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7. Contributions of Historically Black Land-Grant Colleges and Universities to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s

Author: Zach Fisher, Senior

In 1862, during the heat of the Civil War, Congress voted to support higher education throughout the United States by passing the Morrill Act. This legislation donated federal land and money to the states, with the provision that each state created a college using these resources (“Transcript of Morrill Act”). Southern states had previously viewed this legislation as a threat to their economic system, so the legislation was not passed until after secession occurred and the Southern politicians left the United States Congress (Brown). However, when the Civil War ended and these states returned to the Union, they quickly accepted the benefits from the Morrill Act and founded important institutions, such as Auburn, Clemson, and North Carolina State.

Like the vast majority of social and economic opportunities in the South, these universities were only open to white students. It was not until 1890 and the passage of the Second Morrill Act that black students received similar access to higher education through efforts from the federal government. This legislation increased the amount of funding that each state received, with the stipulation that states either integrated their original land-grant institution or created a similar school for black students to attend (“Second Morrill Act”). While many Northern states agreed to expand their previously existing college and accept blacks, the racism in the South influenced many of these states to found new schools for black students.
Many significant historically black colleges, including North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State, and Florida A&M, were formed because of the implementation of the Second Morrill Act and the desire of white Southern leaders to protect segregation in the region (“1890 Universities”). These historically black land-grant institutions eventually developed strong leadership for the black community. Dedicated students organized themselves and planned peaceful protests that became the bedrock of the civil rights movement. Despite the formation of these schools as tools for the continuation of segregation, they played an essential role in the movement towards integration and racial equality in the South.

Starting with a small group of students at North Carolina A&T, those who attended historically black land-grant colleges became some of the most important leaders in the fight to end segregation. On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, four freshmen at A&T, participated in their first sit-in at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro (Morgan and Davies 1). Despite the eventual significance of this event, the first day’s nearly unnoticed protest was organized in a very informal manner. Soon after they started at A&T, the students began holding regular “bull sessions” in their dormitory where they talked about the need for rebellion against the oppression of segregation. After several months of these discussions, the freshmen decided one Sunday night that they would finally take action. According to McCain, their plan was simply to “go down and just ask for service.”. The following day, after shopping for school supplies in the main store at Woolworth’s, the students sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and attempted to order coffee and doughnuts. The young black men were refused service by the waitress, but they remained seated in the same spots until the store closed (Raines). Although this protest was relatively ignored the first day, further effort spearheaded by the Greensboro Four, as they later became known, ended up igniting the passions of black students in the city.

When the freshmen returned to campus, they immediately began working to organize NC A&T students and prepare for future efforts. The evening after their first protest, McNeil, McCain, Richmond and Blair approached other interested individuals on campus and formed the Student Executive Committee for Justice. McNeil later described the process of approaching student groups with “leadership potential” and inviting members of the student government, ROTC corps, football team, and newspaper staff to join their cause (Pfaff). With the help of this organization, the Greensboro protests developed very quickly, and college students became a driving force in the civil rights movement. On February 2, the day after the original sit-in, the Greensboro Four returned to Woolworth’s with 23 students from A&T. By the end of the week, the daily protests had expanded to include thousands of students from A&T, Bennett College, a historically black school for women, and Dudley High School, which was mainly comprised of black students (Turner 46).

The Greensboro sit-ins have been described by the historian William Chafe as “the pivot that turned the history of America around” (Morgan and Davies 1). After the conclusion of these protests, the efforts of college students gained a newfound significance. The NAACP voiced its support for the sit-in process almost immediately, which validated the NC A&T students’ actions and gave them the confidence necessary to continue their efforts. Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer for the NAACP, spoke at Bennett College in April and encouraged them to persevere in their fight for equality. For six months, young blacks alternated between demonstrating at Woolworth’s and Kress, another downtown store, and pressing the local government for action. Within six months of the beginning of the sit-ins, lunch counters in Greensboro were officially desegregated, led by the decisions of the owners of the two stores that were targeted by the protesters. By this point, 90 percent of the student body at A&T had participated in the downtown protests (“The Greensboro Chronology”). The enormous influence of the Greensboro sit-ins altered the course of social change in the United States.

The peaceful and professional nature of the NC A&T protesters helped to draw the sympathy of white community members to their cause. On the first day of the sit-ins, a small group of older white women expressed their support for the young black men sitting at the segregated counter. According to McCain, one of the women said that the students “should have [protested] ten years ago” (Raines). White college students were also quick to take the side of the black activists. On February 4, the third day of the protests, three white women who attended the all-female branch of UNC in Greensboro joined the large group of black students at the lunch counter in a display of solidarity. The next day, a significant number of white students showed up for the protest and clashed directly with some young white men who were attempting to intimidate the black students and prevent the sit-ins from continuing (Turner 46).

