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Look back at the history of UNC’s Black Student Movement this MLK day

When UNC’s NAACP chapter convened on a November night in 1967, they expected just another run-of-the-mill meeting. Little did they know, Preston Dobbins and 15 to 20 other UNC undergraduate students were about to walk through the doors and create an organization that would help shape UNC for many years to come.

At the time, Dobbins was a transfer student in his first year at UNC. Finding NAACP meetings both boring and out of touch with the wider movements of Black students in 1967, Dobbins organized his fellow Black students to outvote the eight or nine NAACP members usually present at meetings. They abolished the NAACP, and shortly thereafter, established the UNC Black Student Movement.

“Groups were doing things here and there, and Black students just seemed to be confronting the whole issue of who they were on white campuses,” Dobbins said in a 1974 interview with Derek Williams for his master's thesis. “But actually, that whole issue had never been confronted — who we were.”

UNC BSM was born in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, between the long, hot summer of 1967, when riots erupted throughout the United States over racial inequality, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the April of 1968. Sophomore political science and religious studies major and BSM Secretary Chris Suggs believes BSM was created, not just during, but out of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Dr. Martin Luther King was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, but the Civil Rights Movement really started on the ground, and on the grassroots level by young community organizers and student organizers,” Suggs said. “So, in 1967 when the BSM was founded, these were young student organizers at Carolina who cared about Black culture and the oppression of Black people.”

In 1968, BSM brought a list of 23 demands to then-Chancellor Joseph Sitterson. This list advocated for an office that would be responsive to the needs of black students and the addition of a department of African and Afro-American studies, among other demands. Following protests and sit-ins, a black studies curriculum was created, eventually becoming UNC’s African, African-American and Diaspora studies department.

“An entire department was formed because Black students before me believed in it so much that they propelled it into fruition with their activism,” said Alex Robinson, a senior studying public relations in the School of Media and Journalism and the vice president  of UNC BSM. “It even goes beyond there being an AAAD department. Right now, I’m enrolled in a trans-Atlantic slave trade class. That’s within the history department, but it’s hard to say that that would exist or be so well-attended or well-funded if not for the Black students that came before me.”

Another long-standing demand of the BSM, a freestanding Black cultural center, was completed in 2004 — the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. 

Aside from serving as a voice for Black students, UNC BSM works with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to reach out to prospective students.

“We also provided ourselves as resources for new students,” Robinson said. “They were able to email us and set up FaceTime dates, and we could talk about what they wanted to know. I’ve talked to so many students now, who are in their first year at Carolina, who say that it’s something that influenced their decision to come to Carolina.”

UNC BSM has historically worked in the community, as well. Members led the 1969 sit-ins at Lenoir Dining Hall in protest of the poor working conditions, and in 1998, to honor its its 30th anniversary, UNC BSM once again released a list of demands to the Chancellor and stood with the housekeepers and groundskeepers to advocate for pay raises and better conditions.

More recently, BSM advocated for the removal of Silent Sam.

“One of our main objectives this year has been supporting the grassroots and the student activists that were involved in this,” Suggs said. “We also had some conversations with the Chancellor and Board of Trustees members and members of the administration about the issue, making sure that they were aware that students did not want Silent Sam on our campus.”

Looking toward the future, Robinson and Suggs hope BSM will continue to help students achieve their full potential.

“We just want to stay supporting students,” Suggs said.

Above all, BSM’s mission, past, present and future, is to be not only an organization, but a family for Black students at UNC.

"I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Black student who hasn’t been impacted by BSM. We don’t just represent people who come to BSM events," Robinson said. "We represent the Black community, and that’s something that continues to leave me in awe, and I’m just grateful to be able to do the work that I do for BSM every day. It’s my entire heart.”

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