Movement 68: Black Student Organizing

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

The Black student activism that occurred on MTSU’s campus in the late 1960s was part of a larger national movement. According to historian Dr. Martha Biondi, in her book The Black Revolution on Campus, “Black students organized protests on nearly two hundred college campuses across the United States in 1968 and 1969.”1 Many of these Black students used grassroots organizing efforts to reform university policies and to demand better representation on a variety of campuses–public and private, historically black and predominantly white.

CUBE - brooks

Sylvester Brooks, of C.U.B.E., attends a student club fair. (Sidelines Oct. 21, 1968)

Black students lost patience for “token integration” and set their sights toward “new politics of racial pride and assertion.”2 In 1968 and 1969, MTSU Black students formed organizations like C.U.B.E (Creating Understanding By Effort) and the Black Student Union (BSU). These institutions sought empowerment and transformation on campus and in the Murfreesboro community. Both C.U.B.E. and BSU created change through specific educational goals. C.U.B.E. ran a tutoring program for Murfreesboro’s K-12 students, held trips to cultural heritage sites, sponsored Black film festivals and book clubs, and pushed for the introduction of Black courses at MTSU.3 Meanwhile, BSU focused on creating a safe and supportive environment for Black students. The organization administered Black History Week activities, brought notable Black speakers to campus (like Julian Bond), and also supported the need for Black history courses.

The efforts of the Black student movement came with harsh reprisals, “including criminal prosecution and…violent police invasions.”4 At MTSU, activists like Sylvester Brooks received death threats, intimidating anonymous phone calls, and mail that suggested people were always watching him, much like the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence Program.5 When the Black Student Union started the bureaucratic process of becoming an officially recognized student organization, they received resentment from white students who thought the group was “separatist, bigoted, militant, or even communist.”6 In May of 1969, Carla Neal interviewed several Black students in a column published in Sidelines that directly tackled misinformed viewpoints about BSU. Read her full column below or click here for a transcript.

BSU letter

Despite the backlash, the Black student movement transformed the academic community. Scholar Robert L. Allen noted that these students’ efforts widened educational democracy, and the call for Black Studies programs paved the way for “the introduction of new and revolutionary ideas into the curriculum.”7 Demanded by students, MTSU’s first Black history course began in the fall of 1969. Called “The Negro American,” the objective of the class was “a study of the changing role and status of the Negro in American life and his contributions to the culture and institutions of the United States.”8 The course complemented the work that C.U.B.E. and the BSU conducted with their educational outreach. MTSU’s Black faculty and students continue to implement Black-centered education today–this past fall semester the university became the first in Tennessee to offer an Africana Studies major.

bsu awaits approval

Founding members of the Black Student Union. (Sidelines May 15, 1969)

Ultimately, the “energy and idealism” of these young Black students in the late 1960s “inspired Latino, Asian American, and progressive white students to launch and intensify their own campus crusades.”9 The Gore Center’s Movement 68 initiative seeks to explore the many ways in which MTSU’s own Black student movement shaped our campus and our community over the past 50 years. How far have we come? And how much further do we have to go to achieve equity in higher education at MTSU, in Tennessee, and across the United States? For more information on Movement 68 programs, please visit our website.

Citations

  1. Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 1.
  2. Ibid, 6.
  3. Kathy Miller, “CUBE Sponsors Tutoring Program,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 21, 1968.
  4. Biondi, 3.
  5. Sylvester Brooks, interview with Erin Toomey, September 30, 2000, interview MT24, Albert Gore Research Center.
  6. Carla Neal, “Students Must Not Take Misinformed Viewpoint of Black Student Union,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), May 15, 1969.
  7. Biondi, 11.
  8. Bulletin of the Middle Tennessee State University, Vol. XLII, No. 2, April 1969, Albert Gore Research Center.
  9. Biondi, 2.
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