CULTURE | Cecil Brown on the First Black Student Sit-In at A&T College
The following is an excerpt from Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? by Cecil Brown. We’ll post a new excerpt from the book each week for the remainder of February, in honor of Black History Month.
One of the most significant events in the history of Black Studies was the sit-in at Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960.
I remember vividly the Sunday that my Uncle Lofton and Aunt Amanda drove me to A&T College, a five-hour journey from Wilmington to Greensboro, to begin my freshman year. They were proud to see me off, mainly because they had never known anybody in our family to go to college. Aunt Amanda packed a lunch for me that included fried chicken. I admired her cooking and preferred her corn bread to store-brought white bread.
As I checked into my dormitory at Scott Hall, I could not imagine that I would be a part of history, that a few months later, in February 1960, I would participate in the first Black student sit-in.
The four students who led the sit-in – Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond – lived in my dormitory, and I got to know them all. For these young Black men, February 1, 1960, was a monumental day. It was the day they integrated the lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a monumental day for me too, because I – along with hundreds of other A&T students – joined in the lunch boycott. Within weeks, Black students were sitting down in lunch counters across the country. White students didn’t want to be left out, so they formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other groups to participate.
In his essay “The White Race and Its Heroes” in Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver says that young White people saw the evil ways of their parents and forefathers and decided to throw over that inglorious past and join in with Black people. “Its first dramatic manifestation [i.e. ‘a political conflict between the generations’] was within the ranks of Negro people, when college students in the South, fed up with Uncle Tom’s hat-in-hand approach to revolution, threw off the yoke of the NAACP,” Cleaver writes. “When these students initiated the first sit-ins, their spirit spread like a ranging fire across the nation and the technique of non-violent direction action, constantly refined and honed into a sharp cutting tool, swiftly matured.”
Cleaver was correct in identifying that student sit-ins spread rapidly from one college to another one. He goes to claim that there was a conflict between the young students and their elders: “The older Negro ‘leaders,’ who are now all die-hard advocates of this tactic, scolded the students for sitting-in. The students rained down contempt upon their hoary heads.”
Although this makes a power image, for the most part it is not true. At A&T College, our teachers and the older generation applauded what we did. In fact, the faculty and the administration wanted the sit-ins to be successful.
Cleaver was one of the first visionaries to connect the Black sit-ins to world struggle. Black Studies, he claimed, linked up “the Negro revolution with national liberation movements around the world…. The ‘Negro leaders’ and the white depended upon them to control their people, were outraged by the impudence of the students.” In his view, the students exposed the corrupted relationship between White leaders and “Negro leaders” who had an agreement to keep Black people under Jim Crow control.
“In countless ways, the rebellion of the Black students served as a catalyst for the brewing revolt of the whites,” Cleaver said. He then explains why White youth were abandoning White heroes. “What has happened is that the white race has lost its heroes,” he wrote. “Worse, its heroes have been revealed as villains and its greatest heroes as the arch-villains. The new generations of whites, appalled by the sanguine and despicable record carved over the face of the globe by their race in the last five hundred years, are rejecting the panoply of white heroes, whose heroism consisted in erecting the inglorious edifice of colonialism and imperialism.”
Optimistic about young people, Cleaver suggested that Whites went through four stages in their relationship to Black struggle, ending with identification: “The fourth state… sees these white youth taking the initiative, using techniques learned in the Negro struggle to attack problems in the general society. The classic example of this new energy was the student battle on the UC campus at Berkeley, California – the Free Speech Movement.
The connection between the sit-in and the Free Speech Movement shows how important the Greensboro sit-in was to the White student movement at UC Berkeley. Cleaver argues, more specifically, that Blacks had a leadership role in the student movement at Berkeley. “Leading the revolt were veterans of the civil rights movement, some of whom spent time on the firing line in the wilderness of Mississippi/Alabama,” he said. His essay ends with a warning to the White generation: “The sings of the father are visited upon the heads of the children – but only if the children continue in the evil deeds of the fathers.”
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Further Reading: Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department by Cecil Brown
WINNER, 2008 PEN Oakland – Josephine Miles National Literary Award
Blacks have been vanishing from college campuses in the United States and reappearing in prisons, videos, and movies. Cecil Brown tackles this unwitting “disappearing act” head on, paying special attention to the situation at UC Berkeley and the University of California system generally. Brown contends that educators have ignored the importance of the oral tradition in African American upbringing, an oversight mirrored by the media. When these students take exams, their abilities are not tested. Further, university officials, administrators, professors, and students are ignoring the phenomenon of the disappearing black student – in both their admissions and hiring policies. With black studies departments shifting the focus from African American and black community interests to black immigrant issues, says Brown, the situation is becoming dire.Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? offers both a scorching critique and a plan for rethinking and reform of a crucial but largely unacknowledged problem in contemporary society.
Read another excerpt: “Cornel West vs. Harvard President Larry Summers.”