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U of M Black Student Association and the Shaping of Culture -- On and Off Campus

James Mock press conference 1969.jpg
Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis.
James Mock of the Black Student Association holds a press conference in 1969 on the campus of then Memphis State University.

The largest minority organization at the University of Memphis has roots in radical activism of the 1960s.

When Black History Month was first observed 52 years ago, unofficially, at Kent State University in Ohio, it was a product of the so-called Black Campus Movement, when students across the country organized support groups for the growing number of African Americans in higher ed.

But at the University of Memphis, then known as Memphis State, the Black Student Association was already busy advocating for change on campus.

Members would soon get involved with off-campus struggles, as well. Within a year of the BSA's founding in 1967, Memphis Sanitation Workers would strike for better conditions and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would change the political landscape.

Linda Hall, Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs at U of M, says the Black Student Association is where she sends freshmen looking to network and make a difference.

“[BSA] was formed to advocate for African American students, and so that organization is called on in any situation that’s needed," she says. "And so therefore if someone’s going to speak for me, I need them to be a part of it.”

These days, the BSA has more than 130 members who participate in community service projects, history celebrations, a gospel choir and campus advocacy. But in the beginning, it faced wide resistance from law enforcement and community leaders.

Colby Smith, founder of the Invaders, a local Black Power group with an aggressive social agenda, knew that even students could be a force for social change.

He formed the Black Student Association at nearby Southwestern, now Rhodes College, when he was one of just two Black Students on campus.

"And every time we got a break we would get together and we discussed everything that had happened," he said. "I was just talking to somebody: I had professors who believed that I could not make the same grade as a white student. Can you imagine this?"

Smith says most Black students at that time had grown up in segregated public schools. Those who were the first generation to attend previously all-white institutions faced a mountain of expectations.

"What I wanted to prove I guess was that all of us had value and all of us had worth and some skills," Colby said.

Smith took summer courses at U of M, where he got to know other young student activists. The winter of 1968 brought the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, and as students joined their efforts, it became a multi-generational fight.

"They saw us as their children," he remembers. "So, consequently, when it came to us saying 'don't accept the terms that the administration wanted to give the sanitation workers,' these men were proud of us when we said don't accept it: They ain't giving you nothing!"

Students stood by as witnesses when police harassed workers leaving protests. Smith says Dr. King’s leadership helped Black Student Associations see that they had value and influence.

"The interesting thing is that we were very popular in our communities and on these campuses," Smith said. "In fact, we were treated like heroes on these campuses."

A growing sense of empowerment at U of M lead to a student sit-in in 1969 on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s death. They demanded a Black dean, more Black professors and funding for a guest speaker to help raise money for scholarships. After gaining no traction, a second sit-in later that month resulted in 109 students getting arrested and put in the county jail.

A few weeks later, then-president Cecil C Humphreys met with the Black Student Association and the next month the University had its first Black dean.

In the third floor of the University Center, a recent BSA meeting allowed students to break into smaller groups for discussions on current events.

Current BSA president Jeremiah Macklin says these discussions are important not just for making cultural change on campus.

"In the city of Memphis, we’re the culture, so of course at this major university we’re going to be the culture," he says. "So it’s important we understand that, and push the culture for Black people on campus."