Black Student Activism and the Ivy League

*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

Young Black Panther Activist, 1968 (Bob Fitch Photograph Archive, Stanford University)

Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League will disrupt and redefine how we examine the history of the Ivy League institutions. Bradley takes the reader beyond the numbers to give life to students who transformed these quintessential institutions of white America, the “Ancient Eight.” Impeccably and thoroughly researched, this definitive text promises to reshape how we understand the genesis of Black Studies and the role of Black student activism in the Ivy League. The timely publication of the text also promises insight during a time of turmoil on our campuses.

Professor Bradley astutely guides readers through major themes, following the lives and experiences of the first Black students in the Ivies who enrolled in the earliest phases of the long struggle, students who enrolled and attended Ivies during the mid-1960s and urban rebellion, and the birth of Black Studies in the Ivies. By focusing on the lives of Black students in the Ivy League and how they transformed the culture, Upending the Ivory Tower builds upon the work of Ibram X. Kendi (formerly Ibram Rogers), Martha Biondi, and Joy Ann Williamson-Lott, among other scholars, who have documented the role of Black college student activism. By providing a history of these highly-regarded institutions, Bradley gives us a history of the Ivy League through the lens of students of color — pupils for whom these institutions were not built.

The text makes a germinal contribution by focusing on the Ivy League. It is a must-read for any student of history or scholar interested in the history of the Ivies. The text provides nuanced ways through which to see predominantly white institutions (PWI). Take, for instance, the unsettling role of the Ivies in their perpetuation of structural violence. Upending the Ivory Tower clearly demonstrates notions of structural violence inherent to PWI’s participation in “urban renewal” projects, clearing “slums” to make space for physical expansion (169; 203). Though cast as seemingly neutral, objective institutions committed to the progress of our nation, Ivy League institutions catered to white notions of safety and inclusion, violently uprooting Black communities that stood in their path. The implications of institutions like Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania prove how such institutions perpetuated a violent takeover of neighborhoods that surrounded them. Images of students toting guns, like those from the unrest at Cornell that illustrated campus conflict, were inaccurate in depicting who enacted violence (354). For Black students and the communities that supported them, the struggle was often one for survival against the violence of the white Ivory Tower.

The text definitively illustrates how agency rests with Black students who sought to improve PWIs. African American students placed pressure on the institutions to change, which often translated into recruiting and supporting Black students, hiring Black faculty, and creating a more hospitable environment for students of color. Bowing to student pressure, the larger freedom struggle that made national headlines or unrest at other institutions like Columbia, which gained international attention, inspired other Ivies to act. Yet it was not an altruistic arrangement, rather one to preserve institutional integrity and to remain at the vanguard of knowledge production (67). To be sure, Black students — not liberal white administrators — created the infrastructure for a growing Black, and sometimes increasingly militant, student population. Whites were not enlightened of their own accord. This burden was placed squarely on the shoulders of Black students to make the Ivies more accountable, accessible, and equitable.

The text makes a significant contribution as a history of student activism as well. For the first Black students to enroll in the Ivy League, local Black communities offered a refuge from intense all-white environments. There was a familial aspect of activism as African American students stayed in the homes of local Black families, dining, sharing space, and developing comraderies that attested to the necessity of survival of Black students at PWIs (27-28; 65-66). The necessity of reaching beyond campus facilitated ties with the community that served as the basis for African American Studies programs across the country.

The robust analysis proffered throughout the text also provides critical insights into the tactics and strategies behind student activism of the long struggle. Bradley illustrates how militant tactics and aggressive protest wrought institutional change, or at least promises for change, at Columbia in 1968 (189-196). Bradley also compels his readers to consider the example of Black activism at Dartmouth, where such tactics were not utilized and protests were limited to smaller-scale demonstrations. For Bradley, “Dartmouth College provided an example of how Black youth helped an elite white institution effectively deal with the racial instability and changes of society in the decades after World War II” (166). Covering all manners of protest that comprise the activism spectrum, Bradley leaves no stone unturned in his exhaustive pursuit of historical truth.

