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Black Students Protested on Their Own Terms

By Victoria E.M. Cain

On November 20, 1969, 100 members of Black Students for Action (BSFA) added another to the series of protests that fall--but they did so on their own terms, diverging from the standard approaches of the primarily white protesters who constituted the "face" of the era on campuses across the country.

BSFA members joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in a sit-in at University Hall to demand that 20 percent of Harvard construction workers be either Black or from a "third-world" nation.

But the cooperation between the two groups was not to last for long.

After four hours, the Black students rose and quietly escorted Dean of the College Ernest R. May out the door of his office, prompting confusion among the primarily white SDS demonstrators who were left behind at a demonstration that suddenly was no more.

"SDS more or less co-opted our demonstration," says Eric L. Jones '70, a leader of the BFSA. "We didn't want to obstruct Dean May. SDS wasn't doing the things they had agreed to do before we had allowed them to join the sit-in, so we left. If SDS wanted to take over University Hall, so be it. But we weren't going to be there."

So Jones, wedged beside May in the dean's small office, asked him if he'd like to leave. When the dean said yes, "I went out in the hall and got four or five Black men, football players, you know, and we escorted him out," Jones remembers.

The incident with May symbolized the attitude of many Black students at Harvard--they were ready to demand change, but only on their own terms.

They were not necessarily willing to compromise in order to work with other--essentially white--protest groups.

"We saw ourselves as part of a larger political movement. We saw the building expansion [Mather House, the Science Center and Gund Hall] as an opportunity to advance the worldwide struggle for people of color," says Leslie "Skip" E. Griffin '70.

"It was not just about race--it had to do with the imbalance of power and resources in the world."

Many Black students were defining their own separate political voice.

"It was about developing a sense of identity," says Kenneth R. Manning '70. "Some of us [Black protesters] came from middle class backgrounds, some from poor Black neighborhoods, but we shared a need to assert ourselves in a positive way. We took our cultural and political contributions as Blacks very seriously."

"It was different. You knew if you were Black at Harvard, you were better than the whites there, because you'd had to get there," Manning recalls. "But we were striving to keep some connection between ourselves as Harvard students and ourselves as Black people in the community."

"There was an inherent separation," Manning adds, "but we still wanted to strive for connection between ourselves and the ghetto."

Black demonstrations took place throughout the University in 1969-70. In December, 91 students from the Organization for Black Unity, a University-wide umbrella organization for Black students, occupied the Faculty Club and University Hall. They demanded equal pay for workers, and a 20 percent quota for minority construction workers.

Later that spring, students at the Law School and the Business School went on strike to protest the University's perceived racism.

Consciousness-raising was ever-present, even when it did not entail explicit political activity, says Griffin.

"It was a crazy time. There was a lot going on all over the world...We'd sit around and talk a lot," he remembers. "A lot of us didn't eat in the houses. We ate together in Lehman Hall. It was the height of Black Pride and Black Power."

"We wore afros and dashikis, went back and listened to music after lunch most times," Griffin says. "Those were the days of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, even some early Aretha Franklin--straight-line black stuff and some crazy stuff, too--the Chambers Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone."

"I sense a real difference between Black students now and then--I'm not sure they feel as good about themselves as we did," Griffin continues. "People might have accused us of separatism, but we didn't care. A lot of us were real comfortable and thought it was the best imaginable time to be alive."

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