The actions of these white college students helped to legitimize the protesters’ cause and tip the scale of public opinion in favor of integration. Support from white citizens in Greensboro was not limited to college students, though. Edward Zane, a prominent white businessman and member of the Greensboro City Council during this time, formed the Greensboro Advisory Committee on Community Relations in response to the escalating sit-ins. By working directly with the student groups at NC A&T, Zane was able to form an important bridge between the ideals of the protesters and the white community in Greensboro. He also ensured that the students maintained their dignity as the sit-ins continued. He encouraged the A&T students to “stand by [their] rights by living nonviolent” (Link). The planning and organization of the college protesters was crucial toward their ability to attract many local people to their cause. Without this interaction with white leaders, black students would have likely been less successful at instigating social and legal change.

Through his work with the Advisory Committee, Zane encouraged the white community members in Greensboro to consider integration as a logical and moral process. By speaking directly to the owners of Woolworth’s and Kress, he determined that the main fear of integration for business owners was being abandoned by white customers and losing profit. Zane allowed certain restaurants to experiment gradually with integration, which usually calmed the fears of business owners. In one instance, Zane brought his black friends, Lewis Dowdy, the president of A&T University, and George Evans, a local doctor, into a previously segregated restaurant on Summit Avenue for dinner. Zane did not realize the impact of this event until the next day when the restaurant’s owner called him. The owner expressed pleasant surprise that none of the white customers complained, and he stated, “You tell [the black citizens] any time they want to eat here, they’re welcome.” In addition to communicating with the owners of segregated public businesses, Zane used his influence to gauge the general opinions of the white community toward segregation and the newly developed protests. These efforts were apparently successful, as the majority of letters that the Committee received from community members expressed a desire for integration of the lunch counters (Link). Without a doubt, the peaceful nature of the Greensboro sit-ins and the leadership skills of the black college students who organized them were incredibly beneficial to the success of the movement. The A&T students were able to directly communicate with civic leaders and make their beliefs appear sensible to the general community of white citizens.

In addition to attracting white supporters to the idea of social equality for blacks, the students involved in the protests were able to increase their popularity by relating their cause to mainstream ideals. When a group of antagonistic whites showed up to Woolworth’s, holding Confederate flags and harassing the black protesters, several A&T football players came to their classmates’ rescue. These young men carried American flags into the store and declared themselves “the Union Army” (Morgan and Davies 19). This simple statement connecting their cause to the Civil War allowed the students to give their protests a stronger foundation in the public’s eye. It related the protesters’ efforts to patriotic pride and prevented civil rights supporters from being labeled radicals. This declaration also gave the movement a sense of historical and moral inevitability by comparing segregation to the evils of slavery.

Even more importantly with the emphasis that the South has historically placed on mainstream Christianity, the student leaders of the protest movement in Greensboro were able to connect their belief in racial equality to religious ideals. During the first week of the Woolworth’s protests, Blair publicly exclaimed about the students’ cause, “With God on our side, who can be against us?” (Morgan and Davies 65). By directly referencing a Bible verse in relation to the fight against segregation, Blair ignited a debate among Southern white Christians about the discrepancy between their religion and their prolonged support for discrimination in everyday life. Several branches of prevalent Southern Christian denominations, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, expressed their support for the black student protesters (Morgan and Davies 65-66). These broad statements from the national councils helped to soften the views of white Southerners toward their black neighbors and played a large role in the eventual overturning of segregation laws.

The renewed focus on youth participation during the civil rights movement was significant in maintaining constant pressure on lawmakers and pushing for an immediate end to discriminatory policies. In the view of many student leaders, segregation had been present in Southern communities for too many decades, and they believed it was time to abandon the policy of gradual change that was often favored by older members of the black community. Several articles written in The Register, A&T University’s official school newspaper, immediately following the initial Woolworth’s sit-ins captured the newfound power that most students felt following the revolutionary activities. Albert Rozier wrote on the Friday concluding the first week of protests, “It must be realized by our elders, both white and colored, that it is the students of today – both white and colored – who will occupy the positions they now hold.” Through this simple statement, Rozier references the hope that the sit-ins provided black youth, especially after receiving the outright support of white students from around Greensboro. Speaking more directly about a new outlook for the younger generation, Rozier added that the protesters were “tired of the complacency and fearfulness of the older members of the Negro race” (Rozier). Black college students were being liberated intellectually through the education they received, and they began viewing the system of segregation clearly. They realized that change was not going to occur with them waiting patiently on the sidelines, so they seized the chance to become some of the most important social leaders of the period.

