In 1963, Early Roots Of Blossoming Civil Rights Movement

Tianxing Ma

Instead of sitting for final exams in the June of 1963, Harvard junior Peter I. de Lissovoy ’64 sat a table in Lester’s Grill in Atlanta, hoping not for an A, but that he would not be struck in the head with an axe-handle. He would return not to his room in Leverett Tower, but to an over-capacity prison cell.

De Lissovoy had hitchhiked from Cambridge to the Atlanta office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where he volunteered to assist in the civil rights movement. His services were readily welcomed and he was sent to sit-in at Lester’s Grill, owned by Lester G. Maddox—a restaurant owner who would go on to be elected governor of Georgia in 1966. Maddox was known to equip his white patrons with axe-handles with which they could beat protesters.

“Fortunately, they had run out of axe-handles,” De Lissovoy said. Arrested and jailed that day, he would become the 12-person cell’s 27th inmate.

“That was a big change, going from living in Leverett House to living in a cell,” he said.

That month, Theophilus E. “Bull” Connor would unleash police dogs and fire hoses on protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. Two months later, Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have A Dream” address to hundreds of thousands from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Inside and outside the gates of Harvard Yard, students responded to the emerging Civil Rights Movement. While some remember campus as an insular community that looked at the movement from afar, many black students within the school worked to create a sense of community, and individual and group efforts among both the student body and the administration emerged to support racial equality through activism at Harvard, in the local Cambridge and Boston area, and in the South.


For the first time in 1962 black students on campus--led by Aryee Quah “George” Armah ’63—acted to create a formal association of their own: the Association of African and Afro-American Students. Its stated goals were to promote a sophisticated conception of “Black Power,” which included frequent discussions about integration.

The club wrote a six-page letter to the administration in December 1963 asking for University recognition, but was denied because of its admission policy. According to the charter, admission would be “open to African and Afro-American students currently enrolled at Harvard and Radcliffe.” Because it only accepted black members, school officials deemed this language too exclusionary and denied them status as an official student group. This decision was reversed a year later, after the AAAAS revised their policy.

But despite the creation of the AAAAS, students said that--because of the relatively small size of the black community and the difficulty of achieving acceptance to the College in the first place--black students were reluctant to challenge the status quo.

“Each of us was focused on getting to Harvard, which for many of us was a daunting challenge,” said Wilfred O. Easter Jr. ’63, a black student. “Civil rights pursuits were not my main goal. My parents would not have been happy.”

As a small minority within a predominantly white male student body, black students had been going to Harvard for nearly a century before AAAAS was formed. The College accepted its first black student in 1847, although a black student did not enroll until 1870. He, and those African American students following him, lived in housing relegated to black students until 1921. African American students were still assigned to the least desirable housing arrangements on a consistent basis until the Graduate School Council agreed to assign students at random in 1950.

Though black people outside the gates faced Jim Crow and forms of systematic racism and violence, the students say they found that they were enveloped in a mostly peaceful, accepting community.

Spencer C. Jourdain ’61, a black student whose father had initiated integrated housing in the 1920s, said that there was a distinct absence of overt prejudice on campus in his time at Harvard, but noted that others may have had different experiences.

“Even though I was not aware of any overt racism on campus, at our 50th reunion, some of my white friends mentioned that they were very aware of it, and