On 50th anniversary, alums reflect on black student walkout

This article is part of the series 1968 Black Student Walkout

This article is the first in a 50th anniversary commemorative series on the 1968 black student walkout.

Sitting in a quiet meeting room at the Faculty Club, Kenneth McDaniel ’69 reflected on the black student walkout that took place 50 years ago and brought the campus to a standstill. After spending months negotiating with the University to better recruit and support black students on campus with little progress, a group of women from Pembroke College decided that the time had come to take decisive action. Joined by other black students from Brown, they would leave campus and refuse to return until administrators promised to implement significant changes.

 

Risks of participation

“I called my father the day before the walkout and told him it was going to happen. … There was some potential that he could lose his job because of it. He was working for a land grant college down in Virginia — it was still a segregated state-wide system,” McDaniel recalled. “It was a very quick conversation. He said, ‘What else have you considered doing? Is it the right thing to do? Then I guess you have to do it.’”

“God knows what the other students were going through, some not calling their parents because they didn’t want them to know,” he added. While current seniors at Brown have seen two walkouts take place during their time on campus, students attending the University in 1968 had little precedent for the protest that would take place in December of that year.

“We knew the implications of saying, ‘We’re going to leave here unless the University meets our demands.’ … If the University says no, we’re not coming back. It was not just a symbolic walkout, it was real,” said Ido Jamar ’69. “A lot of students were scared.”

But Dec. 5, 1968, 65 of 87 black students at Brown and Pembroke participated in the walkout, leaving campus to protest the University’s lack of progress in admitting and welcoming black students. They walked from the University to the Congdon Street Baptist Church. Led by the women of Pembroke College, the students remained inside the church until the University agreed to implement their demands. The protest lasted five days.

Despite the substantial risks involved in participating in the walkout, younger students, like Zylpha Pryor-Bell ’72, joined their peers after being “convinced by upperclassmen that it was a worthy cause (that) would, in the long run, benefit Brown as well as prospective minority students,” she wrote in an email to The Herald.

Demanding a commitment to change

Prior to the walkout, the students issued a letter of demands that outlined ways in which the University could better support black students, as The Herald previously reported. While the Pembroke students had originally presented these demands to the University the previous spring, a lack of progress in implementing the changes prompted black students throughout the entire university to walk out.

Of the demands made by students, increasing black student enrollment to 11 percent of the undergraduate populations at Pembroke and Brown served as the group’s primary goal, as The Herald previously reported.

According to the position paper from the Pembroke students, they insisted on an 11 percent minimum to reflect the national percentage of black Americans at the time. In addition, students stressed that the demand was minimum percentage and not a quota, which would have been illegal. 

Aside from increasing the number of black students admitted, the Pembroke students demanded the University to waive the “application fee … for any black applicant,” hire a black admission officer and implement a program to educate prospective black students about campus life, among other measures, according to the letter.

“A black admission officer would have different sensitivity when looking at an application; they would have a better understanding of what African American students’ experiences were,”  Jamar said. “They would be able to see signs of excellence in pockets of a student’s life that others could not see.”

After the students left campus, University administrators and Corporation members sought input from remaining student leadership when drafting their official response. “I was asked to come to (President Ray Heffner’s) house to discuss their response that they were going to make to the walkout. I told them that there was going to be very strong student support (for the protesters) and that I thought that what was being demanded by the black students was reasonable and that the administration should respond positively and engage in a negotiation,” said Ira Magaziner ’69, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students at the time of the walkout. “There were differences in opinion among (administrators and Corporation members). … I told them that the pressure was only going to get worse, that it would be more widespread.”

As the protest unfolded, students perceived varying levels of support on campus. “Most students were very supportive of (the walkout), that was evidenced by the fact that they came out and rallied in support of the black students,” Magaziner said.

Pryor-Bell, however, was less certain of the general student body’s support. “I do not believe that most people understood the need for the walkout or took it seriously at the time,” she wrote. “Other student activists got it, but for most students on campus, life proceeded without their being fazed.”

Reaching a resolution

The University committed to increasing black student admission to the demanded 11 percent mark and offered a timetable for when the results could be achieved Dec. 6, The Herald previously reported.

During the walkout, student-protestors and administrators remained in constant communication to reach a resolution. “The Brown students pretty much took over the negotiations because it had become university-wide, it was no longer just a Pembroke issue,” Jamar said.

“Some people said, from the outside, it looked like the guys had taken over, but (the women put) so much energy and time and emotion … getting to that step, I personally was happy to let someone step in and do the negotiating. They did an excellent job,” she added.

On Dec. 9, students reached a settlement with the University, which pledged $1.2 million to develop a black student recruitment program. The program aimed to match black student representation with national demographics and improve the retention of admitted black students. It also set aside money to create additional scholarships for black students and finance the travel expenses and salaries of black recruiters. 

The same day, students held a press conference in the Congdon Street Baptist Church and expressed a willingness to cooperate with the University. “The Afro-American Society has decided to work within the framework of concessions that the University had made, because to refuse to do so would be a disservice to black people,” they said.

But the students found the University’s concessions to be “racist in nature” because they were not “sufficient to ensure that enough black students will matriculate” and, as a result, did not reflect a legitimate change in the University’s priorities.

“No matter what the figure, you can’t just say that (the money) is going to solve the problem,” McDaniel said. “Dollars don’t mean commitment, that was the essence of it.”

“We felt that they had responded to a number of our concerns and demands, but there was always the concern of did we do enough to (satisfy) the needs of the students who took the chance that they took to participate in that demonstration,” said Glenn Dixon ’70, a student who participated in the walkout and then-president of the Afro-American Society. “There was no way at the time to know that.”

Students worried about whether “enough of the administrators, students, faculty and existing employees of the University took it seriously enough that changes (could) be implemented,” he said. “To the extent that that was the case, those changes did begin to be addressed. … We were probably more successful at that point than we realized.”

“It took a long time to begin to understand that those concerns that were expressed had to be addressed on a continuous basis, not just one time with our approach,” he added.

The Pembroke women returned to campus Dec. 8 and the Brown men ended the protest Dec. 10.

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