The incredible success of the NC A&T protests served as both an inspiration for black students around the South and a model for establishing peaceful demonstrations against segregation. The sit-in technique quickly became popular with activist groups at black colleges. In the weeks after the original Woolworth’s protest, students organized sit-ins in almost every major city in North Carolina. In a short time, this brand of peaceful protest had spread like wildfire across the South, and within four months of the original Woolworth’s sit-in, 50,000 students had participated in events to show their support for racial integration (“The Greensboro Chronology”). Student organizations at historically black land-grant colleges continued to be crucial to the expansion of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960’s.

Through the leadership of some of their peers, Florida A&M students had already become involved in the fight for equality by the time of the Greensboro protests. In 1956, after two FAMU students were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a public bus, a much larger group of FAMU students arranged a bus boycott. These college students combined their efforts with the local black community by working directly with the adult leaders on the Inter-Civic Council. With the support of this organization, these dedicated students were able to maintain this boycott for an entire year until segregation laws ceased to be enforced in public transportation. In 1959, FAMU students expanded their efforts by expressing support for one of their female peers who was raped by four white men. The students turned the following trial into a national issue and ensured that all four criminals received life sentences, despite the jury being completely comprised of white citizens (Smith 3). Later that same year, Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, two sisters that were attending FAMU together, began a student chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (Turner 69). This connection to a prominent national organization gave passionate FAMU students an even greater purpose in their eyes, and the experience they gained through the presence of CORE on campus prepared them well for continuing the sit-in movement started by NC A&T.

On February 20, 1960, only a few weeks after the initial revitalization of the sit-in movement by the NC A&T freshmen, students at Florida A&M decided to focus their efforts on holding a similar protest at the Woolworth’s store in Tallahassee. Similar to the NC A&T demonstrations, the efforts by FAMU students garnered interest and support from white students in the area, as Florida State students soon began participating in the protests alongside their black counterparts. On the other hand, the vehement response to the protests by the majority of the white community in Tallahassee resulted in the FAMU students becoming pioneers of the civil rights movement. The police force of the city attempted to deter the protesters through both extreme violence and imprisonment. Officers sprayed tear gas on the protesters, and Patricia Stephens, one of the student leaders who founded the campus chapter of CORE, was so strongly affected that she was forced to wear sunglasses for the rest of her life. Many FAMU students who participated in the sit-ins were also arrested for violating segregation laws and given a 60-day sentence when they refused to pay the $300 fine assigned to them by the Tallahassee courts (Morgan and Davies 7). This marked the first time that college students were sent to jail for their involvement in peaceful protests, and it raised the bar on racial tensions from the events in Greensboro.
Instead of bowing to the demands of the powerful whites in Tallahassee, though, the students used their situation as an opportunity to display the dire necessity for change in the racial attitudes of the South. Breaking from past traditions, the arrested students chose to stay in jail and continue voicing their opinions, rather than post bail like protesters had previously done. This expansion of the sit-in system, combined with the professional behavior of the FAMU students and their connection to national groups like CORE, allowed them to attract attention from some of the top civil rights activists in the country. Dr. Martin Luther King sent a telegram to the Leon County Jail that commented, “Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity.” Jackie Robinson also took notice of the FAMU activists and published a letter in his newspaper column written by Patricia Stephens from inside the walls of the Tallahassee jail. This letter, which served as a precedent in some ways to Dr. King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, included this statement of purpose from Stephens: “This is something that has to be done over and over again, and we are willing to do it as often as necessary” (Morgan and Davies 7). With her letter, Stephens represented the shifting viewpoints of black students in segregated colleges, as well as the black community in general, who were beginning to see that social change would be possible if they continued to assert themselves and fight for equality.

The success of the peaceful protest movement in changing laws and garnering support for civil rights led directly to the creation of the most significant organization for student activists during the time period, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ella Baker, the adult activist who took the lead in founding this organization, was inspired by the North Carolina A&T students who participated in the Woolworth’s sit-ins. She invited student leaders from across the South to the group’s first meeting in April 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, where she had graduated decades earlier. The speech that Baker gave to the students in attendance displayed her enthusiasm for the development of young leaders and her hope for the future based on their dedication and previous accomplishments. Following the participation of white college students in protests organized by black student groups, Baker stated, “Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students … are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination – not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.” Baker was also impressed by the democratic manner in which the protests had been planned and carried out, and she praised the students’ “inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader-centered group pattern of organization” (Baker). Her words emphasized the shift toward a youth-focused civil rights movement, as she expressed the need for a grassroots effort to include all citizens who were interested in change.

