Remembering the origins of struggle, change

Photo bu Bobby Zipp
Photo bu Bobby Zipp

From 1968 to 1972, the Black student protest movement reached more than 500 American colleges and universities. Students across the country demanded, often successfully, higher enrollment of Black students, increased hiring of Black faculty and administrators, more relevant educational curricula in the form of Black studies programs, and Black cultural centers on campuses.

The spring of 1969 alone saw 292 protests at 232 schools, and the demands of Black campus activists stood as the major issues in about half of these protests, according to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a historian of racist and anti-racist ideas and movements who recently spoke at the college.

Swarthmore was among the schools that saw direct student action, including an eight-day sit-in in the Admissions Office, led by students in the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society in 1969, and transformation, such as a large increase in Black student enrollment at the college the following year, the establishment of the Black Cultural Center, the hiring of Black faculty and administrators, and the roots of a Black Studies curriculum.

“Many colleges and universities which experienced student unrest and transformation in this era have documented the story and incorporated the narrative into the greater history of the institution,” reads the introduction to the Black Liberation 1969 Archive, a collection of documents, interviews, photographs, and newspaper records pertaining to the Black student protest movement at the college.

“This has not been the case at Swarthmore College,” the archive introduction continues. “Until now, this important piece of the College’s history has not received the attention it merits … this archive challenges visitors to reconsider the stories that have previously constituted the official narrative and to engage with the black experience of Swarthmore in this critical period.”

As the archive makes clear, the problem seems to go deeper than the already monumental task of correcting the official narrative, one characterized by racism, lies, and omission. In fact, the true story may never have been told in the first place.

Why was the real story of the spring of 1969, of the concerted student efforts that produced a series of changes which seem to be a key part of the way the school functions today, never included in the school’s record? What does it mean to write and document this forgotten narrative, to bring to life a buried, crucial part of the college’s history? What can we learn from this process and what implications may it have for the institutional memory of the history of our own time at Swarthmore, such as the events of spring 2013? How can we avoid misremembering, or completely forgetting, again?

Alli Shultes ’15 believes that the true story of the 1969 sit-in and the direct Black student action, which led to changes at the college, was deliberately repressed.

“My argument is that they didn’t forget it, they purposefully erased it,” Shultes explained. “The college just doesn’t acknowledge it at all. There is no narrative of what happened.”

Shultes had not heard the story of the Black student protest movement on campus until the first day of Professor Allison Dorsey’s “Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis,” when Dorsey recounted the common narrative of the sit-in as the time when “the Black students killed the president [of the college]” by giving him a heart attack. Since Dorsey’s class was permitted to utilize the faculty meeting minutes from 1969, a set of documents never before available to students, Shultes decided to focus her research for the class on a series of competing stories of the 1969 sit-in and its aftermath. She spent a great deal of her time looking at the faculty minutes, at the supplement published by this newspaper each day of the sit-in, and at outside news reports about the sit-in, attempting to figure out what was happening when the news reports and the faculty minutes did not match up.

The dual problems of false memories and of complete repression of history become clearer through looking at Shultes’ work. On the one hand, there is a persistent false narrative to be dispelled. Shultes found this narrative under construction in the headlines splashed across the pages of publications from 1969, from the Delaware County Times and the Philadelphia Bulletin, to the New York Times and the Washington Post. Her creative project for Dorsey’s class reprints sections of the daily Phoenix supplement as well as excerpts from outside publications, such as Time magazine’s headline: “Engulfed by Black Anger.” The Washington Post’s take: “So the militants have lynched a good and valuable man.”

Shultes’ work with the faculty minutes in particular reveals a potential explanation for why no correct record of the SASS protests and demands was established until now. She argues that from the time that SASS staged its sit-in, the faculty was so deeply concerned about the potential loss of its legitimacy if it was perceived as responding to “militant” Black student demands that they seized control of and falsified the narrative from the beginning. The faculty, Shultes explained, continually released statements declaring that they were acting based on the recommendations of their fellow faculty, rather than in response to SASS demands.

“No one was attributing the changes that came about at the time to SASS,” Shultes said. She recounted an article in the Wall Street Journal which appeared in March of 1969, claiming that the sit-in brought positive change to the college community. A Swarthmore faculty member, Shultes explained, wrote back saying that the paper was wrong to attribute positive changes at the college to the Black students, and that the students had not in fact effected any change — even though the series of changes which came to Swarthmore happened as a direct result of efforts by these students.

Alis Anasal ’15 found in her own research a similar erasure of the relationship between the direct action taken by Black students at the college and the institutional changes which followed. For Dorsey’s class, Anasal examined a student-led course conducted during the spring of 1969 entitled Black Philosophies of Liberation. She attempted to discern students’ concerns from the curriculum in terms of both pedagogical significance and historical context.

