Sunday, March 16th, 2014 I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Brooklyn Museum’s conversation and exhibit called, Witness: Arts and Civil Rights in the Sixties.
The real treat for me was a conversation moderated by the Director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr. Khalil G. Muhammad, and the living, historical legend and Civil Rights Movement pioneer, Congressman John R. Lewis (D-GA).
On August 28th, 1963 Congressman John Lewis was the youngest speaker to address the nation at Washington’s historic March on Washington. Today, he is the only surviving speaker from the official program. At the time of the March on Washington, Congressman John Lewis served as the Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee from 1963-1966 (SNCC, pronounced SNICK). A Troy, Alabama native, Congressman Lewis was given an opportunity to meet other Civil Rights Movement pioneers like Rosa Parks, whom he met at the age of 17, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he met at the age of 18. As he explained to our group of culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse people on Sunday, Congressman Lewis explained that he had heard that Dr. King would be speaking in Tennessee. As a result of a $.10 comic book, Congressman Lewis grew to revere Dr. King and wanted to meet him. The Congressman wrote Dr. King a letter and Dr. King replied by sending John Lewis a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket. From that encounter Congressman Lewis wound up becoming a student at Fisk University, one of the most contributing schools to the Modern Civil Rights Movement and John Lewis eventually became the Congressman we know today.
During the question and answer period, I had the chance to assert that HBCUs are not often credited with being the leaders of the Modern Civil Rights Movement; and, I also had the chance to glean from Congressman Lewis what he thought the role of the HBCU was today. As favor would have it, Dr. Muhammad found my question “excellent” and important enough to even offer a follow-up to it by asking what Congress was doing to support these important institutions considering that students today have a “broader swath” of schools from which to choose. In my practice and experiences, I have witnessed that oftentimes students will not select an HBCU as a school option unless there is a history of attendance in their families or, if they are familiar with them, it is because their teachers and/or community members have steered them into the directions of HBCUs.
When reading about the Civil Rights Movement, seeing the speakers on the official program for the March on Washington in 1963, and learning about others that have contributed greatly to the attainment of civil rights for Blacks and others, their achievements are notable, but attention to their educational background is quite often ignored.
Perhaps speaking out against racial discrimination these activists experienced made them eloquent speakers?
Maybe their regular attendance in churches made them empathetic toward others?
These activists led because they were taught how to lead from the HBCUs. Long before they became civil rights heroes as we know them, they were somebody’s roommate, debate team member, fraternity brother or sorority sister, and/or classroom pupil on an HBCU campus getting inspired, being encouraged to read and read and read, and they were being groomed to be the leaders of their tomorrow.
From the opening of the March on Washington of ’63 with the singing of the National Anthem performed by Virginia State University graduate (Virginia State College when she graduated) Camilla Williams (Marian Anderson could not make it in time), to the closing benediction delivered by former Morehouse College President and Virginia Union University attendee, Benjamin Mays, the tone had already been set for educational excellence.
Many of the other Black luminaries on the program attended, interacted with, and/or graduated from Historically Black Colleges and Universities:
Bayard Rustin (Wilberforce and Cheyney Universities)
Gloria Richardson (Howard University)
John Lewis (Fisk University)
Floyd McKissick (Morehouse College)
Whitney Young, Jr. (Kentucky State University)
Even the “Queen Mother” or “Mother of the Movement” as she was often referred to by Dr. King, Septima Clark, was a graduate of Benedict College and Hampton University. Beyond those speakers, other graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities participated in and are still working diligently toward the cause of furthering civil rights as in the case of Reverend Jesse Jackson, a graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University and the Reverend Joseph Lowery, a graduate of Knoxville College and Alabama A & M University.
The Civil Rights Movement is often a celebration of the individuals whereas it should be a celebration of the institutions that shaped the will and tenacity of these selfless and committed activists. On the “yards” of the HBCUs is where the skill of debate was learned, the development of empathy was honed, and the love for all people was embedded.
It is often asked whether HBCUs are still relevant and I laugh in embarrassment at the mere thought of them not being important. HBCUs will always be relevant as long as there are civil rights to champion. As long as Black students, and now frankly, all students need to be nurtured and educated, uplifted and educated, trained and educated, empowered and educated, these institutions will always be relevant. There is something to be said about the ideals that were implanted into the minds of students like the aforementioned pioneers–the fact that many of these people are well beyond the 50 years in which the March on Washington occurred, they tirelessly continue to work for the equal rights and justice of all people in contemporary times. Their longevity to the movement and their calling to civil rights activism speaks volumes about the pedagogy that was practiced and taught in HBCUs.
There is a running joke about how traditional HBCUs are–students still have curfew, we don’t offer co-educational living (male and female cohabitation), and Homecoming is still one of the greatest events because it includes the other great pastime, football, and currently enrolled students are still experiencing similar cultural pedagogy about the importance of making the world better than how it was inherited. The evidence supports that this pedagogy works and it also suggests that HBCU alumni are always willing to give back because of a need to be able to recognize these familial and familiar places called home. There simply is no place like home.
When we step out into the world, each of us is equipped with GPS that will assist in navigating an unfamiliar world; whether it’s politics or religion or education, we learn these lessons from home. HBCUs have been credited with being spirited places that have broken barriers for Blacks in education, but they have also been tornadoes in changing America and the world. When Presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson were encouraged to take more deliberate action in civil rights activism, it was because of the encouragement of an HBCU graduate sitting right next to their elbows. When the continent of Africa was decentralized during the period of the modern Civil Rights Movement, it was because of African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah’s exposure to and matriculation in HBCUs.
Congressman Lewis’ response to my comment and question?
“These institutions were free. The student bodies–the teachers were free to teach. [They] educated so many of our leaders.”
Leadership has no expiration date. HBCUs are still cultivating leaders in the same buildings that created the leaders of the Modern Civil Rights Movement and in newer buildings that have been built courtesy of the progress made as a result of this movement. HBCUs have shown the voiceless how to be free to give voice to a cause worthy of the sacrifice and in some instances, death. They have taught the invisible man and woman to step into the spotlight to become the principal actors and agents of change. Most importantly, HBCUs have taught us all how to be free from the bondage that thwarts growth and the ideas that tell us we cannot when clearly we are equipped with an unyielding spirit that says that we can.
I think that HBCU’s are definitely still needed, and I have noticed that some of them have begun looking at increasing the diversity of their student bodies as a way to survive and also to enrich the educational experiences of their students. I fully support this, but I did not attend a HBCU so I might have a different perspective. Do you see an issue with this? I remember the controversy in 2008 when the valedictorian of Morehouse was white.