Chanting, singing and jeering demonstrators drowned out nearly all the ceremonies at Howard University's Charter Day convocation yesterday, as protests continued against university President James E. Cheek.
Cheek, clad in a blue academic robe with a large gold chain around his neck, showed no sign of noticing the uproar, which came mostly from about 70 students at the back of Cramton Auditorium. He praised six alumni who had been given awards at a dinner Tuesday, and awarded an honorary degree to Lerone Bennett Jr., senior editor of Ebony magazine.
The ceremony marked the 116th anniversary of the congressional charter founding Howard, which Cheek said "gave life to the noble concept" of a university for blacks.
Even though the public-address system was turned loud, few in the audience of about 1,300 faculty, administrators, alumni, and students could hear what Cheek said.
Bennett, the event's main speaker, encountered almost as much noisy disruption as he spoke on "the black tradition of excellence and the challenge of the '80s."
Yesterday's demonstration was the latest in a series of protests against the university administration that were touched off by the expulsion Feb. 1 of Janice McKnight, editor of the Hilltop campus newspaper. McKnight has since been reinstated as a student.
Late yesterday Cheek said he did not want to comment on the student demonstrators or their complaints, which were detailed again in a nine-page leaflet passed out at the entrance to the auditorium.
Besides charging censorship, the student demonstrators, led by officers of the university student association, have accused Cheek of being "insensitive" and "unresponsive" to student problems such as poor housing, crime and "mediocrity" on campus.
Louis Martin, assistant vice president for communications, said, "If you have any children, you know you have to let them scream. We found out a long time ago that we have to let them scream and then we can negotiate."
Some students scattered through the audience clapped and occasionally sang with the demonstrators, though most in the auditorium sat quietly.
At the start of the ceremony, a loud cheer went up when Howard Newell, president of the student association, filed on stage with other dignitaries. The demonstrators later yelled "Let Howard Newell speak," but when Cheek went ahead as planned Newell stood up briefly to more cheers and then left the stage. He took off his black academic robe and joined the demonstrators.
Speaking later in the Aldridge Theater, one of the alumni award recipients--Debbie Allen, star of the television show "Fame"--said she had participated in a sit-in at the Howard administration building when she was a student in the class of 1971.
"When I looked around today and I was in the middle of all that," she said, "I felt those are my people over there. It's a tradition at Howard University and Howard University is still there."