Professor Bradley does well to complicate the shifting narrative of student activism to accentuate class differences over time. As Black students from the middle class were the first to desegregate the Ivies, those who arrived in the mid-1960s arrived from urban, working-class backgrounds and were immersed in the ideologies of the Civil Rights or Black Power movements. It was a new age of student protestors (148-152; 330). Bradley also illustrates generational conflict between the youth activists and their elders. Not all were supportive for a host of reasons. James Forman of SNCC chided Black students for siding with the white man and rejecting ties to the Black community (302-333). Famed psychologist Kenneth Clark, by the late 1960s a trustee at Antioch, branded such demonstrations as “irrational” and warned of the perils institutions of higher education faced if they succumbed to protesters who acted outside the politics of respectability (274-275). Challenged from within and without, the rise of Black Studies and the voices of Black protestors was an uphill battle.

In providing a comprehensive history of the intricacies behind Black student activism in the Ivies, Bradley artfully assesses activism on its own terms but also in the larger trajectory of history. Given the polemical context of activism, this is no easy feat. Bradley even challenges an assertion held by many Black Power activists who criticized their predecessors of the previous era, those who held the notion that their Black predecessors defined success through “an adherence to middle-class values of the white society.” Bradley intervenes, noting such students “wrongly characterized black alumni who endured the racial trials that came with desegregating white institutions of higher education” (351-352). In reconstructing this critical history, Bradley is unafraid to weigh in on the heavy questions of activism that continue today.

Upending the Ivory Tower is a powerful tool in establishing context for scholars, students, and activists interested in the history of higher education, the freedom struggle, and student activism. Yet the book will also gain traction among those who seek to better navigate the murky waters of activism in the modern era.

Though times have changed, there is still damning evidence to suggest that the nation’s most prestigious institutions have failed to grasp the meaning of the freedom movement. It has captured the nation’s attention that, for some students, it remains illegal to be Black and on a college campus. The “sleeping while black” case at Yale last year exposed the prevalence of racism in the Ivies. The incident continued to fuel the exposure of whites who endangered people of color by calling the police in situations where the only “crime” was being Black. Events at Georgetown University have uncovered its slave-owning past as students demand answers and reparations. Moreover, as the recent college admissions scandals have exposed, institutions of higher education, though they may have benefited from the inclusion of Black Studies, are still subject to corruption, greed, entitlement, and privilege. Upending the Ivory Tower demonstrates how recent events continue an oppressive history as opposed to representing a modern departure from a more sanguine past.

Perhaps Bradley’s work points to avenues of reform. By incorporating the voices of those who struggled to gain entry into the Ivy Leagues, namely people of color and working- or middle-class Americans, history tells us that equitable reform for all students is possible through the trajectory of Black Studies on our campuses. Though the contemporary moment is far beyond the scope of this text, one cannot help but speculate on the potential role African American Studies programs and our students can and should play today. At the same time, placing this burden on Black shoulders once again is a problematic solution that avoids eradicating supremacy at its core.

Bradley begins his text by positioning himself on the frontlines in Ferguson, an apt space to begin reconstructing the history he skillfully presents in his book. Without positioning himself at the end of the text and claiming his own place in this history, readers are left to pick up this history; however, it seems that simply teaching this history will not suffice. Where Bradley leaves the reader to apply this history in our own classrooms and campuses — from evaluating admissions criteria to uncovering the labor that built campus walls. A more equitable future depends on deep engagement with Bradley’s insights.

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Jon Hale

Jon Hale is an associate professor of educational history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. His research focuses on the history of student and teacher activism, grassroots educational programs, and segregated high schools during the civil rights movement. He is the author of The Freedom Schools: A History of Student Activists on the Frontlines of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Columbia University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @jnhale2.

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    Jon Hale’s Twitter handle is @ed_organizer

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