Black Students, Black Studies, and the Transformation of Higher Education

By Daniel McClure

The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

In the past two decades, a growing number of studies have refined our understanding of the modern black freedom movement by foregrounding black working-class and female leadership, activists’ sustained critiques of neoliberal policies, and the transgenerational nature of struggles for basic rights and services, particularly at the local and regional level. Scholars have examined the postwar policies, local and federal, that institutionalized discrimination in education, housing, and labor; facilitated urban-suburban fissures; and galvanized black communities in response to urban renewal, economic isolation, and political marginalization. They have not, however, provided a comprehensive national analysis that captures the rich and intertwined histories of black student activists who agitated for fundamental reforms in higher education and worked to build black-controlled institutions that connected campuses and surrounding communities. Martha Biondi’s The Black Revolution on Campus seeks to fill this gap.

The Black Revolution on Campus documents the significance of black student activism at a variety of institutions of higher education from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. Following the publication in 2003 of Biondi’s To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City, an important contribution to the literature on the “long civil rights movement,” The Black Revolution on Campus examines the struggles of black student activists to transform the colleges and universities at which they enrolled in increasing numbers after 1965 as well as the communities to which many remained connected. Biondi, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University, demonstrates how these students challenged the fundamental structure and purpose of higher education through attempts to transform curricula and hiring practices at all types of institutions. Whereas To Stand and Fight chronicled the history of black activism in New York City, The Black Revolution on Campus contributes to the emerging subfield of black-power studies and to the body of literature documenting local struggles to institutionalize black studies. In doing so, it enriches our understanding of the vital, if often undervalued and understudied, role of black students in linking campus radicalism to broader struggles for racial and economic justice and in calling public attention to issues of diversity in higher education.

Unlike many other historians, Biondi identifies the vanguard of the black studies movement at historically black colleges and universities in the South and at two- and fouryear urban institutions rather than at elite and predominantly white northern institutions. She highlights the political acumen of these activists in agitating for semiautonomous spaces on campus and greater equity in admissions policies, establishing academic support programs, and forging alliances with progressive white and “third world” student organizations. The reinstatement of open admissions in 1970 at City College, in New York City, was, Biondi argues, a tangible example of how black student activists “won reforms that dramatically opened up public higher education and opportunity structures,” making the case for “higher education as a social right of the working class” despite staunch opposition that presaged the sustained assaults on affirmative action in ensuing decades. Equally important, she argues, were the efforts of student activists at other public institutions to establish academic support programs such as the Educational Opportunity Program at San Francisco State University and innovative academic programs such as that of the School for Contemporary Studies at Brooklyn College. While initiatives by student activists demonstrated a degree of long-term planning and a commitment to program building, many ultimately suffered from budgetary constraints and the resistance of administrators and elected officials and were consequently short-lived.

Midway through the book, in the chapter “Toward a Black University: Radicalism, Repression, and Reform at Historically Black Colleges,” Biondi makes her most significant historiographical intervention by asserting the importance of black-power activism by students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South. She argues that their efforts were critical to modernizing and preserving these institutions after Brown v. Board of Education “at a time of intense policy focus on desegregation of educational institutions,” when many presumed that HBCUs would become irrelevant. She documents the disproportionately vicious and draconian reprisals student activists at these institutions often faced, including the 1968 Orangeburg massacre at South Carolina State College; a 1968 police riot at Texas Southern University; a 1969 campus shutdown at Voorhees College; and violence against students at North Carolina A&T, Jackson State, and Southern University. She argues that black student activists at HBCUs, where students sought to wrest greater control from administrators and trustees in attempts to realize the ideal of a “black university,” received scant attention from journalists and scholars. “While the white student movement of the late 1960s has garnered much more attention,” she notes, “black student protest produced greater campus change.” She observes that widely covered student protests at elite universities such as Cornell, Harvard, and the University of California, Berkeley, predominated in national media.

In the penultimate chapter, “The Black Revolution Off-Campus,” Biondi examines how black student activists sought to link campus and community activism, develop relevant curricula, and define the role of black-controlled institutions in American life. In linking campus-based activism to the work of independent black institutions— such as the Institute of the Black World, Malcolm X Liberation University, the Student Organization for Black Unity, and the Nairobi School and College—Biondi highlights the efforts of committed black student activists who made the black studies movement relevant to a broader public while navigating ideological and generational barriers, unreliable funding, violent reprisals from law enforcement, and the divide between “the nuts-and-bolts work of building self-sufficient communities and the theoretical abstractions of nationbuilding.” Their mixed results in connecting on- and off-campus struggles contributed significantly, Biondi concludes, to “the formation and evolution of an African American–influenced, activist public sphere” that helped shape a range of initiatives.

In a final chapter, “What Happened to Black Studies?,” Biondi shifts the narrative from social movement to intellectual history. This chapter assesses the state of black studies more than four decades after its establishment in the context of ongoing debates over curricular standardization; the formulation of a distinctive methodological approach; and the navigation of relationships between black studies, black women’s studies, African diaspora studies, and ethnic studies. Biondi concludes that “the discipline’s acceptance in academe, to the extent that it has gained acceptance, has come from the production of influential scholarship and the development of new conceptual approaches that have influenced other disciplines . . . rather than a standardized pedagogy or methodology.” The chapter includes multiple perspectives from practitioners in the field on these issues, including some who have been intimately involved as student activists and as scholars or administrators. Nevertheless, the chapter would have benefited from a more explicit attempt to connect contemporary debates to earlier iterations of these concerns among black student activists, community allies, and concerned faculty members and administrators during the formative period of institutionalized black studies. These earlier debates are documented elsewhere, but drawing a tangible link would have provided a richer and more nuanced interpretive framework for general readers.

The Black Revolution on Campus effectively combines social and intellectual history, drawing on fresh case studies, interviews with former student activists, campus newspapers, unpublished manuscripts, and archival data to document the centrality of black student activism to struggles to institutionalize black studies. Biondi links these efforts to community-based institution-building efforts central to black power activism nationwide, concluding, “An unappreciated outcome of the black student movement is the extent to which it enabled urban black communities to make successful claims on local universities.” At the heart of the narrative are the largely firstgeneration, working-class college activists who struggled to transform the purpose of higher education in American society by demanding equal access and more equitable admissions policies, support systems for marginalized and underrepresented groups, and a greater stake in the design and governance of public education. The Black Revolution on Campus is a valuable addition to our understanding of the modern black freedom movement, student activism, and the institutionalization of black studies as an agent of change in higher education.


Daniel McClure is assistant professor in the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. His teaching and research interests include social movements, urban history, and cultural history. His e-mail address is [email protected].