Before 1968, California colleges were pretty much all white. A courageous group of young Black people decided that this was unacceptable, and they were going to change it. They organized, created programs, dialogued with administrators and made demands. When none of this worked, they decided they weren’t going to protest the situation. They were going to stop it. The college was going to serve Black people as well as others or it wasn’t going to function.
And so, the San Francisco State Strike began! It stopped the college from operating. In the end, it won Black Studies and Ethnic Studies, reformed financial aid, and provided the admission of thousands of students of color.
This remarkable story is told in a new book by BSU leader Bernard Stringer and activist professor Kitty Kelly Epstein.
“Changing Academia Forever: Black Student Leaders Analyze the Movement They Led” includes interviews with major participants – Danny Glover who became a renowned actor and director; Jimmy Garrett who became a professor; Jerry Varnardo who became an attorney, Terry Collins who helped to found KPOO radio; Benny Stewart, who was the chair of the BSU – and others.
They tell their life stores; explain the demands; reflect on their strategies and describe the police repression.
The book answers some questions that contemporary historians have raised. Why did the longest and most successful strike occur at a little-known California college? How was it possible to win most of the 15 demands made by the BSU and other Third World students on a campus where only 4 percent of the students were Black. How were so many white students engaged in a campaign which had Black empowerment at its core? How were the strong alliances with Latino, Asian and indigenous organizations created? How did the faculty react? What is the significance for the modern-day movement?
Among the book’s intriguing conclusions is the idea that many of today’s movements could use more of the disciplined approach adopted by the BSU leaders. They studied the revolutions of the period and adopted a centralized leadership which engaged in hours of debate concluding with unified action at the end of the debate.
Although the movement involved thousands of students, it was not fundamentally a middle-class movement.
The people who led the strike were working-class people, many of them migrants from the Jim Crow South, and they lived in the communities that came out to support them. The book quotes one college administrator as saying “We couldn’t find a single Black community leader who would say anything against the strikers.”
Another persistent theme arising from conversations with the strike’s leaders was the centrality of “serving the community.” They wanted a Black Studies department because they could study and theorize how to change life for Black people in America and then immediately go into the community to carry out what they had learned. Author Bernard Stringer points out that the strike could not have been won without the white students and faculty and the Third World Liberation Front.
Danny Glover says of the book, “’Changing Academia Forever’ explains how we in the Black Student Union were able to fundamentally change universities in America. This is the kind of organizing we need now to save humanity and the planet.”
The book is available from the publisher, Myers Education Press (www.myersedpress.com) and from Amazon (www.amazon.com)