African American History: A Look Back at Early Student Activism

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Illustration of red, orange, and green stripes with the words Black History Month written across them.

For more than three centuries, African Americans have overcome barriers and defied restrictions to gain access to higher education, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that they were able to enroll by the thousands in higher education institutions — predominantly at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In the twentieth century, many risked administrative punishment, expulsion, violence, and even death to fight for change. From the early 1920s through the 1970s, these students were especially active in desegregation efforts, the Civil Rights Movement, and what later became known as the Black Campus Movement (1965-1972). Included below are just a few of the many ways that Black students have stood up for equality and helped create a legacy of campus activism that still lives today.

Students at Florida A&M University, an HBCU, stage a three-month protest — including boycotting classes and firebombing a building — to demand the resignation of the institution’s president, who accommodated segregation policies.

Fisk University students hold a 10-week strike after their president refuses to let them establish an NAACP chapter on campus.

NAACP leadership, at the behest of young Black activists, form the NAACP Youth and College Division.

HBCU students from across the U.S. and other young activists convene in Chicago to form the Southern Negro Youth Congress to advance equal rights in education and other causes.

2,000 students protest New York University’s (NYU) decision to pull an African American player from a football game against the University of Missouri (MU) to accommodate MU’s policy against interracial athletics. NYU loses the game 33-0.

The University of Alabama (UA) admits Autherine Lucy and Pollie Anne Myers, two Black graduate students, before learning of their race. Thurgood Marshall and others join the fight to desegregate UA after admissions officials refuse to let them enroll in classes.

Lucy enrolls at UA and is attacked by a White mob on her third day on campus; officials promptly expel her for what they say is her own protection.

FEBRUARY: Four students from North Carolina A&T University stage the country’s first lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, NC.
APRIL: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is formed. It propels Black student participation in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and other forms of peaceful protest.

JANUARY: Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes win a lawsuit to be admitted to the University of Georgia (UGA) and immediately enroll. Although White mobs protest their appearance on campus and the administration tries to persuade them to withdraw for their own safety, UGA faculty successfully petition for their right to stay.

MAY: Freedom Rides, in which young Black and White students and activists travel on public transportation together to test the South’s adherence to desegregation laws, begin. They are frequently met with extreme violence from segregationists. (photo courtesy of David Fankhauser)

More than 5,000 police officers and military are sent to quell riots against the admission of James Meredith, an African American, to the University of Mississippi.




Alabama Governor and pro-segregation icon George Wallace physically blocks Black students James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones from entering UA. Federal police are sent to control White rioters.




Hundreds of students from across the U.S. participate in the Mississippi Summer Project to register disenfranchised Black voters. College student Andrew Goodman, who is White and Jewish, and volunteers James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry Schwerner are murdered by the Ku Klux Klan one day after the project launches.

MARCH: Activists at San Francisco State University (SFSU) form the first Black Student Union at a predominantly White institution.
OCTOBER: Merritt College students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale found the Black Panther Party to monitor police interactions with African Americans and inform them of their rights.



SEPTEMBER: San Jose State University students hold campus protests, and Black athletes threaten to strike unless the administration meets demands to improve racial campus climate.

FEBRUARY: Police officers open fire on a peaceful civil rights protest at South Carolina State University (SC State), an HBCU, in what is later known as the Orangeburg Massacre. Nearly 30 demonstrators are wounded and SC State freshman Sammy Hammond, high school student Delano Middleton, and 18-year-old protester Henry Smith are killed.

OCTOBER: San Jose State student athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos become civil rights icons by raising their fists in a Black power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

NOVEMBER: SFSU’s Black Student Union launches the longest student strike in U.S. history. It ends on March 4, 1969, when officials agree to create an ethnic studies school — the first of its kind — and a Black studies department.

JANUARY: Brandeis University students occupy a building for 11 days before the university agrees to demands for better African American support and representation.

FEBRUARY: Black students stage multiple simultaneous protests across the U.S. At University of Wisconsin-Madison, thousands participate in a strike that lasts for several weeks before the administration agrees to their demands.

APRIL: A burning cross is erected outside a Black women’s dormitory at Cornell University. Black students occupy the student union building and, following clashes with White students, weaponize and barricade themselves inside for 36 hours.

MAY: Police officers and the National Guard raid dorm rooms, deploy tear gas, and open fire on demonstrators at North Carolina A&T University, an HBCU. Freshman Willie Grimes is killed. 

MAY 7: Days after protesters are killed at nearby Kent State University, The Ohio State University closes for two weeks amid demonstrations against the Vietnam War and unequal treatment of women and African Americans on campus. 

MAY 14: Phillip Gibbs, a junior, and James Earl Green, a high school student, are killed and 12 demonstrators wounded at Jackson State University, an HBCU, during what officers claim was a violent protest. Witnesses deny the accusation.

The University of Florida’s Black Student Union stages multiple demonstrations after officials refuse to establish a Black Cultural Center or take other measures to improve campus climate. Nearly 70 are arrested or suspended for occupying the president’s office and more than 100 African American students withdraw.

By the end of the Black Campus Movement in 1972, 13 students had been killed during campus demonstrations and more than 100 college presidents ousted. It is estimated that students at 1,000 institutions across 49 states engaged in campus activism to demand better treatment and support of African American students, employees, and communities during this time period. Their efforts soon spurred similar movements for other marginalized student groups and helped propel the ongoing struggle for equity in higher education.

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in the January/February 2020 issue.