U of M protest reunion recalls the past while calling for future action


“I think overall the Reunion/Summit was awesome. It got people talking,” said Rose Freeman-Massey, one of the central leaders of the 1969 University of Minnesota Black student protest, about the two-day event held this past weekend to observe the 37th anniversary of the protest.

The struggle by Black students in January of 1969 — which led to the occupation of the campus’ central administration building Morrill Hall — was an important part of the Black rights movement in Minnesota.

The protest, which was organized by the Afro American Action Committee (AAAC), led directly to the establishment of the department of African and African American Studies, the Martin Luther King minority student support program, and the recruitment of more Black students. Moreover, the struggle helped expand access to open the U of M for other oppressed groups.

The conference was organized as a reunion of the original participants in the struggle surrounded by a series of roundtable discussions. These sessions included panels on youth and student activism, participants’ perspectives, institutional perspectives, and a panel discussing the newly published book Nerve Juice (GrantHouse Publishers, 2006) by Freeman-Massey and fellow protest leaders Horace Huntley and Marie Braddock-Williams, which tells the story of the Morrill Hall takeover.

Youth and student panel a hit
The conference opened with the youth and student roundtable. It was one of the most popular panels. The theme of the discussion was “The future belongs to those who fight for it today: Youth and student activism in the 21st Century.”

Two hundred high school and college students packed the Mississippi Room of Coffman Student Union for the session. Many of them came over from a concurrent event organized by the General College Truth Movement and the Coalition for Equal Access, groups that are organizing to oppose the closure of the General College.

“I thought the youth and student roundtable was awesome and the panel that was assembled was outstanding,” said Freeman-Massey.

The panel consisted of young people who were involved in various struggles for racial, social and economic justice. Panelist were Native American activist Nick Tilsen; Fisk University Student Body President-elect William Campbell; former U of M student and current staff writer for The Militant newspaper Arrin Hawkins; Miski Noor and Aurelius Butler, president and vice president of the U of M Black Student Union respectively; and Sofi Shank of the General College Truth Movement.

The discussion focused on the questions related to the crises confronting society today and how young people can participate in the struggle to change the world.

Many of the questions and comments centered around issues such as the need for unity of the oppressed and exploited — and how that is to be achieved, the struggle against police brutality, the fight to save the General College at the U of M, the role of hip hop and art in the struggle.

Nick Tilsen explained his view that in order to achieve unity, the source of the problem had to be correctly identified. “The problem is capitalism,” said Tilsen. He went on to explain that he felt that people need to reform the corporations and organize cooperatives as a way to confront the impact of capitalism on communities of the oppressed.

William Campbell expressed the same sentiments “We have to begin to recognize and begin to come together around the class struggle,” he said.

Campbell went on to explain that his appreciation and understanding of his Black heritage and culture helped him to be more confident in allying with other working and oppressed people.

Hawkins began her remarks with a quote from Malcolm X explaining that the task of leadership is to help wake people up to their humanity and dignity — not just their oppression.

During the discussion, Hawkins explained that the system of capitalism would continue to produce the myriad of problems being discussed until it was replaced. “While we fight to defend ourselves today, we must also understand that we need a revolution to replace the system that produces all of these problems,” she explained.

The impact of hip hop as an artistic movement on the political consciousness of young people today was also discussed. A number of participants made comments from the floor expressing their frustration with many of the values and messages conveyed through the music.

Alex Leonard, a local youth worker and hip hop artist, explained that the negative values expressed in a good deal of hip hop music are to a large extent the reflection of the absence of social struggles, such as those that took place in the 1960s, that posit new values.

“While music is powerful and inspiring, it’s not a replacement for struggle and the work that needs to be done,” Leonard explained in the discussion.

A press conference and a symbolic march by the young people took place after the panel to register opposition to the closing of the General College and to the university’s intention of restricting the number of incoming freshman to be admitted to the university through the program that has replaced the college.

Lessons of struggle
Another important feature of the reunion was the recounting, by leaders and participants of how the protest was organized and the political conditions that prevailed at the time that allowed for the victory.

“The climate was different when we organized the takeover. There was a lot of struggle and we had a lot of support,” said Morrill Hall takeover leader Anita Harris, highlighting the role that positive conditions played in the success of the struggle.

The capacity of Black students to correctly access these positive conditions and draw correct strategic conclusions from them as well as to utilize support from there allies was another aspect of the protest that was touched on.

Joe Kroll, who was president of the Minnesota Student Association at the time, spoke to this aspect of the struggle and to the role of the broader student body in the protest. “It was pretty impressive what they [Black students] were able to do with the small numbers they had.”

“When the action was taken that day, the [Minnesota] Student Association was very supportive,” Kroll explained. “What you had on campus was critical mass of activist students.”

Freeman-Massey explained how breaking the psychology of deference to authority was a critical part of helping to give students confidence in themselves. “At one point during negotiations with the President of the University, I went to sit in his chair to show the students that he was a person just like we were.”

The irreplaceable role of the community was also explained during the Friday evening panel on participants’ perspectives. One of the key features of the struggle was the contributions of many fighters from the Black community came to the campus and sat-in with the students.

Focus on the future
One of the recurring themes within discussions at all of the panels was the need for renewed activism to confront the challenges faced by Black and oppressed people today. Dr. John Wright, who was an activist in the AAAC and is currently a professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Minnesota, summed up the import of the conference:

“We do not consider this reunion an end but a beginning, which will energize many of our activities over the coming years.”