“It ended up being a conversation about how students were taking claim of their own education … what it meant that they had to do that, that it wasn’t something that Swarthmore was receptive to,” Anasal explained. “They knew Swarthmore wasn’t working for them in the way that it should, and this was a process for them of asserting their place at the school when they were kind of being overlooked.”

She attributed institutional misremembering in part to the perception of the concerns raised by Black students at the time as unworthy of consideration. Anasal believes that a focus on action rather than on the demands of students played a part.

“Swarthmore thinks that it’s above these questions in a lot of ways, and to see in ’69 when they’re talking about the class and the sit-in and the questions these students are asking, they’re basically being ignored, and people are looking instead at this perceived violence … the conversation becomes about the action, not the content,” Anasal said. “The narrative sort of reflects that. It becomes about what they did and not about the questions they were asking Swarthmore about whether or not they actually belonged there.”

Anasal noted that the college was left with visible signs of change effected by the Black student protests, such as the BCC, but refused to attribute this to the student demands.

“Swat likes to take credit for that and not acknowledge that the students said, ‘This is what we want,’ and then Swat responded to that — it becomes, ‘We were going to do that anyway,’ when of course it really was the student protests. There is no memory of that for them, and they’re not talking about it at all — Swarthmore would like to claim the BCC for itself when really it was the student demands that created it,” Anasal said.

Anasal also located this forgetting of history in the context of Swarthmore’s perception of itself as utopian.

“They thought they were the most liberal of the liberal already,” Anasal said. Thus, when Black students claimed that the college was neglecting their academic and social lives, Anasal explained, administrators and faculty members took pains to deny this.

“This is all part of the narrative that we were always liberal, we were always progressive, when really the liberal white men who founded Swarthmore were not all that liberal,” she said. Anasal mentioned the project that Davis Logan ’17 undertook on the college’s Quaker history, and noted that the Quakers’ historic connections to abolitionism did not mean it was free of racism — for instance, Black Friends had to sit in the back of the Friends Meeting House until the 1950s.

“It’s not as if our Quaker liberal heritage makes us immune to questions like this,” Anasal said. For her, these issues remain relevant. “I don’t think we can claim to be super liberal if we aren’t thinking about these questions at the highest level,” she said.

Haydn Welch ’15 wrote her final paper for Dorsey’s class on perceptions of militancy among the Black students who participated in the 1969 activism.

“One thing you’ll see on the database is that some faculty members, members of the administration, and alumni at the time were very intent on painting the Swarthmore students as being radical and militant,” Welch said.

Welch believes that this false perception came from a focus on tone over content, echoing the distinction Anasal pointed out.

“One of the things I realized was that they were mostly referring to the tactics that SASS students used, as opposed to the actual goals,” Welch said. “The actual demands that SASS made weren’t actually that radical, especially since many members of the administration of the administration and the faculty were already planning efforts that would go halfway towards meeting SASS’ demands. It wasn’t as if SASS’ demands were all of this over-the-top, crazy, unnecessary, radical stuff — so people were very much responding to the tone that SASS used and the tactics like the sit-in.”

Welch traced the institutional forgetting of the truth of the sit-in — and the confusion of the sit-in with the president’s death — to the time period immediately following the events.

“In the aftermath of the death of the president, the college set aside these places where people could mourn and come together and collect and reflect about the death of the president, but there was never any such space that was created in the aftermath of the sit-in,” Welch recounted. “It was so easy for these events to become conflated because … it was the only thing the college focused on … The college responded to the death of the president, but it didn’t respond to the sit-in as if it were a separate event.”

The last document Shultes will produce for Dorsey’s class compares the demands made by students in the spring of 2013 to those made by SASS following the sit-in.

“It’s shocking, disturbing, and startling how much of what SASS is demanding in 1970 resonated in our own spring, the spring of 2013,” Shultes said. These similarities include SASS’ demands that the college make its administrative functioning more transparent and include black representation in decision-making structures, increased socioeconomic diversity, and later demands by students for more students of color, Shultes explained.

Clearly, many of the conditions which led students to take direct action in 1969 have still not been sufficiently addressed. Shultes sees these problems at places beyond Swarthmore as well. She connected events at places such as Colgate University, where 300 students staged a sit-in in the admissions building this fall, and Harvard University’s “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, a photo project which highlights the experiences of Black students at Harvard, to the continuing legacy of the Black campus movement’s demands for relevant educations and greater admission for Black students.

“I really think what people have been trying to do at colleges and universities in the past few years and what’s been coming up have been similar issues that Black students in the movement tried to address, of expanding higher education and making it more inclusive, which we haven’t done. It’s an unfinished legacy,” Shultes said.

