Movement ‘68: Honoring 50 Years of Black Student Protests at MTSU

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

The Albert Gore Research Center is excited to announce the start of Movement ‘68. What is Movement ‘68? It is a series of events and projects centered on the many waves of black student protests at MTSU that started in October 1968. Movement ‘68 includes: a call for donations, oral history interviews, traveling and online exhibits, primary source interactions on social media using #MVMT68, and a one-day conference called the Movement ‘68 Symposium that will examine the documentation, preservation, and interpretation of campus protest movements at MTSU and throughout Tennessee. We hope that students, staff, faculty, members of the Murfreesboro community and wider public will join us in honoring these courageous black students, and help us all work toward a more inclusive, accepting environment on and off campus.

Look for other announcements this week related to specific events or projects. For more information, please visit the pages on our (new) website related to Movement ‘68.

Movement ‘68: A Historical Overview

On October 21, 1968, Middle Tennessee State University’s student newspaper, Sidelines, published a guest column from Sylvester Brooks, a black student from Memphis, Tennessee. Titled “Dixie: What Does It Mean?” Brooks asked the white student body why they continued to wave Confederate flags, sang the Dixie fight song, and paid homage to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. He addressed how these activities alienated black students and, therefore, “should be banned and abolished.” He challenged white students to move forward with a New South that included everybody, which meant ridding the campus of Confederate symbols. As Brooks said, “You cannot seek a newer world while clinging so passionately to the relics of days long given to the past.”[1]

sylvester-brooks-robert-rucker-1970-midlander

Sylvester Brooks, left, seated next to Robert Rucker. From the 1970 Midlander yearbook housed at the Albert Gore Research Center.

Brooks’ column caused contentious debate among the MTSU community. Sidelines published a series of letters from students and faculty that directly responded to Brooks’ arguments against the usage of Confederate symbols on campus.[2] For every person in support of Brooks’ ideas, there were just as many people against them. Over the next few years, black students protested the university’s relationship with the Confederacy and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The students’ persistence resulted in a couple of changes, including a new mascot and fight song at sporting events.[3]  Many of these students also got the administration to offer the school’s first black history courses, and they founded the Black Student Union in 1969.

Since 1968, MTSU students have continued to protest against Confederate symbolism on campus. In the 1989-1990 academic year, the university’s NAACP student chapter succeeded in persuading the administration to remove the 600-pound bronze medallion of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the outside wall of Keathley University Center.[4] In 2006, black students protested the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall (the ROTC building). The students, particularly protest leader Amber Perkins, received guidance from Sylvester Brooks on how to handle the backlash from Murfreesboro’s white community and the university’s administration.[5] The university decided to keep the building’s name until a new wave of activism began during the 2015-2016 academic year, which finally resulted in the administration’s decision to seek approval for a name change from both the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Historical Commission. However, as of September 2017, the Tennessee Historical Commission delayed the final decision on whether to approve a name change for Forrest Hall, so students continue to protest and demonstrate their frustrations about the deliberately slow process.

[1] Sylvester Patrick Brooks, “’Dixie’: What Does It Mean?” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 21, 1968.

[2] “I’ll Take My Stand in Dixieland,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 24, 1968.

[3] Josh Howard, “A Confederate on Campus: Nathan Bedford Forrest as MTSU’s Mascot,” Sport in American History (blog), August 24, 2015, https://ussporthistory.com/2015/08/24/nathan-bedford-forrest-and-mtsu/.

[4] Rusty Gerbman, “ASB Asks for Vote on Forrest Statue,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Feb. 22, 1990.

[5] Sarah Lavery, “Amber Perkins Won’t Back Down,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Mar. 26, 2007.

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