus incident involving desegregated bathrooms. And then there's the murderer, an old older, white man who was 67 years old, Marvin Segrest, murdered Sammy Younge Jr. and was acquitted. And the students saw in that, and in the administration's response, this kind of painful, just suddenly like intolerable pattern of accommodation to the white power structure over many, many years. And they turned their attention from the all these off campus battles onto the campus and to try to change teaching and learning on Tuskegee's campus and demand what they call it a Black university. Yeah. So that's how I got started in this. I was looking for a 19th century student strike and was fortunate to be handed really a story about an incredibly explosive story about the 1960s.
Kelly Therese Pollock 17:02
Yeah, although to tell the story of the 1960s then you really do tell the story from the 19th century on. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because it's a it's a fascinating story, tracing this university to how they got to where they were in 1968.
Dr. Brian Jones 17:18
Yeah, the book is, has a strange structure in that every chapter covers a smaller and smaller period of time leading up to Chapter Four, which is just 1968. So in just one year, whereas the first chapter covers 80 years of history, but what I'm trying to show is that part of the reason, you know, there's a story of '68 in its own context, because it's 1968. You know, it's not, it's not news that students were protesting in 1968. That's global, you know, it's a moment of global revolution. So there's that context for understanding what happened at Tuskegee. But there's another context of taking a long look at patterns on the campus itself. And it turns out that at what I was trying to do is show how the Tuskegee student movement in the 60s resonates not only around the world in that moment, but resonates back through the school's history, and how Tuskegee students always had a pattern of protesting on the campus that in other words, it was a contested space, and we can't understand it as just the product of a kind of singular genius of Booker T. Washington. And you know, all these things I'm saying about Tuskegee, you know, you'd have to kind of, I think, add an asterisk, which is that they're mostly true pretty much everywhere. Like there's, there's so many things about this that are true about all schools. It's just that things are kind of heightened, and there's a kind of extreme nature of the story. And it's worth our close attention at Tuskegee, in part because of its unique history, because of its place in Black America, its place in the national story, its place in trying to forge some kind of, you know, post reconstruction America. Its role in our national life and, and a national educational history looms large. So I think that's why it's worthy of close attention. But really, actually many of these things in its dynamics are true in many different kinds of campuses, particularly on historically Black colleges and universities. I think Black students have a pattern of being at the forefront of battles for democracy, rights, and expanded curricula, higher standards of teaching and learning, really, throughout the 20th century.
Kelly Therese Pollock 19:37
One of the things I found so fascinating about this story, and of course, it sort of explodes in the 1960s, is the connection between the campus, between the people on the campus, and city politics and state politics and what that looks like. And there's this dynamic that keeps happening that you know, the campus is sort of one thing and the city and of course, the state of Alabama are something else. Can you talk a little bit about that that interplay of politics and how it keeps showing up again and again and it matters for what happens on campus?
Dr. Brian Jones 20:12
Absolutely. It's one of the ways that we see that the student movement that this is not just a campus question. It's not just about protest marches in Montgomery. It's also that the students make a play for power in the county, in local elections. And you know, I should back up and say, anybody who does know a little bit about the history of Tuskegee, particularly in the 20th century, one of the things that they might know more about, is the faculty movement that precedes the story that I'm telling, the way my story focuses on the student movement in the 60s. And there's a book by Robert Norrell called, "Reaping the Whirlwind," so a very famous book, that that tells the, focuses on on the faculty, whereas my book focuses on the students. But the faculty movement is an important precursor in precisely this domain, because while the faculty were, you know, incredibly well educated and not only the faculty, but also you have the medical professionals, you have doctors and nurses, two hospitals. Don't forget about the Tuskegee Airmen. So you have pilots and people training the pilots and engineers repairing the planes. So you have all of these people with advanced degrees, and extremely well educated, concentrated in this tiny little town. And for most of the 20th century, they can't vote. And so one of the things they do to kind of break the mold of the history of the place is begin to petition for the right to vote and challenge their disenfranchisement in a case that goes all the way up to the Supreme Court. So this is like a residency. It's a local battle with the local government that bypasses the state of Alabama, goes all the way up to the US Supreme Court Gomillion vs. Lightfoot, in which they are victorious against a gerrymander that was intended to kind of stop them from becoming a powerful voting bloc. So this in many ways, the students, the young people are watching this. And this is like, one of their first lessons in politics is like, wow, look at how the grownups stood up for themselves and won this massive victory. And then of course, you know, the students very quickly surpass them and kind of start moving much more once they get going much more quickly than the grownups in a way that to the grownups' consternation in some cases. So for example, they decide to run a Tuskegee student for sheriff of Macon County, and the grown ups are against it. They think, you know, this is too much, you're gonna scare white people, frankly. And so the faculty and administration more or less, who had just come off this huge, you know, earth shattering, world changing national headline news Supreme Court victory, are campaigning against the Black sheriff. The students campaign for the Black sheriff and students prevail. The students successfully elect the first Black sheriff from the south since Reconstruction, Lucius Amerson, and so that's the kind of moment that shows they're kind of shifting political, you know, who's in the driver's seat of local politics? And who's whose influence is growing and whose influence is waning. So yes, they have these, they're able to rack up these kind of local victories, they're participating in the region. And they're, of course, you know, at some moments turn their attention to the campus itself.
