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Rekindling Howard U.'s Activist Fire

Students From '60s Share Stories of Striving for Change

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page B03

The texts of the civil rights movement are filled with Howard University students who skipped classes to seize control of university offices, march on federal buildings and migrate south for weeks and months to register rural blacks to vote.

For activist-in-training Eugene Puryear, that heritage of agitating for change was as much a lure as the university's image as the mecca of historically black colleges.

Mercedes LaVel Crosby, from left, Eugene Puryear and Jaclyn Cole are challenging fellow students to be more socially involved. An activist told a group last week: "There will be no change that's given to you -- you have to take it." (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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"There's a legacy of activism and change," said Puryear, an 18-year-old freshman from Charlottesville. "That's part of the reason I came."

Now, Puryear is plotting the next revolution, attending meetings about gentrification, racism, the war in Iraq and problems in Africa. But as Black History Month winds down, he's among a small cadre of students who are asking themselves these questions: Are we being true to Howard's activist tradition? Can we do more?

The student group leading the dialogue calls itself Roots, and its goal is to spark intergenerational debate and force students to ask themselves tough questions.

Toward that end, several members of Roots have reached into Howard's past for mentors. One of them is Timothy L. Jenkins, student body president in 1960, who was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He later was an interim president of the University of the District of Columbia and remains active in civil rights causes.

At this month's memorial service for civil rights giant James Forman, Jenkins introduced Roots members to his old buddies in the movement and organized on-the-spot storytelling sessions. Last week, he brought some more cronies -- and Howard alumni -- to the university's Blackburn Center to discuss student activism, past and present.

The 50 students in attendance got a history lesson. Acklyn Lynch, a student and professor during the 1960s, talked about closing the administration building while seeking to make the curriculum more Afro-centric. Jean Smith, now a child psychiatrist, told students how she left for Mississippi with a semester to go before graduation. Right on the yard, where students gather to mingle and fraternities and sororities display their symbols, Stokely Carmichael handed Smith a bus ticket so she could "go south" to help with voter registration.

"I didn't exactly know how to register voters," said Smith, then a straight-A student named Jean Young, who returned later to graduate at the top of her class. "I didn't have a road map. What I did have was conviction. I had to go."

For many students, it was their first opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of activism at Howard. But there was some apprehension over confrontational tactics used in the past. One young woman, for instance, said that her mother didn't want her to join one student group with "revolution" in its name.

"Your mother doesn't have to agree," Smith told the students. "The people you have breakfast with don't have to agree."

Jenkins added: "Part of it is lazy thinking, what we called the paralysis of analysis. . . . We didn't get any concessions from the civil rights leaders of our time. We overthrew those suckers. There will be no change that's given to you -- you have to take it."

Jaclyn Cole, the founder of Roots and a senior majoring in political science, said some of her peers needed to be set straight.

"I think a lot of our classmates want to be coddled," said Cole, 22, who grew up in Frederick and plans to enter the Foreign Service. "We'll tutor needy students, but we won't ask why the educational system is consistently producing African Americans who can't read and write."

Mercedes LaVel Crosby, 22, spent three weeks in South Africa in 2003. As a sociology and Spanish major, she said it's important for students to understand that struggles across the globe are connected.

She found it refreshing to hear that small groups can make a big difference. In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had 42 Howard students listed on its roll. The student body, then as now, had more than 10,000 students.

"A lot of times we sit and talk and wonder how we can make a difference," the Boston native said. "It was powerful to hear from them that all it takes is one of you."

Crosby and Puryear said they remain optimistic that enough Howard students will rise above the commercialism and partying to effect change. It was only two years ago that Mother Jones magazine named Howard the fourth most activist campus for leading a group of 6,000 students -- 2,000 from Howard -- on a protest rally urging the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action.

Jenkins said the success will come only if students remember the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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