Negro Students' Challenge to Liberalism

The campus organization now known as the Association of African and Afro-American Students (AAAS) is a product of the uniquely stimulating years from 1960 to 1963. The student demonstrations in the South, African independence, and the Black Muslims -- especially Malcolm X -- captured the imagination of Negroes in intellectual communities throughout the country.

Harvard's Negro students felt they were "sitting out the war," while Southern Negro students sat-in at lunch counters and Africans on campus discussed the task of running a country. "We were envious of the Africans," James Wiley '65, former president of AAAAS says. "They had something meaningful to talk about. The best American Negroes could aspire to was finding a slot in someone else's administration."

Brother Willie

A number of Muslims frequented the Square--Brother Roy and Brother Willie (seniors may remember futile arguments with Willie as he sold them innumerable copies of Muhammad Speaks). Malcolm X also came to the Square several times during those years, but at that time most black students were afraid to go hear him. Travis Williams '63 admits, "though we revere him now that he's dead, most of us fled his naked language." Assistant Dean Archie Epps remembers being a "fat old satisfied guy" shocked out of his torpor by Malcolm's homely iconoclasm.

Martin Kilson, assistant professor of Government, and E. U. Essien-Udom, author of the famous Black Nationalism (written at Chicago under Edward C. Banfield) were anticipating, based on their knowledge of Negro lower class culture and the Muslim phenomenon, that the ghettoes, would soon erupt into riot. "What's going to stop them?" Epps would ask. "Negroes like you," was their reply.

Before AAAAS ("Afro") was organized, standard procedure was for Negroes, passing one another in the Yard, to cast down their eyes or become immediately engrossed with tying their shoelaces. Kilson would address everyone as "Hey spook! Hey Negro!" and people began looking looking up and saying "Hi," as if they had been caught stealing cookies.

This was the setting. Out of it Harvard's Negro students formed two groups: the activists -- those who sought political power, and engaged in demonstrations in Roxbury and at the Portuguese consulate--and a "cultural discussion group"--interested in the exchange of ideas between Africans and Afro-Americans, the exploration of common problems. The activists felt strongest about excluding whites from their efforts.

In 1962, a general meeting was called, at which John Butler '63, and Aryee Quah (George) Armah '63 were the leaders. Others involved were Epps (then 1G), Claude Weaver '65, and Thomas Atkins (1G). A new concept was being formulated, of which Armah was the most articulate spokesman. It was Armah who originated both the name of the organization, AAAAS, and the membership clause -- "open to African and Afro-American students currently enrolled at Harvard and Radcliffe."

The first officers were elected in the spring of '63. An African student, Martin Anochie '64, was elected president. Anochie was a very persuasive spokesman and, as Travis Williams put it, "a brilliant politician. He anticipated Skokely Carmichael and even, to some extent, Malcolm X."

Anochie summed up Armah's formulation as "anti-racist racialism." This entailed the development of institutions and points of strength in order to realize objectives--integration for example. The concept of "Black Power" has been inarticulately expressed in the ghetto for 50 years; Armah and Anochie, however, gave it sophisticated formulation four years before Stokeley Carmichael or Floyd McKissick.

As these sessions broke out into the open, a number of letters and editorials on the subject began to cross paths in the CRIMSON. Two letters from whites summed up the thoughts both of the "cultural discussion group" and the activists. The former: "We are black human beings and white human beings. Only by understanding and isolating what it is to be black and what it is to be white, can we realize what it is to be simply human. Only then will race and color become insignificant." The latter: "Conscience is the motivation for the liberal only because real respect is absent. Colored pride and white respect must be enkindled, and if the white community cannot do it, some think the Muslims can."

Butler wrote to the CRIMSON that the AAAAS was formed to express "our thoughts on our particular problems...There is nothing malicious in our desire to be ourselves." The HUC and the Faculty Committee on Student Activities--focusing on Afros all black composition--felt it would be a bad precedent. In addition, at least two CRIMSON minority editorials charged "racism in reverse" as did the New York Times in response to "Black Power."

The use of the concept "anti-racist racialism' confused and frightened a number of people, as did the words "Black Power" four years later. People were accustomed to the Negro movement depending both for sustenance and initiative upon the good will of the white community; the development of the Negro institutions and points of strength could not be communicated on their own merits. The building of such institutions has been wrongly confused, since Plessy vs Ferguson, with "perpetuating segregation."

"Don't Lie"

The dilemma was finally "reselved" because of the Administration's embarrassment over the final clubs. The AAAAS was urged to strike out the discriminatory clause and, implicitly, substitute one of membership by invitation. Armah would have none of this. He kept telling the undergraduates, especially the American Negroes who were willing to accept the "final club" compromise: "Don't lie, don't lie."