Kelly Therese Pollock 23:37
So you mentioned that one of the reasons that your focus was on the 1968 story is because of the availability of source materials. So can you talk some about you've got the newspapers, but you also have this incredible wealth of interviews that you were able to do. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you were able to do to tell this story in talking to these people who are involved?
Dr. Brian Jones 23:59
I interviewed 21 former Tuskegee community members, including people, mostly students, former students, but administrators, professors, so a smattering of administrators, a smattering professors, a smattering of community members. And the bulk of them were former students, including, of course, former student activists, but not exclusively. And yeah, the interviews were precisely what you might imagine, like you, you know, you get introduced to one person or you see a name in the archives or in the student newspaper, and then you literally Google that person and try to find them. So sometimes you're just cold reaching out to people, and then sometimes somebody leads you to somebody else, because they're still in touch, and they're still friends. And so you're kind of moving through personal networks to get ahold of people. And it was really amazing and wonderful to hear different takes on the same events and hear, you know, big stories. It's also it's a story that takes place over a kind of few different phases of Tuskegee student activism in the 60s. I mean, the thing about students is they're not there forever, you know. They're only there for a time and then they graduate. So there's kind of two cohorts, if you will, in the story that I'm telling. In the first cohort, you have people like Dr. Gwendolyn Patton, who unfortunately passed a few years ago. And I was really fortunate to be able to do two interviews with her in her home in Montgomery. She also has an archive in Trenholm State Technical College. She's just like an amazing person who I felt embarrassed that I had never heard of her before. But it's like one of those things where once you start learning about something, you see it everywhere. Like suddenly I've seen her name all over all of these different anthologies of Black woman writers, and Black women's activism. She's just everywhere. And my father, of course, had gone to Tuskegee. After Dr. Patton passed, I realized she published a memoir. It was published posthumously. And I was flipping through it and saw a photo of her as a cheerleader in high school. And I thought next to her was a young woman who looked like my mom. So I texted the photo to my mom, called her up. And, "Mom, is that you? You actually went with Gwen Patton in high school in Detroit?" and she said, "Brian, that's not me. That's my sister." So I just texted the photos to my Aunt Vivian and sent it to her and called her up and she said, "Oh, yes, Gwendolyn Patton!" And she described her as, quote, that little fire stick. So yeah, she was a real, that little fire stick, Gwendolyn Patton was, was just that. I mean, everybody described her in different versions of that same kind of phrase. She was a real mover and shaker and just an amazing person to talk to at length and had amazing stories to tell. Another person I interviewed was Chester Higgins, a world famous photographer. He was one of the first I interviewed. He lives in Brooklyn, and is, you know, globe trotting, award winning photographer of the African diaspora. And, you know, he was taking his very first pictures, just learning to really to take photographs in 1968. And when I was sitting in his home in Brooklyn, I asked him, "Well, did you take any pictures in that year? Do you have anything?" And he said, "Well, I took one of the protests, one photo," and he brought it out, you know, print of it and handed it to me, this gorgeous photo, the students with these kind of steely looks. And he nodded sagely. And he said, "Well, Brian, there's your cover." Sure enough. That is the cover photo. It's a wonderful photo. Yeah, thank you. But he also had this, he had this presence of mind to gather documents related to what was going on while it was happening, and with the support of the administration. So he had this kind of documentary history already published, that he was able to hand me, almost 200 pages. So that was incredibly helpful. I mean, when you're trying to tell a story, and then somebody's got a typed version, neatly typed with a timeline, and like, all these memos and leaflets. That was just amazing. So yeah, it was an amazing process. And of course, you know, it's not my story. I didn't live it, I wasn't there. So there's nothing like hearing people tell you what happened to to get the story and get, you know, to get inside the story.
