The 1960′s: The Beginnings of the BSU
By 1967, America was on fire – literally. In August 1965, Americans watched Watts, Los Angeles burn for a week. That urban rebellion – which claimed 35 lives, resulted in 4,000 arrests, and brought out 15,000 National Guardsmen – was a desperate reaction to police brutality, unemployment, and the extermination of hope. Watts was followed by the Hough Riot in Cleveland in 1996 and the Newark and Detroit rebellions in the summer of 1967. Detroit’s rebellion scared the government so badly that the 82nd airborne paratroopers occupied the city, and tanks rolled through the streets of Motown.
Forming the Black Student Union
In an ongoing effort to unite Stanford Black students and to determine their relationship to Black America, Ron Miller, working with five freshwomen, compiled a list of all the known Black students on campus and called a meeting for 2:00 p.m., Sunday February 26,1967. The students invited revolutionary poet and scholar Amiri Baraka, who was teaching at the time at San Francisco State, and S.F. State Black Student Union leader Jimmy Garrett to address the meeting. Interact members had been debating what to call the organization, but Baraka said, “What we call ourselves isn’t important. What we do with ourselves is.” The students ended the debate about a name, voted to call themselves the Black Student Union, and developed action plans for what they wanted to do with themselves.
Seeking to institutionalize the organization the BSU members filed a constitution with the Dean of Students Office in October 1967. Delores Mack and Charlotte Washington edited the BSU’s first publication. Black on Black was published on November 13, 1967; the fifty-two page magazine contained poetry, essays, stories, and illustrations. In January 1968, the BSU elected Kenny Washington and Charles Countee as Co-Chairs of the organization.
From its earliest days the BSU made a conscious decision to maintain a connection to the national Black Liberation Movement. In April of 1967, Dr. Martin L. King Jr. delivered a speech in Memorial Auditorium and told the capacity crowd that, “We may have to repent in this generation not for the violent actions of the bad people, but for the inaction of the good people.” During February 1968, Bobby Seale, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Black Panther Party, came to speak to the BSU and to raise funds for the legal defense of Huey P. Newton, the other founder of the revolutionary, Oakland-based organization. Throughout the spring, a core of BSU members traveled to Oakland for the massive “Free Huey” rallies at the Alameda County Courthouse.
We Took the Mic
Four days after the assassination, on April 8, 1968 the University cancelled all classes and called a campus-wide convocation entitled “Colloquium and Plan for Action: Stanford’s Response to White Racism.” The BSU, however, held its own rally before heading for Memorial Auditorium en masse .
During the convocation, Provost Richard Lyman was addressing the capacity crowd when seventy Black students rose from their seats, solemnly walked onto the stage, and took the microphone from Lyman. As the BSU members took the stage, Gertrude Wilkes of East Palo Alto led East Palo Alto Day Students and Mothers for Equal Education into the auditorium. BSU Chair Washington told the 1,700 assembled students to “Put your money and your action when your mouth is.” Frank Satterwhite then read the BSU’s statement that featured ten demands for Stanford to meet to prove its sincerity about fighting racism. They then walked out of the auditorium to a standing ovation.
Everyone sensed that for hope to survive and the community to stay intact, Stanford had to take swift action and make substantive changes. As the day progressed, the support for the BSU grew and spread across the campus. While students circulated petitions to support the demands, and Otero House offered $5,000 to help implement them. Within two days, the University verbally agreed “in substance” to nine of the ten demands (the one unresolved issue was the call for the resignation of Vice-Provost Robert Rosenweig).
In the days, weeks, months, and years following King’s assassination, the BSU solidified its basic purpose, goals, direction and agenda; that agenda has endured essentially unaltered for two decades. The Black students who took the mic understood that the BSU has one central purpose – to do its part for the Black freedom struggle by defending, supporting, and fighting for the interests of Black students on a campus that was not designed with their unique historical experiences in mind. In order to produce young women and men who could contribute to the community that opened the doors for them, the BSU worked to facilitate the healthy and productive development of a generation of Black young people. The actions that flowed from this purpose took two forms: first, prodding the University to create institutions and provide services which address the concerns of Black students; second involving the BSU itself in meeting Black community needs which Stanford did not address. The concerns of Black Stanford students can be divided into three categories: educational, social, and cultural. The ten demands flowed from the imperative of meeting these needs, and the BSU’s political activity over the years has been designed to address Black student needs and concerns.
To find out more about the legacy of the BSU over the past 40 years, be sure to consult a copy of the BSU’s formal archive, Justice and Hope, currently available for loan at Green Library and the Black House. There is also a pdf version that can be accessed below.