Elite Activism: Survival and Resistance in the Ivies

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with the Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1919 (Library of Congress: C.M. Battey)

“How does it feel to be a problem?” W.E.B. Du Bois posed this rhetorical question in his profound and still relevant turn-of-the-century offering The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’s question was not about how Black folks saw themselves — but rather how white folks who controlled institutions of power were so “fearful” of the changing status of Black Americans in the post-Reconstruction landscape that they invented and reimagined ways to “problematize” a group of people who only decades earlier had been regarded as the solution to problems regarding labor, capital, and servitude. Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Ivy League‘s primary concern is not the perception of Black folks’ presence at these eight elite institutions (and at times their sister institutions), but instead he interrogates the ways in which Black students resisted the implication that they were somehow a problem — that they did not belong — and how they pushed back against the notion that they should be simply satisfied with having the opportunity to exist in these elite spaces.

The existence of African Americans in the Ivy Leagues predates the question Du Bois asked in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, was among the first generation of Black students present at the Ivies in the early and late 19th century. Bradley uses a quote from Du Bois in the epigraph of chapter one —  “At but not of Harvard” — which gives important context on the early experiences of African Americans at the “Ancient Eight.” As Bradley notes, initially Black students did not focus on changing the institutions. Even if they thought about disrupting the status quo, the Black student population was so minuscule in the decades prior to World War II that they could not feasibly mount the type of resistance initiated by later generations of Black Ivy League students. Instead in the post-World War II landscape, existing and survival was resistance. This often meant that one had to hide or discard their Blackness for the sake of survival. As Bradley suggests, “The decision to place one’s self in such trying circumstances spoke to the value that black students placed on an Ivy League education and the invasiveness of racism in the culture of these misleading institutions” (35).

What Bradley so vividly captures in this offering is that despite the challenges, the Ivy Leagues – both the desire to attend one or to be in someway associated with one – are deemed aspirational. They loom large in the imagination of those who understand, even if not completely, the value and power that the degrees hold. They are an entrée into a tier of society closed off to those outside of its membership. Presidents, Supreme Court justices, world leaders, and heads of corporations are among the degree holders from these institutions. Historically in many ways the Ivies have been very deliberate and intentional in their service to white supremacy. Bradley paints this complicated picture throughout the book, even acknowledging his own ambitions as a young student to attend an Ivy. To that end he has spent the majority of his academic career researching and writing about the Black student experience and activism in the Ivy Leagues. Even today, celebrities with means and access to almost anything money can buy vie for admission into programs created by Ivy League institutions for commerce and mainstream appeal. For example, Harvard University School of Business’s executive education program has become a popular enterprise for the rich and famous seeking the credentials and positive association that comes with being connected to one of the Ancient Eight institutions.

The Black students and their struggles that Bradley documents in Upending is not about the branding opportunities that celebrities seek today through their desire to be affiliated with schools like Harvard, but it is about what happens when aspiration meets opportunity and access. What is the responsibility of Black students in elite educational spaces to the Black community — the greater Black community as well as to the Black and Brown people living in the communities that are inhabited by schools in urban areas like Columbia and Yale? What does opening the doors and extending and facilitating access look like for Black Ivy Leaguers during the Black Power era when Black students leveraged their Black Student Power to demand institutional accountability? How did they navigate, build, foster community, and work to change institutional culture when, as Bradley argues, their very presence on these campuses was considered a “source of friction” or when their very existence, as Du Bois a century and a half earlier posited, was a “problem”?

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, for Black students, “survival and assimilation could not satisfy their desires to feel as though they were truly a part of the Ivy League” (363). Instead, Black students across the Ivies and in a myriad of ways, ranging in levels of aggression, demanded change at institutions that were the least susceptible to the pressures that Black student activists placed on administrators at state-supported colleges and universities. As Bradley illustrates, it was never enough for some of these students to just be in elite environments. It would have been easy to pull the ladder up. Yet, those who chose to organize, fight, and resist used their privilege to help begin the process of “blackening the Ivies” and create avenues of access and opportunities for the African American Ivy Leaguers who followed.

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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), which examines youth activism and the Black freedom struggle in Memphis. Follow her on Twitter @DoctahKay.