On March 29, hundreds of Howard University students, led by the student-driven social justice organization HU Resist, took over the school’s administration building after news broke that several employees embezzled and misappropriated financial aid funds.
The students demanded transparency and accountability from Howard officials. When Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick confirmed that, based on an internal audit, several university employees received extra institutional funds and grants from 2007 to 2016, HU Resist responded with sweeping demands.
They aren’t just calling for Frederick’s immediate resignation. They are seizing the moment to promote meaningful change across the university. Their demands include providing adequate housing, ending tuition hikes, properly addressing sexual assault and rape culture on campus, holding faculty accountable for their bigoted rhetoric in and out of the classroom, disarming campus police, combating food insecurity and the gentrification of the Ledroit-Shaw neighborhood and establishing democratic decision-making roles for students in the administrative and Board of Trustees processes.
Fusing #StudentPowerHU on social media with their more than week-long sit-in — the longest student occupation in Howard’s history — HU Resist has accomplished one of their demands, an extended deadline for on-campus housing payments. Yet in a throwback to the famous building takeovers on college campuses in the 1960s, after receiving countless messages of solidarity, encouragement and even monetary donations, the students plan to remain inside the administration building until all their demands are met.
While building seizures at Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Columbia may be more famous, the students are building upon — and advancing — the legacy of several generations of radical students at Howard who fostered a rich tradition of student-led protest in opposition to the conservative and bureaucratic practices of the university’s administration.
Howard University — which was originally named Howard Normal and Theological Institute for the Education of Preachers and Teachers — was established in 1867 by Union general and Civil War hero Oliver Otis Howard. For its first century, the university’s leadership focused on teaching students the ideals of white Christian civility, elitism and respectability in their coursework. But beginning in the 1960s, students pushed back against political, educational and cultural assimilation and urged administrators to implement a radical black perspective at their historically black university.
Their activism covered a wide array of political and campus issues. In 1967, students booed Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, the former director of the Selective Service, offstage when he tried to discuss recruitment in the Vietnam War.
That activism expanded in scope during the winter of 1968, when more than 2,500 students occupied the administration building for four days after controversy over the “right of the campus newspaper to criticize the policies of the university president.” Their demands, however, went far beyond the student paper. They included a department of African American history and culture, a black university president who represented black political interests, the inclusion of neighboring communities in courses, the end of expulsions as a punishment for student activists and the resignation of President James Nabrit, who students believed “spent too much time away from the campus and neglected the problems and issues raised by the student body.”
Students garnered solidarity and support from around the United States, including from students at other schools, such as Columbia University. They won a promise for immediate negotiations, which, after three days of talks, led to wins on every issue except for the demand for Nabrit’s resignation.
Over the next two decades, Howard students continued to protest a lack of financial resources and tuition costs. Then, in 1989, hundreds of students demanded the resignation of Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee, from Howard’s Board of Trustees. Reprising the complaints from 1968, these students also insisted that Howard’s administration offer more classes on African American literature and improved housing conditions.
While this activism brought about Atwater’s resignation, Howard President James Cheek threatened to have the students arrested. In response, E. Ethelbert Miller, former director of Howard’s Afro-American Resource, noted that “there is a feeling that this [Howard] is a plantation, and Cheek is the slave who has been put in charge while the master is away.” Cheek resigned amid the tumult. Two decades later, another Howard president, H. Patrick Swygert, would see his tenure end during more agitation over his failure to adequately address financial and facility problems.
This history of polarization and contentiousness continues to pervade Howard’s campus. Last year, Frederick confronted serious student scrutiny when he held a secret meeting with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Later, students resorted to graffiti that derided him as the “overseer of the Trump plantation” after he, along with other presidents of historically black colleges and universities, met with the president to discuss the future of their institutions.
These decades of activism reflect the radical orientation of Howard students, steeped in a culture that nourishes black political and intellectual thought. Radical students have long harbored dissatisfaction with the generally conservative nature of the stewardship of their institution and the inattentiveness of administrators toward student needs.
This activism, however, has split the campus community. While some professors have expressed solidarity with student protesters, there are many faculty, alumni and even students who support Frederick. These tensions cut to the heart of the different histories of Howard, an institution that has encouraged black political thought and activism in the classroom while also engaging in respectability politics at the administrative and university-wide level.
The result: Howard doesn’t practice what it preaches. The university promotes itself as a site of activism and inclusivity while doing little to respect or listen to its own activists.
Howard students have called out these contradictions, showing how young black students can be sociopolitical and intellectual agents of change. They are demanding that the university come down forcefully on the side of social justice and avoid what David Nicholson branded a “walk between accommodation to the white power structure and service to the black community.”
Given that their protest is about the very essence of Howard — and about liberating the university community — the members of HU Resist cannot and will not settle for the partial victories of earlier protests. They see Howard as representing “black America in microcosm, a little richer perhaps, but black America in all its diversity and contradiction.” These students recognize that if Howard fails, black America will fail — and Howard is imploding. #StudentPowerHU is forcing faculty and administrators to see how the chronic realities at Howard are not only failing its current students but also prospective black students around the world who look to the school as a harbinger of black political and intellectual hope.
They are demanding a participatory democracy at Howard that will serve as a beacon of how black America can achieve full equality with white America and allow Howard to fulfill its promise as a cultural force that puts into practice the ideas it teaches in classrooms.
After the successful March 1968 sit-in, student movement leader Ewart Brown noted that there was “an atmosphere of fatigue and victory.” But this exhaustion had produced what Brown understood was “a victory for black students not only at Howard but at every black college.”
Fifty years later, #StudentPowerHU is not simply continuing in this tradition of protest. They are actualizing a black radical imagination and future — what political scientist Mack Jones calls a black Weltanschauung, or worldview — of what student power at all historically black colleges and universities can, should and will look like.