Howard University students were victorious Friday as their nine-day sit-in at the administration building ended when the board of trustees and the administration agreed to give them a greater voice in university decisions.
About 400 students with the group HU Resist had occupied an administration building at the historically black university in Washington, DC, after it was revealed that an outside auditor had determined that university employees misappropriated financial aid money from 2007 to 2016.
Alexis McKenney, a lead organizer of HU Resist, said during a press conference Friday that it was the longest occupation of a building in the university’s history.
Two previous protests at Howard, in 1968 and 1989, also took place in March and involved students taking over the administration building. Students in 1968 and 1989 occupied the building for four days, respectively.
“Historically it has been proven that to get our administration to listen to students’ concerns and actually try to solve their issues, students have to occupy the administration building and disrupt the runnings of the university. That (was) true for ’68, ‘89 and now it’s true for us in 2018,” Maya McCollum, 18, told CNN Monday. She’s a freshman journalism major who serves as the HU Resist spokeswoman.
Activists with HU Resist have been learning from and meeting with previous protesters since the group’s founding in February 2017.
“We’ve made sure to listen to their voices as well as try to keep their story as well, especially as we use some of their chants and tactics to try to solve our own issues,” she said.
The 1968 protests
Students in 1968 didn’t feel Howard University was truly a black school because they didn’t meet the needs of the student population, according to Tony Gittens.
Gittens was one of three leaders in the ’68 protest. He said his organization, Ujamma, and other student organizations joined forces to take on the administration.
“The administration there took the position that Howard should be the ‘Black Harvard,’ and we felt ‘No, Howard should be its own identity and be more reflective of the interest of the students who were there, have a mission to serve the black community,’” Gittens told CNN Wednesday.
As a result, Gittens said over 1,000 students participated in a four-day sit-in at the administration building, ultimately shutting down the university.
Like the current protest, the students in 1968 had about nine demands, but Gittens said the four main ones were: the resignation of then President James M. Nabrit; including African American history and culture in the curriculum; dropping charges against 39 students who participated in an earlier protest; and establishing a judiciary system.
The 1968 protest ended with the school meeting most of the demands, Gittens said. The president did not step down because, Gittens said, he was set to retire within the next year.
“The sit-in was not a moment. This was built up over years of protests,” Gittens said, adding that students had tried to negotiate with the administration, but they didn’t respond. “Sometimes you get pushed to the wall, sometimes you’ve just had enough of something and you just gotta step out.”
‘We took a stand’
Students in 1968, like students today, were putting their education at risk.
“The university could’ve expelled every single person in that building, but we took a stand and said we’ve had enough of this,” Gittens said.
Like the HU Resist protest, the sit-in in 1968 had been attempting to negotiate for change for the three years, according to Adrienne Israel, a Howard alumna who also participated in the ’68 protest.
“We just weren’t being heard,” she said, adding that 50 years ago, “students didn’t really have a voice.”
Students with HU Resist today also think Howard can do more to become a university that truly represents black people.
“Our demands I think speak to that idealistic dream of having a truly black university that meets the needs of the black community whether that’s through our pantry demand or our demand that Howard stop gentrifying the area or even how Howard treats its students,” McCollum said.
McCollum learned about the ’68 protest when she became a member of HU Resist in the fall.
“I couldn’t believe that they were experiencing some of the same issues we were experiencing exactly 50 years later,” she said.
Neither Gittens nor Israel has been to campus or spoken with students, but they both support the efforts of HU Resist.
“I have full confidence that after this is over, the university will be a better place. They’ll pay more attention to the students. I know that was the case for us,” he said.
Israel said just because students were victorious Friday doesn’t mean the movement is over.
“It’s a long-term struggle,” she said. “Anytime you try to bring about change, it takes hard work and intellectual work.”
The 1989 protests
Twenty one years after the victory in 1968, Lee Atwater, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was appointed to Howard’s board of trustees.
“We felt his political views were the antithesis of Howard University,” April R. Silver told CNN Friday. Silver was a junior at the time and part of the radical organization Black Nia FORCE (Freedom Organization for Rational and Cultural Enlightenment).
Akanke Washington, a freshman at the time, said she was offended coming from New York’s vibrant political climate and seeing Atwater’s appointment.
“If you can’t be black at Howard, there’s nowhere to go,” she said. “And when you feel there’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing you can do but fight.”
Students were furious at Atwater’s appointment, so much so they occupied the administration building in March 1989 for four days. This time, up to 2,000 students from different organizations, including Black Nia FORCE, formed The Coalition of Concerned Students, Silver said.
Students in this protest had seven demands, with the Atwater one being the most prominent. The other six demands, Silver said, dealt with student concerns that included establishing a program where students received academic credit for financial aid, improving the financial aid process, enhancing security and improving university housing.
Students in this protest were extremely organized, Silver said.
“We ran the A-building as though it was a government, as though it were a nation,” she said. Students had divisions of labor within the building that included a medic team, food committee, arts committee, a negotiation team and security.
JAM Shakwi, a Black Nia FORCE member who was a junior at the time, was the head of security in the A-building. As such, he handled the students’ response when law enforcement invaded the building from the roof, basement and front glass doors armed with a battering ram and weapons.
“It was thrilling, exhilarating and it was the most pride I ever felt in my life,” he said.
The ’89 protest ultimately led to the resignation of Atwater. The school’s president at the time, James E. Cheek, retired shortly after, according to The New York Times.
‘There’s still going to be struggle’
Silver, Washington and Shakwi all visited HU Resist protesters last weekend to share their experiences and give advice on how to move forward. One of the tips Silver gave was to stay involved at the school because students in her class became leaders in other officially recognized student organizations.
“We sought to embed ourselves in all student decision-making counsels we could,” she said. “They might be physically out of the building, but there’s still going to be struggle.”
Freshman Batenga Kiboneka, 19, who’s part of the HU Resist leadership committee, said during these last few days, she’s wondered whether she and other students were doing the right thing. After speaking with a protester from 1989, she says it gives her hope.
“To have the support of someone that’s been through that, like knows what we’re going through … it tells me that this fight is bigger than just us taking over the A building,” she said. “This is just the first step to bigger changes and things that need to come in the future.”