The 1968 Tuskegee Student Uprising and the Moral Force of the Black UniversityRoundup
tags: African American history, HBCUs, student protests, Tuskegee Institute
Brian Jones is director of the Center for Educators and Schools at the New York Public Library.
On April 6, 1968, two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a confrontation unfolded at the Tuskegee Institute, the historic land-grant college in eastern Alabama now called Tuskegee University. Twelve members of the college’s Board of Trustees, 13 staff members, and 20-some students assembled in a room of Dorothy Hall, a stately brick building where the trustees held an annual campus meeting. On the table before the dignitaries lay an 18-page typed document titled “General Philosophy: A Black University Concept.” The document, drafted by student activists and framed as a mandate from the student body, argued that the college needed to prepare students to change society, not just to “succeed” within it. Outside, nearly 300 students gathered, blocking the building’s exits. Students inside the building took control of the telephone switchboard and locked the front doors. Tuskegee students had the trustees’ full attention.
On the orders of Alabama’s governor, Lurleen Wallace, some 300 National Guardsmen assembled at the institute’s gates, bayonets affixed to their rifles. Bloodshed was not out of the question: Earlier that year, police officers in Orangeburg, S.C., had shot and killed three Black students during a protest. Tuskegee’s dean of students, Bertrand Phillips, spoke to the guardsmen, hoping to persuade them to turn around and avoid a bloodbath. One soldier heard his concerns but told Phillips that they would enter the campus regardless. “You all at Tuskegee,” the guardsman explained, “have been too uppity for a long time.”
In a moment when Black studies and Black history are widely under attack, it can be useful to remember that Black student activists have historically been at the center of fights to democratize higher education and expand the curriculum. As of this writing, a majority of states have adopted or introduced legislation banning the teaching of racism or ethnic studies in various forms. Those legislative moves have not gone unopposed, however, and students are once again central actors in the effort to challenge them. The story of Tuskegee’s 1968 student uprising can help us understand how such vital movements emerge — especially in places we least expect them.
In some ways, the Tuskegee Institute was an unlikely incubator of that kind of radical activism. The institute’s founder, Booker T. Washington, advocated racial progress via education and entrepreneurship, and was seen as accommodationist for publicly denigrating demands for political equality. Washington was also careful to present his educational agenda in ways that wouldn’t offend the college’s powerful white supporters. In Tuskegee’s early years, students and professors could be penalized for carrying too many books on campus (the pathbreaking social scientist E. Franklin Frazier was admonished for this), lest they give white people the impression that “too much” learning was going on. But no matter how they moderated their presence and presentation, for some white people any advance for Black people at the Tuskegee Institute was too much. After a new hospital for Black veterans was established at the institute, in the early 1920s, 700 Ku Klux Klan members marched through the campus.