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Sunday June 26th

How the Black Student Movement has influenced the course of education equality at UNC

Qieara Lesesne (left), president of the Black Student Movement, stands firm as Vice President Alex Robinson (right) recites a poem during a protest against Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees' proposal for Silent Sam's relocation in the Peace and Justice Plaza on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Buy Photos Qieara Lesesne (left), president of the Black Student Movement, stands firm as Vice President Alex Robinson (right) recites a poem during a protest against Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees' proposal for Silent Sam's relocation in the Peace and Justice Plaza on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

UNC has a long history of Black activism. The first Black law students sued UNC for admission in 1951, students in the early 1970s protested the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa, and today’s campus activism fights police and government surveillance.

Though students have rallied around different causes each generation, they have all shared a central demand: that UNC do more to ensure educational equality.

Unmet demands

In 1968, UNC’s Black Student Movement made a list of 23 demands to then-Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson that included issues like the overly selective admissions process, the lack of Black people in University administration and working conditions for Black non-academic staff.

“Past negotiations between Black student groups and the administration for the purpose of instituting positive change have resulted in token, symbolic acts which do not meet the educational needs of currently enrolled or systematically rejected minority group members,” the handwritten demands stated.

In response to the above point, Sitterson wrote, "It should be clear that the University cannot, in policy or practice, provide unique treatment for any single race, color, or creed. To do so would be a step backward, and the University should set its sights upon a better future.”

In 2015, activist group The Real Silent Sam referenced the 1968 BSM demands in their own set of 50 demands.

“There is no institutional will to enact a shift away from white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism. There is no institutional will to recognize the anti-Blackness that stains the very roots of this University,” the introduction stated.

Nearly 50 years passed between the sets of parallel demands, but activism for the rights of people of color on campus persisted between that time.

A lineage of Black activism

Charmaine McKissick-Melton was a junior when David Duke came to UNC in 1975. She said that her protests with BSM stemmed from that incident.

McKissick-Melton is now an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, which was formerly known as the North Carolina College for Negroes. 

She and her siblings became the first African Americans to integrate Durham public schools, she said, and her father, Floyd McKissick, was among the first African-American students at the UNC School of Law after suing the school in 1951.

McKissick-Melton said the greatest challenge that Black students faced during her time was the lack of people of color in the faculty and in tenure.

“The faculty piece has always been there,” she said. “The numbers, they got better, but it’s not significantly better than the numbers when I was there.”

McKissick-Melton is still involved in several Black advocacy groups, and she said they embrace difficult conversations.

“They are going to probably be moments of discomfort, and we have to walk with that, and embrace that concept in order to reform,” she said.

McKissick-Melton graduated a couple years after Willie Mebane, who was BSM’s chairman — analogous to today’s president — during his junior year of 1973-1974. He said there was no shortage of causes to rally around during his time at UNC, including Silent Sam, apartheid, the Vietnam War and the disenfranchisement of Palestinian people.

Mebane, who is now rector at an Episcopal church in Massachusetts, said he reached a point in his activism at UNC where former Chancellor Ferebee Taylor invited him to a standing weekly appointment for tea, during which he would present the concerns of Black students. Mebane also said he developed a relationship with Dean Smith, at one point convincing him to diversify his coaching staff.

Mebane said not much has changed today with the University, and that at the core, “the consciences of those in positions of power remained enslaved,” even with the increase of Black faculty and administrators.

“Until you’re able to touch the hearts and minds of those with power and privilege, not much is going to change,” he said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that the list from 2015 is not much different from the list in 1968.”

In 1997, BSM made a list of 22 demands to then-chancellor Michael Hooker. They included a call for recognition of the Upendo Lounge as the Black Student Union, for halting intentions to rename the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center, and for the release of an annual report of how many Black students apply to and are accepted into graduate and professional programs at UNC.

“These demands are the result of a slow realization of the worsening state of the academic, social and political climate for Blacks at UNC,” the demands stated. 

More to be done

The 1968 BSM demands included the establishment of a department for “African and Afro-American studies.” The demands list specific courses to incorporate, such as “Black Consciousness and the International Community” and “Sociology of Blackness.”

This semester, UNC began offering courses that cover these topics in the new shared learning initiative “Reckoning: Race, Memory and Reimagining the Public University.”

Kathleen Fitzgerald, an assistant teaching professor in her second year at UNC, said she was hired specifically to teach race and inequality. Her sociology course, “Race and Ethnic Relations,” was added as part of the Reckoning curriculum course offerings.

Fitzgerald said she likes that the administration decided to create a teaching moment out of Silent Sam’s toppling rather than sweeping it under the rug. She said the 1968 BSM demands were happening in the context of nationwide student demands.

“I always think that’s important to know from a student perspective,” she said. “That it’s not the administrators that come up with the great ideas, that students are often pushing the University in the right direction.”

Current BSM President Chris Suggs said he believes the organization has made some progress within the University. In particular, he said there has been progress with Black admissions, especially with Black males, though there is still much more to be done.

“So definitely, looking through the demands that were issued in (1968), they were very large, and obviously things progress over time, and it’s kind of unfortunate delving into 2019, over 50 years later, we’re still dealing with so many of those issues,” he said.

An issue he referenced that has yet to be addressed since 1968 is the University’s impact on housing in the surrounding community. Suggs said UNC is one of the biggest contributors to housing inequality, economic disparity and gentrification. 

One of the goals of BSM today, Suggs said, is to engage in dialogue between Black students and decision-makers. He said he had not heard of the Reckoning program, though he has taken two courses it now lists as part of the curriculum.

Suggs said he believes UNC should work to engage more Black students and ensure “that there’s fun and engaging programs that support us as students — academically, socially, in all aspects of our lives — so that we actually want to be at this university.”


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