Kelly Therese Pollock 28:20
Yeah, yeah. Let's talk about this this few days in 1968, that's really sort of the crux of the story. So the students have certain demands of the administration. And as you mentioned, this is not in any way the first time the students are asking things of the administration. It seems like there's kind of two different threads that's going on here. There's something that the the engineering students are asking. And it sort of dovetails, then with what the sort of more radical students are asking for. So can you talk a little bit about what what that looks like? What they're actually asking of the administration, when they go in, and essentially hold the board of trustees hostage?
Dr. Brian Jones 29:03
Yeah. And I just say that, you know, they using extreme language like holding them hostage, you know, I just want people to picture that they were armed with nothing more than documents when they did this, like, you know, that was the level of danger was that somebody might get a paper cut. But yes, they did. They were physically surrounding the building. And they had taken advantage of the fact of a Board of Trustees Meeting, a semi annual meeting on the campus to kind of pack the meeting, and, you know, barricade the doors and surround the building and just like, bring the whole proceedings to a halt in order to present these demands. And it was just a few days after Dr. King's assassination in Memphis. And so there was these, you know, all over the country, there was an unprecedented mobilization of the National Guard. I think the greatest domestic mobilization since the Civil War. And so it was in that context that even though there really nobody was in any physical danger on Tuskegee's campus, nevertheless, the state of Alabama reacted as if this was revolution and that these prisoners needed to be freed. And so they came in with bayonets, and with a, you know, ready armed, they came to the campus that way, but what was going on on the campus were, as you say, two different streams. In some ways, the students most associated, you could say, with Booker T. Washington's kind of emphasis on the practical, these kind of, at least a validly not political engineering students were certainly taking advantage of a political crisis to enact their own drama. They had very patiently petitioned the school to basically upgrade their facilities, upgrade the quality of teaching, upgrade the materials that were at their disposal. I mean, they wanted to be real engineers, and there were Fortune 500 companies with serious career opportunities, knocking on their door, who wanted to recruit them, and they were, you know, heavily being recruited on the campus. Another way in which those times are different from our times that what you get with a college degree, you know, it's kind of, it's a different moment. But in this moment, that degree from Tuskegee was going to mean a lot, and it was really going to propel people. And so part of their movement was the movement of the engineers, was to make real that promise and make Tuskegee live up to their academic and career expectations. And at the same time, at the exact same time, you have a growing sense among students that what needs to change on the campus and in the campus' relationship to the world is actually a political change, that it's about the relationship to Black people and Black communities as a whole to the global African diaspora and to Black history, that there's a way in which there's a moment of social change, pregnant with social change, where the whole idea of merely preparing oneself to kind of slot into corporate America, and education that's fitting you to kind of climb a ladder as an individual just feels inadequate. And there's a whole group of students who feel like, "Well, wait a minute, why isn't there great, but there's a greater emphasis on African languages on Black history? Why isn't this education I'm getting more like the education I've been getting in the movement that's equipping me to understand this world, and its flaws and its problems and analyzing them and making a plan to do something about it?" And I think the genius in many ways of the Tuskegee movement, and specifically the ways the slogans, "Black Power" and "Black University" came to be wielded on campus was that those were slogans that could hold both of those aspirations. This movement merged and fused those aspirations. And I heard this in the interviews that I gave that I did as well, that that people really wanted both things out of this moment. And so that's what fighting for Black Power meant. And that's what fighting for a Black university meant. It was going to be that they were going to make a change on the campus that would meet their both career and academic aspirations and their sense of, of wanting justice in the world and wanting a freer, fairer world, and wanting Tuskegee to make contributions to that as well. So it's the kind of the collective aspirations and the individual aspirations. The individual and the the political, both of those were at play in '68. And that's, I think, what lent the movement so much force and energy was that students could see their own aspirations in this movement in different parts of the movement.
Kelly Therese Pollock 33:49
I want to ask, knowing what I know about the late 60s, early 70s, knowing that this is right after Martin Luther King was assassinated, it's been spurred along the way by this murder of Sammy Younge, I was expecting violence. I was expecting things to go terribly, terribly wrong as I'm reading this. And that's not what happened, surprisingly, in some ways. So can you talk a little bit about why, why they were able to get out of this with a certain amount of success in what they were looking for and without the bloodshed that we see in other places where the National Guard shows up in the 60s and 70s?
