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Blast from the Past: Howard University's History of Student Power

Howard student protesters fighting Lee Atwater's appointment to the Board of Trustees. Courtesy
Students at Howard University form a "human blanket" to block the main entrance to the administration building. Photo by Rick Reinhard, courtesy

While Googling around, I ran into this fantastic 1989 article about an inspiring round of student activism and organization at Howard University. Howard's board of trustees had chosen Republican big-wig Lee Atwater (former RNC chairman and close confidante of Reagan and G.H.W. Bush) as their latest trustee, likely so HU would be in a better political position on the heels of a renewed Republican White House. Well, the students wouldn't have any of it.

Howard students disrupted the University's 122nd convocation, preventing both President James Cheek and Bill Cosby from speaking. They issued their demands, and when the most crucial one -- the removal of Atwater from the Board -- was refused, students got together and occupied the Administration building for three days.

In the end, both Atwater and Cheek were kicked off campus for good. Definitely read the full article -- it's a great story:

We came as far as we did because of a recognition of collective power, followed by the assumption of the responsibility to use that collective power to effect change. It is imperative that we continue to draw on the courage and discipline that made our protest succeed.

What's also interesting to mention is that another high profile Student-vs-Trustees victory was won here in DC just a matter of months prior, across town a Gallaudet University. At GU, the pivotal event was the appointment of yet another hearing President -- GU, although one of the only universities for the deaf, never once had a deaf President. After valiant campaigning (called the "Deaf President Now" campaign) students there won a deaf President and a majority-deaf Trustee Board, both important firsts.

Could this be a case of cross-pollination? It would make sense: students at one University standing up to their Administration and winning then influences another nearby school to do the same. That points to some interesting tactics when organizing across multiple nearby campuses, like in Boston, Washington, New York, etc. When aiming to organize, few things beat the power of a good example.