Based on the ideals and strategies of the students at North Carolina A&T and Florida A&M, the SNCC soon became very successful in its goals to expand freedom for black citizens in the South. Under the leadership of Charles McDew, a student from South Carolina State, another historically black land-grant university, SNCC members held a significant role in one of the largest protest movements during the group’s relatively short history. The Freedom Rides, which took place in 1961, aimed to test the effectiveness of the Supreme Court’s 1946 ruling in Morgan v. Virginia that outlawed segregation on public transportation across state lines. The protesters believed that, despite this official ruling, they would be prevented from exercising their rights by white Southerners who still resisted integration. Taking inspiration from previous movements coordinated by students at land-grant HBCUs, the Freedom Riders were purposefully chosen to be a racially diverse group. To test the attitudes of white citizens in the Deep South, the protesters sat together on two buses that were traveling from Washington, DC, to New Orleans. The participants also made sure to break local customs when they stopped by ignoring segregation signs for public facilities (“Freedom Rides”). Through these actions, the protesters would discover firsthand the true nature of race relations throughout the Southern states.

As they expected, the Freedom Riders were met with increasing levels of hostility as they traveled farther south. When they entered Anniston and Birmingham, two cities in Alabama, the buses were attacked and the activists were beaten by angry white citizens. At this point, the SNCC took an even greater role in the organization of the protests. The student group found another bus in Nashville that new Freedom Riders could take into Alabama to continue the movement (“Freedom Rides”). The SNCC was also instrumental in attracting national attention to the situation and forcing the federal government to act upon its prior legal declarations. Similar to the A&T students who referenced the Civil War during their local Woolworth’s sit-in, the SNCC called upon the patriotic ideals of the Cold War in order to stir President John Kennedy into action. In a telegram that the student organization sent to the President, SNCC secretary Edward King, who attended the land-grant HBCU Kentucky State, wrote, “At a time, in the history of our great nation, when we are telling the people of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the free world in general that we desire to be friends, Negro Americans continue to be assaulted by the Southern reactionaries” (Morgan and Davies 139). These direct appeals turned out to be effective, as the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, ordered the Alabama Highway Patrol to protect the Freedom Riders and the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce anti-segregation laws uniformly across the nation (“Freedom Rides”).
After viewing the success of these broad statements, the SNCC continued to use American pride as a method of defending their civil rights activities and persuading the government to join their cause. On February 11, 1963, students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, another historically black institution funded by the Second Morrill Act, participated in a sit-in at the Woolworth’s store near their campus. The school’s administrators responded by expelling ten of the students who were involved. Outraged by this restriction of the students’ rights, McDew sent another telegram to President Kennedy, referencing the international influence of Arkansas senator William Fulbright. In the message, which he sent on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, McDew urged the President to “consider our image abroad when Senator J. W. Fulbright of Arkansas presides over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and at the same time, in his own home state, students are being denied a state-supported education solely because they are taking the words of Abraham Lincoln and the spirit of our democracy seriously” (Morgan and Davies 139-140). As evidenced by strong statements like these, the student protest movement, led by those attending land-grant HBCUs, became increasingly more assertive and broadly focused over the course of the decade, while still maintaining a peaceful attitude. 

Before and after the leadership of McDew in the SNCC, students at his alma mater, South Carolina State, became especially crucial contributors to the civil rights movement. From the latter part of the 1950’s to the beginning of the 1960’s, SC State students were forced to contend with resistance not only from the white citizens in Orangeburg, the town where their campus was located, but also from Benner Turner, the black president of the university. Turner faced an overwhelming amount of pressure from the board of trustees, so he typically refused to support any integration movements for fear of losing his position. The college also ignored students’ desires to clear the campus of any food vendors that would not hire black employees. Despite the lack of a safe environment for organizing and protesting, SC State students refused to be silenced by the oppressive forces surrounding their campus. In 1956, when Fred Moore, the student government president, was warned by Turner against joining the local NAACP’s protests against the segregation of public schools, he gave this outright statement against the restrictions on student rights: “This is not a mental institution nor a penal institution but an institution of higher learning attended by free people in a free land.” Moore led the students as they refused to attend classes for a full week in protest of the absolute power that Turner had over their intellectual and political freedom (Turner 67-68). Although the SC State students were unable to maintain their strike for a longer period, this early display of unity prefaced the changes that would take place years later.