Shultes hopes her project will make clear the parallels between this unfinished project and the college’s response to student demands in the spring of 2013.

“It’s not that the administration hasn’t responded to 2013, it’s just that looking at this time period in which things have not been accomplished that were asked for, and looking at the ways we haven’t changed, and the way this is part of a national problem … will help us think more about the issues on this campus and help educate some of the people who do dismiss the legitimacy of what the spring of 2013 was about.”

After all, the institutional stories we choose to forget, to remember, or to retell have consequences. “I remember hearing talk on campus like, ‘I don’t understand what an unsafe space means,’ not like, ‘I don’t get it,’ but like, ‘I don’t think it’s real,’ and I hope that this project shows how damaging those kinds of narratives can be,” Shultes said.

Welch sees a complex set of similarities as well as important distinctions between the spring of 2013 and the events of 1969, and their respective memories and forgetting.

“This makes me sad, but I am certain that spring 2013 will be forgotten,” Welch said. She said that she had now spoken to two incoming classes of first-year students about spring 2013, and that a great deal of innuendo surrounded those events, much like the innuendo and double-talk Welch discovered around 1969.

She felt that framing spring 2013 as “the spring of our discontent,” a phrase which became widely used to describe that spring after former President Rebecca Chopp deployed the often-misused variation on a line of Shakespeare in an email, is harmful, much as calling the events of 1969 a “crisis” moment in the college’s history was damaging.

“The fact that it’s even being framed in the same way — it serves to trivialize and minimize a lot of the complaints that people had,” Welch said.

Welch pointed out another relevant comparison in the way in which many focused on students’ actions rather than their concerns and demands.

“There was the focus on tone instead of argument, instead of content. People were really pissed off at the Black students on campus because of how ‘disrespectful’ it was to take over the Admissions Office and disrupt the functioning of the college, and in the same way, people were upset when students disrupted the Board meeting. It was almost as though this Board of Managers meeting was something sacred, and the vitriol that happened on campus after the Board meeting was interesting — the events that preceded that action were forgotten, and it was all focused on tone, how it was disrespectful, how this is not the attitude befitting Swarthmore students, that sort of thing,” Welch recounted.

Still, she was careful to point out that a direct comparison between the two time periods would be disrespectful.

“The penalties for the 1969 action were much more severe. Swarthmore was actually debating, ‘Do we bring in a police force?’ There was a very real possibility that violence would be enacted against SASS protestors … I want to be very, very clear, the penalties facing us [in spring 2013] were nothing, and the penalties facing SASS students were death.”

Framing, for Welch, is key, as the college finally adds the memory of 1969 to its official records.

“I think it is absolutely necessary for the college to own up to its history. I am 100 percent on board when institutions try to live up to that memory, and not try to sweep the more unfortunate or unpleasant under the rug,” Welch said. “What becomes a problem is when the same language is recycled and not enough effort has been made to remember it properly.” She pointed again to the “crisis” language utilized by those oppositional to student action in 1969: “It was a crisis from the administration’s perspective and the faculty’s perspective, but from that of the students it was a necessary moment. I think that sort of simplifies what was actually happen and doesn’t capture the necessity of that moment.”

Shultes hopes students will use the online database to prevent further forgetting. “I think one thing that is really responsible about the archive is that even though there are 13 kids in the class and we all told different stories, anyone can go on there and piece together their own story and their own account … we have all these alumni interviews and all these sources. Now the college can’t forget again, and it also can’t tell the story wrong again, because that information is available.”

Welch also believes we can avoid forgetting and oversimplifying again in part through being good historians.

“Archives are great, these talks are fantastic. There’s a four-year turnover — four years after spring 2013, nobody on campus is going to have been there for the action … so documentation is so important. Photographs, write-ups, articles, and compiling those into an archive are incredibly important,” Welch said; other students in Dorsey’s class are currently working on a database for spring 2013, Shultes said. “We have to preserve these memories somehow. That’s how stuff gets forgotten, when you don’t have articles, you don’t have write-ups. There are some photographs from 1969 and they’re incredibly important. History is about people, and it’s incredibly easy for these people to get lost behind a name.”

Shultes saw in her work for Dorsey’s class a further set of questions about the unique way in which Swarthmore seems to choose to remember — or forget — itself.

“We don’t talk about our history in the ways that other colleges do. Other colleges have traditions and history, and our traditions are things like the Pterodactyl Hunt, which has been around since, what, the ’80s?” Shultes said. “It made me skeptical — what other things about Swat do we not know about, do we still have legacies from? What parts of our college’s history are just not there?”

 

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