A Literary Activist Goes the Distance at Howard
E. Ethelbert Miller sits back in his seat, with a wrinkled forehead and reminiscent smile, remembering his student days at Howard University in the 1960s and ’70s.
Miller, now the director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard, stepped onto campus at the height of enraged student activism. During the week of March 19, 1968, students took activism to a new level and seized the university administration building to demand change. Their intention was to create a new identity and mission for Negro institutions. In the years that followed, student demands went less and less unheard and the voices of great leaders arose out of this most important of black institutions.
“When I came to Howard University, I was drawing my first afro,” Miller said, laughing. “You know, the James Brown, ‘Say It Loud; I’m Black and I’m Proud’ days.”
But to Miller those words meant more than just the rise of black empowerment blazing the ’68 radio stations; it was the feel behind the movement of the institution at that time.
“Howard University got caught up in the whole language and terms, when people were always asking, ‘Is Howard University a black university?’ That was a time when we were trying to define what blackness was.”
The student spectrum of blackness was not “confined to Georgia Avenue and within steps of the clock tower,” but on an international level.
Miller remembers the day in the 1970s when Howard graduate Stokely Carmichael came to campus and introduced the meaning of blackness on a larger spectrum.
“But all of a sudden now where we’re more concerned with issues also taking place in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and [Carmichael] comes back from Africa and says in Cramton Auditorium ‘The highest expression of black power is Pan Africanism.'”
“That gave us a whole other way of looking at things,” he said.
Miller’s personal definition of blackness stemmed from his reading. The author of eight novels, including his autobiographical “Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer,” Miller gained his love for the arts through the Black Arts Movement, which he calls “the spiritual sister to the Black Power Movement.”
The introduction to activism for Miller and many others came through the arts. “Many of us were reading poems by Amiri Baraka – Leroi Jones – Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, so our consciousness was raised by the type of things we were reading. My whole idea of blackness and what it meant had much to do with what I was reading.”
As blacks at Howard and throughout the country addressed the rise in Black Nationalism, Miller found himself not only reading the poetic empowerment of his people, but also reading news headlines of his Howard peers addressing the issues of America.
“If you were an African-American male and came to HU in ’66, ROTC was mandatory because it was the time of the Vietnam War,” Miller recalled. “So by the time ’67 and ’68 came along, many people were saying, ‘Wait a minute; I don’t want to go to Vietnam. I don’t think that ROTC should be mandatory.'”
Describing the uproar caused when Gen. Lewis Blaine Hershey of the Selective Service came to campus during the Vietnam War, Miller brightened his eyes at what people said about Howard students during this time.
“I remember certain people in the Administration building saying, ‘I think we let a different element in,'” Miller said, “and they did, man.”
While he acknowledges that the students of the 1960s and ’70s were of a different breed, Miller said that student activism for him created a legacy for the same issues of today’s Howard University campus.
“You can still look around this institution and some of the same issues are still here that we have to fight for. And that’s part of the legacy of this institution,” Miller said, “and when you look at Howard University, you really want to emphasize the student movement.”
Names like Mordecai Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier and James Cheek arose from the time period, but looking into Miller’s eyes, one could see that the passion of the movement was more to him than just a few named success stories.
“I look at the 1960s and early 1970s as a key point in terms of the history of this institution and the history of the United States, because many other student activists from Columbia University and Berkeley looked to us to see exactly how we had handled our movement,” he said. “Because our movement here at Howard did not result in the destruction of property – our demands were presented in a certain way – the administration listened to us. And so we became a model for student activism.”
Thirty years later as part of the faculty, Miller looks through the same lenses he did as a student at Howard University, recognizing what makes him different than others who experienced the struggle of the Orangeburg Massacre, Kent State and Vietnam War era.
“As a student activist, you’re here for say four years and many times after you graduate you may forget about the institution,” Miller explained. “I was never that type of activist. And that’s why I’m still here at the university. Because there are many of us, like myself, who really care very much about this university and for us it was a long distance journey.”