Dr. Brian Jones 34:29
Yeah, one thing you know, you've mentioned Kent State and your parents at the beginning. And I just want to note that there is a way in which national memory has held on to Kent State and the murder of student activists there in a way that it hasn't held on to the murder of Black students on the other campuses, several other campuses in the same years, you know, including closest to the events I'm writing about the massacre in Orangeburg, South Carolina, which Tuskegee students had visited recently, and to investigate on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. So, yes, so that there is danger in the air. And the students were afraid that given all of this landscape of danger, and given the assassination of King that they were very much in mortal danger. And, you know, I think here, the Dean of Students, Bert Phillips, and the Tuskegee administration, both acted as they had in the past to student protests with a deft touch. And in this case, they also they handled the National Guard in a way to avoid bloodshed. I mean, Bert Phillips, the dean of students,went out to the gate to meet the National Guardsmen, and basically stalled them effectively while the student movement was kind of winding down. And he is back and forth between the students and the National Guardsmen, trying to get the students out of the buildings trying to, you know, warning them like, "Let's let's not have bloodshed." And then ultimately, you know, they were the students did vacate the buildings, and the National Guard did go through the Alabama National Guard did go through the campus and kind of clear it out. But I think the other thing that avoided bloodshed was the fact that the Tuskegee administration really was successful in derailing the movement, at least in this, this phase of it. They dismissed everybody from campus. They closed the campus. And so that meant that there was no way that this was going to escalate or keep going on, and there's gonna be no bloodshed because nobody's on campus. Suddenly, the train station was crowded, and everybody's trying to get home, because Tuskegee basically said, "All of you know, 1500 undergraduates, none of you are students here anymore. We don't, we don't recognize you, as students any longer. You will each have to reapply to be re-admitted," as a way to kind of weed out the the quote, unquote, troublemakers. And as you note, though, when they returned to campus, a few weeks later, it was it was a two week shutdown, that eventually was overturned by a federal judge. But when they returned to campus, and then the following, you know, then there's the commencement, you know, in the summer, and then the following semester, and then, you know, the kind of last moments of that chapter on '68, I'm trying to look at the balance sheet of, of what if anything was accomplished. But when you actually start tallying it up, it's pretty impressive. It's like, even in defeat, there was a wide, something had shifted on the campus and the administration, you know, took a breath came back, and I think realized rightly, another reason that things didn't keep escalating and escalating, is that they conceded a lot. Like once the once the kind of physical danger had passed, and then momentum had been broken, then the administration turned with the other hand, and gave the carrot, which was quite a few carrots, and then full financial aid for all student athletes, you know, the right to withdraw from courses at anytime, syllabi on the first day of school, a new African Studies program, student participation on all kinds of governance committees, free student theater, like, you know, you could just go down the list. It was like, they won a lot, actually, and sweeping changes, and, and then when you listen to that list of, of items, you know, and you kind of ask yourself, "Well wait a minute. Let's go back. It's like, oh, that's just like, that's just like, what you that's what higher ed just became, basically. And I think what I learned from that is that it's only radical and intolerable at the time until you win it, and then it just becomes policy. And we see this throughout the 20th century that students, especially Black students, are making demands that seem outrageous and intolerable. And then like 10 years later, that's just like what everybody does, it's just the way it is. So the radicalism comes not out of the particularism of the demands. They weren't trying to like burn down the university or replace the leadership, even frankly, of the university. They were really loyal reformers. The radicalism comes from the fact that, that they put themselves in the driver's seat and assigned themselves the task of participating in the governance of the university and the fact that they even elevated themselves to the position of people who could have something to say about what is going to be what on the campus, like that is what changed. And that took a massive struggle, even to win those what can sound like in retrospect, mild reforms.
Kelly Therese Pollock 39:43
So I've heard you mention before that you can see the ripples of what happened at Tuskegee, out in the rest of the Black Power movement, in what's happening in the civil rights movement. Can you talk a little bit about that and the effects that this had despite being not very well remembered, but it continued to to have these impacts?
