This week marks the 40th anniversary of a watershed moment in the University’s history. Black students had requested that classes be cancelled on Feb. 21, 1969 in recognition of a memorial service for Malcolm X, who had been assassinated four years earlier on that day. After having their request rebuffed by the administration and faculty, black faculty, staff and students—some of them armed—took over Fisk Hall on the 21st, shutting down all regular business. They used equipment from the Language Lab to broadcast Malcolm X’s speeches to spectators who had gathered around the building, and issued the following statement, which is now being displayed in the foyer of Fisk on posters put up by Ujamaa, a black students’ group:
“In occupying Fisk Hall we seek to dramatically expose the University’s infidelity to its professed goals and to question the sincerity of its commitment to meaningful change. We blaspheme and decry that education which is consonant with one cultural frame of reference to the exclusion of all others.”
The students made several demands, including the establishment of both housing and a cultural center for black students, an exchange program with the University of Atlanta, Black Studies classes and an increase in the number of black students and faculty. The takeover proved successful. The situation was resolved peacefully in about 12 hours, after administrators agreed to consider the proposals.
“All of us can, and should readily acknowledge many failures to understand and meet the needs of black students at Wesleyan,” conceded Edward Etherington, then president of the University. “The fact that this failure is widespread in universities and in American society does not lessen our own responsibility.”
Ultimately, the occupation was a major victory for black students, with the University meeting most of the protestors’ demands. Subsequent years saw the creation of some extant institutions, most notably Malcolm X House and the African-American Institute, which later became the Center for African American Studies. But in creating the recent display in Fisk, members of Ujamaa sought to draw attention to the programs that have been allowed to fade away since they were created, like the University of Atlanta exchange program.
“It was political – everything is political,” said Marsha Jean-Charles ’11, who is on the board of Ujamaa. “We are asking to what extent have we grown since the time we made the demands.”
Each of the demands currently displayed in Fisk is accompanied by a check or a question mark, with question marks making up a substantial majority.
“It’s a way to see whether these things were still in existence or whether if they had slowly decreased or diminished or, in some cases, vanished,” Jean-Charles said.
While many students have been stopping to read the posters, reaction to them has been mixed. Some students wondered aloud whether the building was actually under occupation. Others reacted more negatively.
“They were ripped down,” Jean-Charles said. “We can conjecture – we’re 95 percent sure – that it wasn’t Physical Plant, because we spoke to them before putting the posters up.”
Over the course of two days, the posters were pulled down, put back up, pulled down again and eventually replaced entirely. Recently, some anonymous passers-by have written sarcastic comments, such as “consider better word choice in the next draft” on the demands.
“I don’t want to hypothesize,” Jean-Charles said when asked about the motivations of people interfering with the display. “I presume they were in some way in opposition to what we were doing, or they didn’t understand it, or they didn’t fully read.