The second wave of reform movements at SC State University began with a show of interracial solidarity, not unlike many other land-grant HBCU activities. In 1967, after a full decade of tension between President Turner and the students under his control, direct conflict arose again when Turner decided not to renew the contracts of the first white professors to teach at SC State. These professors, who were originally accepted as part of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program, had become very popular on campus because of their open support for civil rights and social progress (Turner 183-184). After Turner refused to rehire the white professors, SC State students organized “a ‘98 per cent effective’ boycott of classes” that resulted in the longtime president stepping down from his position (Watters and Rougeau 24). With Turner replaced by Maceo Nance, who was more sympathetic to social activism on campus, the students quickly gained more freedoms and expanded their protests to focus on general civil rights issues, mainly the remnants of segregation in the local community.

The progression of protests by SC State students displayed the black community’s overall frustration at the lack of successful civil rights legislation throughout Southern states. In December 1963, after hundreds of black protesters were arrested by local police in Orangeburg, one student was quoted in the National Observer as proclaiming, “The white man has forced his religion on the Negro, the religion that has taught the Negro to turn the other cheek. Now the Negro has only one cheek left. He doesn’t have another one to turn” (Watters and Rougeau 32). This bold statement foreshadowed the strength of the resistance when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not enforced uniformly in the community around the university. All-Star Bowling Lanes, the only bowling alley in the town, remained closed to black citizens at the desire of its owner, Harry Floyd (Turner 184). The establishment quickly became a target for SC State students wishing to express their anger over lingering segregation at the end of the decade.

On February 5, 1968, students from SC State decided to test the unfriendly policy of the nearby bowling alley by entering and refusing to leave when Floyd denied them service. The owner called the police chief of Orangeburg, Roger Poston, who persuaded the students to return to campus, but the protesting was far from over. When a larger group of students returned to the bowling alley the next night, local police arrested 15 of them. This outraged the campus of SC State and drew hundreds of students to the parking lot outside the establishment. Although authorities soon released the arrested students, memories of brutal treatment brought the crowd to a rage when a fire engine pulled into the parking lot. At this point, the mass of students began to approach the bowling alley again until police entered the fray and attacked those who were closest to the front doors (Turner 184-185).

In contrast to the completely peaceful protests of earlier years, the SC State students responded to this violence indirectly by breaking windows of stores owned by white citizens on the way back to campus. The majority of students claimed to be infuriated by the officers’ brutality toward female students in the crowd. A report released soon after the conclusion of the protests stated, “More than one witness told of a young woman held by one policeman, hit with a billy club by a second, also of a young woman begging not to be hit again, even as a policeman swung his club” (Watters and Rougeau 4). Even President Nance refused to reprimand the students for damaging private businesses after the racial tension created by this abuse of power. “I do not condone destruction of property,” he claimed the next day. “But for the record, it happened after the young ladies were hit” (5). The growing intensity of the protests at this land-grant HBCU signaled a shift in the overall focus of the civil rights movement. After the earlier legal battles won by peaceful protesters were found to not be completely binding, blacks in the South began to adopt more direct and uncompromising attitudes as they continued to fight for their rights as citizens. Like the students at SC State, black leaders abandoned their earlier tactics of maintaining perfectly dignified manners, and they began to vocally challenge the authority of white people.

Throughout the course of the civil rights movement, the historically black colleges and universities that were funded due to the Second Morrill Act produced leaders that shaped the policies of protesters across the South. Students at FAMU and NC A&T set an important standard for the proper behavior during a peaceful sit-in. The success of the Greensboro sit-ins and the student-led Freedom Rides showed the black community in the South that they could create meaningful change through the method of peaceful protests. These events also displayed the importance of working with sympathetic whites of all ages to gain public support. Students at land-grant HBCUs also set precedents for using imprisonment to their advantage, as well as calling upon the ideals of patriotism and mainstream religion to support their cause. As the 1960’s drew to a close, students at SC State and other institutions began to undertake more vocal and less well-behaved protests in order to draw attention to the corruption of Southern governments and police forces when they refused to honor integrationist legislation. Although Southern white politicians believed they were maintaining segregation by creating separate black schools toward the end of the 19th century, they unwittingly created some of the most significant institutions in the long-term battle for equality. The formation of land-grant HBCUs allowed the brightest young black citizens to share ideas and organize effective protests, which were essential in the removal of racial segregation from Southern society.

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