The New Face of Activism

Students Blend New, Old Tactics to Seek Change

Courtney Phelps was frustrated. He was upset and felt that Howard University was simply ignoring or not maintaining its assets. Phelps met with Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert to address his many concerns about overcrowded classrooms, unreliable computer and technology facilities, and inadequate dorms and dining areas. He said that Swygert responded: “If we treat you guys so bad, then why do you stay here?”

Phelps did not run, but instead took action, much like many of his predecessors did during the ’60s and ’70s, during the Black Power movement.

Phelps gathered up several students, put together a Declaration of Student Frustration as well as a Web site labeled “the movement” at www.shutdowntheabuilding.com, and organized a protest outside of the administration building to voice the student frustrations at Howard. Fellow classmates and students responded, donning small stickers on their backpacks or shirts that said “Hello, my name is Frustrated.” As the spring 2006 semester concluded, Phelps saw the administration was not responding to the calls of the movement, and wondered if there were more efficient manners by which to take a stand.

“We didn’t get a response back even though we went to the highest level of authority,” said Phelps, currently a junior. “A professor told me that the method of protesting in the 1960s and 1970s is somewhat outdated, and it is best for students to use our ability to speak and write.”

The spirit of protesting by today’s younger generation has definitely changed from the tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movement. However, issues such as the Vietnam War and civil rights have been replaced today with the Iraq War, affirmative action and immigration.

BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), an organization that has put together various nationwide demonstrations for affirmative action and immigration, believes that youth will continue to use demonstrative efforts. “It’s beginning again,” said Donna Stern, BAMN’s East Coast and Midwest coordinator. “When youth are exposed to strategies to fight, all the stereotypes of apathetic youth are pretty much untrue.” Stern also points out the changing faces of young people involved in activism today. “The most dynamic sector of youth is Latinos right now,” she said. “They walked out of their classrooms and inspired their parents to walk out against their employers. We are making the fight, demanding schools and businesses to shut down March 30th for Cesar Chavez day.” There are currently many petitions to make March 31st a national holiday, to honor the birthday of a civil rights leader for the rights of farm workers. The culture of youth in 2007 is difficult to compare or compete with the protests of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1968, students at Howard University took over the administration for days, fighting for the school to create an African-American studies department.

“Those were years that were very politically charged with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War,” said Pearl Stewart, editor-in-chief of The Hilltop Howard at the time. “The spring 1968 Founder’s Day ceremony demanded a black curriculum. That led to a takeover of the administration building and a lot of unrest.” Today at Howard, the face of student activism and involvement has been changing. “This year there has been a rise in student participation; there are more than 125 students running for an elected office,” said Phelps, who is campaigning for a position as secretary of the John H. Johnson School of Communications. “College students today are more pressed for time than ever, worrying about graduation, paying for school and work. But if students aren’t involved, then when they are alumni, who will support Howard?” Phelps is also happy with small changes the university has made since last spring to open up communication barriers with students. “The administration has been making changes, from giving the cafeteria later hours to Residence Life sending postcards about student events, and The Hilltop publishing a weekly calendar of academic events.” Opinions differ on whether a takeover similar to that in 1968 could occur again. “The causes that happened then, bringing black culture into academia have been addressed,” Stewart said. “Students should focus on things more global. Popular culture had replaced the movement.” “There isn’t much inclination to protest and get involved from the students,” adds Stewart, who is currently a professor at University of Southern Mississippi and formerly a professor at Florida A&M and Howard. “Popular culture has changed entertainment options for students, and there are other interests to distract students from these concerns. I do commend students who take it upon themselves to go into the community and tutor young people and get politically active, despite distractions.” Stern would offer a rebuttal. “Part of the problem is figures like Martin Luther King have been idolized and watered down,” she explained. “We don’t need a perfect leader. Regular people are fighting in the streets. We are trying take over where Martin Luther King left off in 1968. We don’t need leaders larger than life.”