Dr. Brian Jones 40:05
Yeah, you know, everybody was afraid, in the civil rights era to be against the Vietnam War because they wanted to be with the President. They wanted to be with LBJ. And you know, they wanted to have LBJ. They wanted LBJ to have their back and the first civil rights organization that dared to break that consensus and say, "Well, whatever. This war is wrong. We have to be against it officially reckless of consequences." The first organization to do that was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And they released a statement against the war in Vietnam, just a few days after the murder of Sammy Younge Jr, whom they had considered one of their own. And the statement names Sammy Younge Jr. And not only does it name this slain Tuskegee student, it equates his struggle for freedom in the Black Belt region of the South with the Vietnamese struggle for freedom in Vietnam. It's not just a peace statement. It's a statement that sympathizes with the Vietnamese. So that was a remarkable moment. And that's just one of the ripples of you know, there's so many others. But that's one of the ways that this that what happened at Tuskegee was widely seen as having national and even international significance. And I'll give you another, which is just that it is again, I mean, file it in the category of you know, once you get obsessed with a thing, you see it everywhere, you know. I was kind of studying up on the context and thought, "You know, I need to reread, this is happening. This is the Black Power era, I need to reread all the literature on the Black Power movement to write this book. So I certainly need to read "Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America," by Stokely Carmichael, who changed his name to Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton, two of the leading lights of the movement, who wrote, you know, tried to write a definitive book about what that movement was about. And, you know, I crack it open. And of course, my jaw is on the floor, because I could see right there in the table of contents, there's an entire chapter about Tuskegee! I, whoa, that just blew my mind like, like, in that time, when, when they're sitting down, saying, "Okay, you're gonna write a book about the Black Power movement? Where are the important places to write about?" You know, we would kind of think maybe Chicago, maybe Oakland like, you know, you could imagine what the popular imagination has, to the little bit that we learned Black history, maybe you think of Chicago, or Oakland, or maybe New York, Los Angeles, but Tuskegee, Alabama? You know, that that founded by Booker T. Washington, that that would be, you know, an important place for a whole chapter to discuss in a seminal book, written in the middle of the Black Power movement, like not written afterwards, like written by the leading lights of it? Like what? And I think that just shows the way in which all of these goings on that we've been discussing on this campus, you know, this part of what we've, what we've forgotten, Tuskegee doesn't hold our attention now, in the way that it did, in the middle of the 20th century, the way that it was a capital of Black America, a place where whatever happens there, like reverberates throughout Black America and beyond. And so that's why a seminal book on Black Power, written at the height of the movement, of course, discusses these goings on, and even argues, hopefully, you know, the hopeful premise of that chapter is that Tuskegee is it looks like Tuskegee is emerging as a center of this movement. This is a place where we're going to accumulate more power, we're going to hold power. And this is going to be a model of Black governance and Black Power, of the kind of humane order that we can create, that we're uniquely positioned in this country to create. And it's tracing and kind of telling a story about the school and about Booker T. Washington, and how people are breaking away from those politics towards something new. And that something new, they hopefully argue, is Black Power. You know, so those are just two examples. But the centrality of Tuskegee to the Black politics in that moment, is part of the work of the recovery work of this book I hold on.
Kelly Therese Pollock 44:31
Well, it's a terrific book and a great story. So how can people get a copy of your book?
Dr. Brian Jones 44:36
I think you can find it pretty much everywhere they sell books. It's published by NYU Press. So of course, you can go to NYU Press. It's published in their Black Power Series, which is edited by Ashley Farmer and Ibram Kendi, but it's everywhere.
Kelly Therese Pollock 44:51
Yeah, excellent. I'll put a link in the show notes too. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about?
Dr. Brian Jones 44:57
You know, this book took me eight years to write. So I racked up a lot of debts, and I had, you know, so many people to thank in the acknowledgments in the end, I just want to, if any of them are listening, you know who you are including all of the people whom I interviewed for this book, who, whose names I didn't speak just now, but also of course, my family and friends and colleagues. My name is on the cover. But if anybody, anybody who's written a book knows that really, it takes, it takes a huge team of people to make books like these possible and all the research and writing that goes into them. I'm grateful to them and to you for a chance to talk about it with your audience.
Kelly Therese Pollock 45:38
Well, Brian, thank you so much. I really enjoyed reading this book, learning about this period at Tuskegee, sort of rounding out what I knew about this period. So thank you so much for speaking with me.
Dr. Brian Jones 45:49
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast . To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Brian Jones is the Director of The New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools.