Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
Challenging Racial Discrimination: Civil Rights to White Racism
The story of civil rights actually began in the Fifties, of course, with films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the drama of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. Carried on TV, the movement touched consciences at Wittenberg. In 1959 the faculty and the Student Senate passed anti-discrimination resolutions. Soon student sit-ins and boycotts swept across the South and gave students elsewhere lessons in social change.
Wittenberg’s first civil rights group was Students Advancing Freedom and Equality (SAFE), formed in the fall of 1963. Enlisting perhaps 1 percent of the student body, SAFE challenged racial blackballing by Greek groups for about five years. There was no problem, the Greeks insisted, because there were so few Negro students (as African Americans were called then), and anyway it was pointless to fight national organizations over discriminatory rules. Behind that façade, fraternities and sororities did grapple with race.
Delta Sigma Phi and Phi Mu Delta were commended by the faculty for pledging Al Thrasher ’64 and Bob Cherry ’64, for example, but Sherman Hicks ’68 was denied by Beta Theta Pi because of his race after some of the brothers had worked hard to get him to pledge. A few of them dropped out of the fraternity, and Hicks was left “with scars” even though he joined the Delta Sigs. Alpha Xi Delta asked its national for permission to pledge Negroes in case the issue arose. The request was refused, and the women but narrowly voted to keep their affiliation. Several of them, disillusioned and hurt, drifted away. SAFE publicly urged President Stauffer to set nondiscriminatory standards for Greek groups and to recruit more Negro students and faculty. Stauffer was genuinely affirmative in principle, but only gradually did he and the faculty become pro-active. African American enrollment increased, and in 1967 faculty and staff began to raise funds for disadvantaged students.
Wittenberg men broke discrimination in nearby barbershops by boycotting them (perhaps this was the origin of long hair?), while in 1964 some 30 SAFE students began to tutor under-achieving pupils in the Springfield schools. Starting in 1966, a Wittenberg Upward Bound program augmented the tutoring. Both projects enlisted faculty and students, aligned the campus and community in service, and addressed educational inequality.
Still, Wittenberg remained essentially white in a society where white bastions were under siege. That reality prompted the Wittenberg Christian Council, the World Affairs and Academic Affairs committees of Student Senate, Union Board and SAFE to sponsor a three-day seminar on “The Negro in America” in the winter of 1968. They showed films, showcased African American music, sponsored discussions, enlisted faculty speakers, and brought in speakers such as activist Dick Gregory. The seminar got its historic force, though, from the concluding testimony of black students Lemoine Rice ’69 and Hicks.
Their Wittenberg education had been valuable, they agreed, but the narrow-mindedness here had been stifling, painful. “Yes, I have been accepted,” Hicks said, “but only because supposedly I wasn’t ‘like most Negroes.’ This is an insult to me and to the Negro race.”
Concerned Black Students (CBS) had come together informally the previous fall. Now they addressed the campus. Only a quarter of resident students had attended any part of the seminar, they observed:
“Could it be that the average white student at Wittenberg is totally unmoved by the problems which plague our society? . . . Open your minds. . . . The Negro of today . . . demands a type of respect that has been denied to his forefathers and will not stop until he receives it. We are enraged with the artificial atmosphere of this campus.”
For all its good intentions, the “Negro in America” seminar itself embodied the problem that Hicks and CBS exposed: it treated “The Negro” as an objective fact, not a subjective reality.
White Racism and Black Power
Within two months of the 1968 “Negro in America” seminar, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots scarred 110 American cities that April. Sparked by other issues, student activists disrupted several campuses and closed down Columbia University for a week. Robert J. Kennedy was murdered. Street violence marred the Democratic convention at Chicago in August. When Wittenberg opened that fall, a faculty-student committee began to develop a policy regarding student demonstrations. Apprehension was in the air.
A small, predominantly white Students Against White Racism (SAWR) was formed in November, partly in response to a talk by Al Thrasher, then director of community relations for Springfield. SAWR gave fresh meaning to the phrase, “the white man’s burden.” The problem was not only discrimination, it was white racism. Paraphrasing Pogo, SAWR wrote. “We have met the enemy and we are they.”
Also in November, CBS was formally recognized as a campus organization. Almost immediately its 45 members insisted on accountability for the consequences of white racism at Wittenberg. On Friday, Dec. 6, 1968, they presented a set of demands to Provost Pfnister. CBS recognized the university’s stated commitment to social responsibility, but argued that its efforts had been so modest as to be “irrelevant” to the social revolution engulfing the nation.
Redemption must start with confession, CBS insisted. In order to make its repudiation of racism credible, Wittenberg must acknowledge that historically and currently it was compromised by racism. There followed a list of specific demands. The college should increase the proportion of black students and faculty to 12 percent, and increase black staff. It should hire a black counselor and a recruiter for black students, admit two specific applicants, and encourage student contributions to a scholarship fund for disadvantaged students. It should make the black experience integral to the curriculum and a possible study concentration. There should be black cheerleaders, two holidays commemorating black leaders, and a social and cultural gathering place for black students. Exchange programs with black colleges should be expanded.
Stauffer had resigned the previous year, and administrative responsibility was now vested with the provost, Allan Pfnister, and vice presidents Emerson Reck and Roland Matthies. The provost turned his full attention to the crisis. In mid-December he took the CBS demands to the faculty, urging that they expressed the current social and cultural revolution in attitudes to authority, to minority group roles, and to “relationships between black and white communities.” After four hours of discussion, the professors assured CBS of their readiness to work together, but they referred specific demands to committees.
On Monday, Jan. 13, CBS president Ron Woods ’69 met for two hours with senior administrators, but there was no resolution. The next morning 37 black students walked from Reci to the Student Union (now the Benham-Pence Student Center), from which they left for the Afro-American Institute at Antioch College.
A flurry of meetings followed. Faculty and student leaders approved inviting the Office of Civil Rights of HEW to assess civil rights on the campus. SAWR and other student groups voiced support for CBS. At a previously scheduled Thursday evening address in the field house, activist Father James Groppi took one minute to endorse the black students and then left to join them. The crowd of 1,200 responded with mixed applause, anger and shocked silence.
Pfnister, meanwhile, was negotiating intensely, even meeting with black student leaders at a coffeehouse outside of Springfield. Other administrators feared for his safety. Various people let him know how wrong he was to sympathize with the students. He pressed on with the work, engaged but ever more tired. Friday morning he faced a crowd of students overflowing the chapel. The most vociferous ones were hostile, and it was all he could do to close the meeting with order. He was exhausted. At another tense meeting that afternoon faculty members threatened to undo his efforts because they felt not fully consulted.
Somehow a response was finalized and given to CBS Saturday morning. In it the university recognized that “racism does exist within the Wittenberg community.” It deplored “any expression of racism, individual or group, conscious or unconscious,” and it addressed specific demands in ways that the black students could regard as grounds for action. They returned that afternoon.
Campus discussion continued throughout the term, sometimes in the Black House that the university provided, and which CBS fixed up. The sophomore class arranged a three-day seminar on black awareness. School publications were revised in line with the equal opportunity recommendations of the HEW review. Nearly $30,000 was raised from the university community for scholarships. Black student enrollment gradually increased, and black faculty were sought. The Interfraternity Council adopted a nondiscrimination statement, notifying its national offices of its action, while the faculty required each fraternity and sorority to file such a statement with the university.
If identity is the ultimate civil right, then to live it authentically is power. In the process of framing their Dec. 6 demands, Concerned Black Students had found their identity as black Americans and (they said explicitly) as Wittenbergers. In the Jan. 14 walk-out they were empowered.
Reflecting on their demands, Provost Pfnister had addressed the faculty at the end of January. He quoted from a colleague: “It is not only the individual hurt, unpleasant and frustrating as it is, that they suffer. It is the fact that they share deeply the pain of the group of which they are a part.” Then the provost spoke for himself.
“As some of us became more and more involved in working with the issues and as the week wore on, we became more and more emotionally sensitive,” he said. “I felt that the whole university community was involved in the problem and that somehow or other it had to feel, and somehow or other it had to respond with commitment to any solutions reached.” Because the community had responded, because it had set in motion a process of resolution, Pfnister said, he now felt free to resign and accept a long-tendered position at the University of Denver.
And the cultural identity of Wittenberg? The school had repudiated discrimination and affirmed pluralism. But wasn’t its new Black House potentially a cultural island? Although it would welcome white students upon occasion, it could be reserved exclusively for CBS (it was not a residence). Logically, wasn’t that a kind of discrimination? Political scientist William Buscemi drew a distinction between a “logic of the mind” and a “logic of the heart.” Here the “logic of the heart” should govern, he urged. Wittenberg should be an equal opportunity and plural culture within which its black minority could both find haven and reach out to the campus.
A vision of community at Wittenberg absorbed the black revolution in American society, and that story reached its climax in 1968-1970, just when the war in Vietnam broke in most forcefully. Other factors in the calculus of change added to the turbulence of those years, threatening academic priorities and administrative control. The shifting norms of an increasingly plural society challenged not only blacks, but also most students and faculty.
Changing the Campus Climate
One spring night in 1967 a slight freshman coed dashed up to the door of Hanley Hall, only to find it locked — seconds after the 10 p.m. curfew. Her dorm record was good, and normally a few minutes would be overlooked, but she was penalized to the limit. Ever afterward she believed it was because her date was black.
Everything was related in the swirl of student life: race relations and dorm hours, visitation rules and sports, dress code and student governance, rushing and other activities. Even a tradition as venerable as the Alma Mater was vulnerable. But the cusp of change was social regulations, especially as they affected women.
We who joined the faculty between 1961 and 1963 found our students to be friendly, courteous, respectful and not much younger than we. Then, as now, they smiled in passing. On campus the boys were neatly dressed in slacks and shirts with collars, even in suit and tie for various fraternity occasions — or Melvin Laatsch’s political science classes. The girls wore skirts and blouses, or sweaters in winter. Blue jeans were acceptable only in laboratories, shorts not at all. Slacks or Bermudas could be worn in the Student Union and library but never on Sundays or in town. The campus felt familiar to those of us who had attended small colleges, and we didn’t realize that dress was prescribed not only by tradition but also by the Student Handbook.
We enjoyed chaperoning occasional sorority dances and dorm parties, where the students dressed up a level, except for hayrides, of course. Even if we chatted mainly with other chaperones, we shared something of student social life. We would have appreciated being invited even had we known that until 1967 all social functions were required to register two chaperone couples.
Sometimes students cared for our kids or came as groups to our homes. We wrote notes or phoned to admit coeds to their dorms if the hour got late. Women could not leave their dorms before 7 a.m. without permission, and they had to be in the dorm by specific hours at night, as early as 10 p.m. and as late as midnight. We took that for granted. After all, women’s dorm hours had been part of our own college life. Sororities and fraternities too, and we understood the fellowship that many Greeks cherished, even as we consoled tearful girls who had been blackballed and excluded. We had no idea then how quickly and in how many ways campus life would alter.
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112