The Civil Rights Movement, HBCUs, and You

The Civil Rights Movement: On February 1, 1960 four A&T freshmen helped to orchestrate the sit-in movement starting with the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of North Carolina A&T State University.
On February 1, 1960 four A&T freshmen helped to orchestrate the sit-in movement starting with the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Photo via North Carolina A&T State University.

Most college campuses boasts statue of and tributes to college founders and important politicians. But there’s something different about North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: the campus features a striking statue of the Greensboro Four (A&T Four), the four young A&T students who took a historic stand against racism on February 1, 1960 by sitting in at the segregated Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond ushered in a new era of change in the United States—one that underscores the political importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century would not have happened or been as successful without the participation of HBCU students. Not only did HBCUs produce some of the great leaders of the movement, including Medgar Evers (Alcorn State), Rosa Parks (Alabama State), Stokely Carmichael (Howard University), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse College), they were also indispensable centers of the fight for equality.

The renowned documentary “Eye on the Prize” highlights some of the important Civil Rights Movement activities that took place on or originated at HBCU campuses in the south, such as the boycotts and marches led by students at Fisk University that ended segregation in Nashville. Some of the colleges that participated in the Civil Rights Movement are well-known. But countless lesser-known HBCUs participated in ways that are not as familiar:

  • Shaw University was the site of the first meeting of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which led voter registration drives and the Freedom Rides.
  • Claflin University was the central force working to dismantle segregation in Orangeburg, S.C., marching and protesting well before the 1960 date that most historians date as the start of the student civil rights movement.
  • South Carolina State University students also fought against discrimination in Orangeburg, S.C.;  one attempt to desegregate local bowling alleys ended in the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, when three student protestors were killed.
  • Knoxville College students and professors in Tennessee began one of the first voter registration drives in 1957 and forced the 1960 desegregation of downtown stores and restaurants, well before many of the more well-known desegregation efforts succeeded.
  • Tougaloo College students not only marched and protested against racial discrimination, they also reached out to white entertainers and encouraged them not to perform at segregated venues.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg; as Brian McClure explains, “HBCUs served as institutions of solidarity. Dorm rooms were transformed into meeting locations; quads became rallying centers, chapel basements transformed into training grounds for non-violent protests, and campuses banded together creating an intricate system of social networks.”

Scratch the surface of any HBCU brochure, and you’ll find a rich history of commitment and selfless dedication to the cause of racial equality—and probably find a large number of alumni and parents who were part of that mission.

That dream hasn’t died, and HBCU students can learn from and build upon the impressive legacy of civil rights movement activities at HBCUs by continuing activism on campus today.

These are some of the Civil Rights Movement issues that affect HBCU students today, and what you can do about them:

  • Support the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights: Some members of Congress believe that students deserve to know what they are getting into when they take out student loans, and they sponsored a new bill for a Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights. Start a petition supporting the bill and sent it to your local congressperson(s).
  • Invite the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): The rate of African-American imprisonment for drug charges is 10 times higher than it is for white offenders. Invite the ACLU to campus educate students about racial disparity in the criminal justice system and how they can stop it.
  • Form a Black Youth Vote! group: Join with the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and work to expand voting rates and community involvement in black communities across the country.

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