U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Power on Campus: Looking for an Intellectual History

(This brief review of an older book is pertinent to USIH readers because the relative weaknesses of the book are directly related to the author’s lack of attention to intellectual history.)

The black power movement had a strong presence on campuses across the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, true at historically black colleges, such as Howard University, and at mostly white institutions, such as the University of Illinois. Black power on campuses was a movement of young people who were reacting to two forces: institutional barriers that transcended the de jure barriers of Jim Crow; and to the apparent failures of the earlier civil rights movement focus on assimilation and integration. It took the form of invented tradition: black power advocates, in response to the stereotypes about black culture and history that pervaded mainstream, white society, sought to accentuate and celebrate blackness, or a version of blackness. The celebration of blackness, of course, often constricted other forms of activism, and on campuses, often served to alienate some black students.

Joy Ann Williamson tells this history in Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965-75 (2003), a useful and interesting case study, since the University of Illinois was over 98% white in the mid-1960s, and Champaign-Urbana was known to be overtly racist as a community. It is also a good case study because the majority of the black students on campus were from Chicago, 100 miles north of Champaign-Urbana, where black power and other forms of black nationalism had long flowered. Thus, it should have surprised nobody when tensions erupted on campus, as 250 black students were arrested for a sit-in at the student center on September 10, 1968. Somewhat ironically, just as the university took steps to admit more black students—in response to the emerging consensus that federal law required some form of affirmative action at public institutions—black students became far more militant in their demands. This irony was interpreted as unruliness by local whites, and by state legislators, who quickly enacted Draconian polices against student gatherings (that also targeted mostly white anti-war student protestors).

As Williamson tells it, black power was in part successful, as two institutional legacies of it remain on campus: a black studies program; and a black cultural center shared by students and the local black community. Williamson’s institutional history of these developments is thorough and instructive. She is especially good at dealing with the relationship between the Black Student Association (BSA), the organized manifestation of black student power, and the university, which ceded to some BSA demands so as to not be outpaced by inevitable changes taking place on campuses nationwide. For instance, the chancellor recognized that it would be a good move to create a black studies program well before the BSA demanded it, since hundreds of universities were following in the footsteps of San Francisco State College, the first to implement black studies—there, as a response to the student Third World Strike that shut down the campus and aroused political conservatives, including Governor Reagan. Williamson is great in detailing this history.

However, where Williamson is strong in institutional history, she is weaker in intellectual history. Despite her many claims about how conceptions of “blackness” changed to suit the movement, the reader never gets a sense of what this means. Few of the primary intellectuals sources of black power are cited or interpreted. This makes the text duller than need be. Where the author does include such sources, the text flies off the page. I’ll conclude by way of an example. The BSA defined blackness in terms of militancy. A poem from their newspaper Black Rap gives us a sense of this:

Black enough to belong to the BSA
but too white to come to meetings
Black enough to have lived in the ghetto
but too white to return
Black enough to understand our lingo
but too white to speak it
Black enough to wear an Afro
but too white to appreciate it
Black enough for your Honkey friends
but too white for me.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Hi. I certainly admire and respect your academic credentials and the unending study and thought that produces them. I just want to respond very briefly to a comment you posted on Pandagon about antisemitism not necessarily being a part of a potential or budding American fascism’s future.

    You may well be correct, that an American fascism may be more like Italy’s, given our own particular and peculiar national history and experience. However, I think that at this point those showing up and shouting and resorting to intimidation and already using violence for their purposes of disruption and destabilization are heavily of the 9-11 Truth/Ron Paul/Alex Jones/Illuminati-fearing/Bilderburg Group-mongering ilk for whom all roads do lead back to “The Jews”, at least ultimately, though they assert their paranoid fantasies and psychological aggressions in supposedly neutral directions.

    Anyway, it is my thought that an American fascism will be (is?) funded and organized by the Mellon-Scaife richies and spearheaded in the public square by my above-mentioned free-associating individuals. Their radio listening habits are what mainly links them to together communication-wise, by the way. Their books, other printed ravings, and electronic lunacies are the glue they sniff. I do believe, however, that racism and generalized fear of “the other” is what truly binds them together.

    Anyway, here’s hoping this White Backlash too shall pass without doing any more harm than showing those bullies that they are isolated and hopefully outnumbered, and outgunned.

    Larry Piltz
    Austin, Texas

  2. Hey Larry….Thanks for your comment.

    I was the one who posted the comment to which you refer (fwiw, this is a group blog and the post to which this comment thread is attached isn’t mine).

    Just in case others are interested, here‘s the Pandagon post in question. It’s a discussion of this post on Orcinus by Sara Robinson, who along with her coblogger Dave Neiwert, has chronicled the U.S. far right for years. Both Robinson and Neiwert have been very slow to raise alarms about fascism, in part because they’ve always carefully distinguished between mainstream American conservatism and the far right (though they have frequently pointed out disturbing connections between the two). But in this recent post, Robinson argues that, for the first time, we are actually on the brink of fascism. She bases her analysis on the historian Robert Paxton’s understanding of the nature of fascism. Paxton is as good a guide as there is to fascism.

    But I disagree strongly with Robinson’s conclusions, because we are nowhere near Paxton’s second stage (of five stages in the descent to fascism), in which (quoting Paxton):

    conservative leaders who felt threatened by the loss of their capacity to keep the population under control at a moment of massive popular mobilization; an advancing Left; and conservative leaders who refused to work with that Left and who felt unable to continue to govern against the Left without further reinforcement.

    Simply put, there is no such left in America today.

    At any rate, in the discussion on Pandagon, someone commented that conservative Jewish figures like Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA) were fooling themselves if they thought that they wouldn’t be victimized by American fascist forces. I responded by saying that not all fascism is antisemitic and, in particular, certain strains of the American far-right have an (admittedly odd) premillenialist brand of philosemitism.

    I certainly didn’t want to suggest that there were not also antisemitic strains of the American far right, as Larry Piltz reminds us here. But for me the more important point is that we are nowhere near a Paxtonian fascist takeover in this country.

    Sorry for the threadjacking, Andrew!

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