When the HBCU Student Protests

Fifty-seven years ago, the A&T Four were denied coffee.

Five months later, the same four North Carolina A&T State University freshmen were served long-awaited justice, after conducting what would become the most notable nonviolent sit-in of the Civil Rights Movement.

On Feb. 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezeli Blair Jr. and David Richmond sat down at a Whitesonly F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They asked for coffee, but were denied service, a typical encounter at a racially segregated establishment in the South. The A&T Four did not leave the counter until the store closed.

Protest at Howard UniversityThe goal of the A&T Four’s nonviolent sit-in was simply to bring media attention to the continued segregation occurring at Woolworth’s. However, the outcome was probably more than they could have imagined. The A&T Four were not the first to engage in a sit-in protest, but they did inspire a new wave of student activists on their campus, as well as on campuses in more than 250 cities and towns across the nation.

The protests led by the A&T Four casts a light on the impact of student activism on the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities. Many trailblazers, such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker and the Tougaloo Nine were bred from HBCUs. Still, the efforts of those who died and those living continue to galvanize young intellectual minds to protest against unjust political and social systems. Here are the stories of these fostering, brilliant individuals.

Howard University

Senior Ngozi Burrell is the daughter of a father who was associated with the Black Panther Party. To no surprise, Burrell has acquired the same passion and dedication to fighting for education elevation, just like her father. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, she organized a town hall discussion with D.C.’s local police department on how to increase civilian and officer safety and trust.

Furthermore, Burrell studied in the Middle East in the summer of 2016. Her growing frustration with the lack of media attention given to the international community inspired her to create the International Affairs Society in August 2016. The Howard University organization, now 60 members strong, promotes opportunities for those who seek to contribute to the world with various gifts and strengths. Thus far, members have fundraised

 and traveled to conferences, such as the Model NATO, African Union conferences as well as the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

“Being the Mecca and leader of the HBCUs, we pride ourselves on speaking out against injustice and for what we believe is right,” Burrell said. “Activism has shown me a new way of achieving results in a mature and effective way. Instead of complaining about lack of opportunities, I learned to knock on doors and present my ideas. I come up with solutions and seek support in a constructive way.”

In the same accord with Burrell, other students understand that activism goes beyond the United States’ borders. Some students take the opportunity to study abroad and immerse themselves in their respective countries’ cultures. Amma Boateng is a junior, majoring in biology with a minor in political science. In Spring 2016, she studied abroad in Turkey. Boateng recalled the International Women’s Day Rally in Istanbul, citing the demonstration as one of her most notable protesting experiences.

“The Women’s March in Istanbul stands out as one of the most memorable and empowering moments that I can recall in my time spent protesting,” Boateng said. “Seeing those fearless women—many of whom are raised in oppressive social structures—stand up against the Turkish police force in an effort to combat a destructive patriarchal system was an incredibly uplifting moment for me.”

Morgan State University

On the other hand, there are those who believe that people lose sight of what activism really means. Senior Jeremy Collins has witnessed students using their activism to objectify and further marginalize others. He has even cited issue with the word “activism,” as a result. Still, he encourages student “activists” to be aware of their intentions for seeking out change.

“When it comes to being a student ‘activist,’ one must consider, again, the relationship between the ‘activist’ and the people they’re supposed to be accountable to,” Collins said. “The accountability piece is often forgotten, as well as the intention of the work they do.”

Collins continued his stance on how activism is not an individualistic measure. “It’s so easy to center oneself in the work they do, but it’s not about you. At the end of the day, your activist work, if the intentions are right, should eventually lead to its being obsolete.”

Tennessee State University

The students on the campus of Tennessee State University used protesting to stir up student involvement in advocating against gun violence and for an increase in campus security in the fall of 2015.

Biology student Jordan Spencer was a sophomore at the time and also involved in student government. Through the app GroupMe, students mobilized and marched for their demands toward the University’s administration.

The outcome was increased spending on security as well as an increased sense of safety on campus. However, she believes that activism is not popular on campus like it was in the past.

But, Spencer indicated, activism isn’t always a protest.

“Activism can be through your work and passion for the things you love,” she said.

“For example, my activism has shifted from political action to policy and ensuring that my neuroscience research aids humanity on numerous fronts.”

North Carolina A&T State

University Protest can be a unifying measure, bringing a campus community and the surrounding community together. It also can be a coping mechanism during times of solace and heartache.

In November 2016, millions watched the video recording of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American man, be fatally shot by a Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer.

The shooting caused a divide within the Charlotte community. Nearly 100 miles away, students at North Carolina A&T State University gathered to remember the father of an Aggie alum.

Freshman Lydeah Kearse described the defying moment that included 500 students.

“When finding out there was an Aggie on the other end of police brutality, it was only right for us to march as one school and one nation in this protest, in efforts to improve the lives of all Blacks,” Kearse said.

Kearse notes that activism is common on North Carolina A&T’s campus. Students are vocal about the changes they hope to see.

“We stood for all the victims who can no longer stand because they have been unlawfully murdered due to police brutality. We stood for the family members who feel weakened because of unexpected and unexplained losses.”

 

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