Beauty, Black Power, and Black Student Activism in Memphis

*This post is part of our online forum on Aram Goudsouzian and Charles McKinney’s An Unseen Light

Women drilling with panther flags. (Photo: Pirkle Jones and Ruth-Marion Baruch)

“Everybody come in that’s going to jail with me,” yelled Ester Hurt at a group of African American students who sat outside of the office of Memphis State University (MSU) President Cecil C. Humphrey.1 Hurt, an older matriculating student, Memphis native and military veteran, was one of four Black male students who fit that profile and were leaders of the school’s Black Student Association (BSA). Hurt’s demand was as a culmination of sorts to a tense and at times volatile week-long standoff in April of 1969 between the BSA and MSU’s administration. The root of the protest and subsequent administration building takeover seemed innocuous to Humphrey, other administrators, and the white students who comprised the student body. A week earlier, Humphrey spurned the students’ request for funding to bring in U.S. Congressman and Black Power proponent Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as the guest speaker for the organization’s Black Extravaganza program.2 Yet, the students’ protest was anything but innocent or haphazard. The fact that the breaking point centered on the administration’s refusal to honor the students’ cultural programming spoke to the root of dissension between the two factions.

In 1969 Memphis State University held the distinction of having the largest Black student population of any predominately white college or university in the nation. Yet, as one BSA member reflected on his experience at the institution, “You feel like a fly in the buttermilk even though you’re looking at Black people all around. You still feel like the fly in the buttermilk when you go into class.”3 Although Black students still fought for an increase in the enrollment of African American students, the lack of Black cultural representation and spaces became the focal point of Black protest at Memphis State in the mid-to-late 1960s and through the 1970s. The ethos of the Black Power Movement, among other sociopolitical tenets, emphasized a cultural reimagining of Blackness that resulted in people of African descent globally reconnecting with their roots and heritage.

At Memphis State Black students fashioned a campus protest movement that sought to “blacken” traditional white spaces. Nowhere was this more evident than in the concerted effort by the BSA to infiltrate what I refer to as “beauty spaces” at MSU. I define beauty spaces as the campus court (homecoming queen, beauty queens, etc.), cheerleading and pep squads, and other auxiliaries only open to women – and specifically during this period only open to white co-eds. They became sites of protest for Black students at Memphis State. The term beauty spaces is not used to denote what is and what is not considered beautiful, nor used to ignore that the idea of beauty itself is socially constructed, but only as an indication that Black women were excluded from participation in these spaces in part because they did not fit the Eurocentric standard of beauty. The BSA focused their strategy on revolutionizing the campus by using these beauty spaces to break down the social barriers that prohibited Black students from becoming part of a larger campus culture.

By the 1968-1969 academic year the BSA was fully formed and many of the students in the organization’s membership had participated in protests around the city in support of the striking sanitation workers. In the aftermath of that movement, as well as the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. the students gained a level of political sophistication that carried over to their on-campus activism. While maintaining pressure on the administration to hire Black faculty, Black Studies courses, and recruit more Black students, BSA leadership turned to Black women to spearhead their strategy to attack campus racism by focusing on the issues of culture, identity, and inclusion.

While the number of Black male athletes on sports teams at MSU increased, there were no Black women cheering on the cheerleading or pep squads for those teams.4 The women’s auxiliary of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), the Angel Flight, excluded Black women from participating. There were no Black women in the most visible extracurricular spaces reserved for women on campus. The campus queen positions – homecoming queen and college queen – were deemed off-limits to Black women. Even the “Campus Cutie” section of the school’s newspaper The Tiger Rag, which was intended to highlight young, attractive and academically astute co-eds, had never included a Black woman in the feature. This fact was not lost on the Black students, and specifically Black women, in the BSA who accused the staff of using its pages to promote the Eurocentric standard of beauty. David Acey, a leader in the BSA, recalled years later: “There were all these beautiful black women on campus and there were no black cheerleaders. No black pom-pom girls, no nothing. No black girls anywhere.”5

Essential to the thrust of the Black Power Movement was the redefinition, and reclamation of the Black aesthetic. Understanding this dynamic, the BSA unleashed a direct action campaign over the course of the 1969-1970 academic year aimed at challenging the racial status quo by nominating, electing, and promoting Black women into positions on campus beauty spaces. During one of the first campaigns, “Black Power on hardwood,” BSA members planned to storm the court during halftime of a basketball game wearing what they called “Black Panther uniforms” to protest the lack of Black women on cheerleading and pep squads. Somehow administrators found out about the protest and stopped it before it took place.

Eventually after a tense battle, the BSA was able to secure placement for Black women on the Angel Flight ROTC auxiliary when Janice Jones became the squad’s first Black member. Having organized their own Miss Black Memphis State beauty pageant, the BSA began to push for a Black woman to serve as one of the campus queens. The organization and allies consolidated under one voting bloc to secure the victory for Maybelline Forbes who became the first Black homecoming queen in school history in 1970. Forbes appeared on the front page of The Tiger Rag, the same paper that excluded Black women from its coverage, with a raised fist and her arm extended in the Black Power salute. “Black Power was used to elect Maybelline, just as the white people have used white power to elect their queens,” Acey told the paper, which by the spring of 1969 and the fall of 1970 had added more Black students to its editorial staff and consequently more Black women appeared in the pages.

Using the issues of culture, beauty, and femininity as a tool of protest, the BSA confronted the racial discrimination and isolation at Memphis State by politicizing campus beauty spaces. Attacking the ideology that placed a premium on white femininity, Black women campus activists courageously placed themselves in positions to challenge the beauty standard and use beauty spaces as an entry point into changing the campus’s racial dynamics. A year after Maybelline Forbes became the first Black homecoming queen another Black woman, Sandra Price, was crowned homecoming queen. This time instead of exclusion from the paper, the headline in The Tiger Rag read, “Black is Beautiful…And Powerful Too.”6

  1. “Hearing Reset For 109 MSU,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, April 29, 1969.
  2. Cecil C. Humphreys, “Statement of Dr. C .C. Humphreys to Students, Faculty and Friends of Memphis State University, 29 April 1969,” University of Memphis Special Collections, Memphis, Tennessee.
  3. Eddie Jenkins, interview by David Yellin, January 7, 1969, Sanitation Strike Archival Project, Mississippi Valley Collection, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN.
  4. Memphis State Black Student Association, The Black Thesis, Volume 3, No. 4, 1969
  5. David Acey, Interview by author, Memphis, TN, June 9, 2009
  6. Black Queen Reigns Over Homecoming,” Memphis State University Tiger Rag, October 20, 1970.
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Shirletta Kinchen

Shirletta Kinchen is an Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. Her research focuses on the intersections of Black Power, local grassroots activism, Black student and campus activism, and Black youth politics during the civil rights and Black Power movements. She is the author of 'Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965-1975' (University of Tennessee Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @DoctahKay.

Comments on “Beauty, Black Power, and Black Student Activism in Memphis

  • It saddens me as a graduate student of AAS because this is American history Black history was a catalyst needed to change many policies in government. Black college students were powerful voices were broad and loud. Education was important and being a collective helped move issues to the forefront. What has happened? The article is good and work remains unfinished.

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