Racism, activism pervade College history

The hate crime perpetrated in Prospect on Nov. 12, when the phrase “All N***rs Must Die” was found on the wall next to a bathroom, has fuelled a wave of student activism at the College surrounding issues of racial bigotry and intolerance. The actions of numerous students led the administration to cancel classes on Nov. 14 in order to allow the College community as a whole to engage with issues of discrimination. The event has also led to the creation of Students Against Silence, a group of students that will continue to consider ways to address prejudice at the College, and a variety of other movements within the student body.

Over the last 50 years, there is a long history of such activism at the College in response to similar acts of overt racism or perceived mistreatment of minority students. Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed ’75 attributes the changes that have happened surrounding issues of race at the College to the actions of students. “Williams College has changed, but not necessarily when the administration has said, ‘Let’s move in a direction,’” he said. “Instead, significant changes in this institution have come about when students desired change.”

The Grinnell Petition and the fall of fraternities

Fraternities arrived at the College in 1833 and, over time, then staked broad control over student life: In the early 1960s, approximately 94 percent of students ate their meals in fraternity houses, and over 90 percent of upperclassmen were full members of a fraternity.

Yet, there was an inherently discriminatory process in the selection of members to fraternities. “The fraternity system itself had problems with discrimination, primarily against Jews,” Bruce Grinnell ’62 said. “These kids would not get a bid from any house … The message was that socially, you are unacceptable at Williams College.”

In the spring of 1961, Grinnell, who was a Junior Advisor (JA), the quarterback of the football team and a member of the Gargoyle Society, was elected president of the Alpha Delta Phi (ADP) fraternity. At a fraternity meeting that spring, Grinnell raised the possibility of making a social member of the fraternity, Myong-Ku Ahn ’63, known as “Charlie,” a full member of the fraternity. However, three men said that they could not live with Ahn; three votes against inclusion was the necessary number in the ADP’s bylaws to prevent someone from becoming a full member.

“That’s the first time I think in my life that I think I heard people express statements that were clearly racist; people said that they didn’t want to live with an Asian,” Grinnell said. “He ate with us and came to parties with us, but the idea that he would live among us seemed to push it over the top.

“I went back to Frosh Quad to talk to other JAs, because I hadn’t heard about incidents like this before,” Grinnell continued. “Apparently they surfaced within fraternities and didn’t come out college-wide, and a number of people wanted to talk more about it.”

Grinnell and other students began meeting throughout the spring to discuss ways of addressing discrimination and “blackballing” within the fraternity system. The result of their meetings was the creation of the Grinnell Petition in May, 1961. Signed by 45 students, the petition asked for the “elimination of undergraduate decisions on the membership of social units” and the creation of a committee of students, faculty, alumni and trustees to consider reforming the College’s social system.

The petition was submitted to President Phineas Baxter, who chose to reject it; however, Baxter retired that summer and was replaced by Jack Sawyer ’39. Sawyer quickly created the committee that the petition demanded, named the Angevine Committee after the trustee that chaired the group. The committee ultimately recommended that the College take full responsibility for providing housing, feeding and social accommodations for its students – a change the College, led by Sawyer, phased in through the rest of the decade. The change took away the fraternities’ primary function as the arbiters of the campus’s social life, and in 1968 the Board of Trustees voted to end rushing entirely.

1969 occupation of Hopkins Hall 

As fraternities were phased out at the College through the ’60s, the diversity of the College’s population increased, particularly among black students. There were only five black students at the College at the time of the Grinnell Petition, a number that increased nearly eight-fold, to 38, by 1969.

Activism surrounding discrimination against blacks, already prevalent nationally with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, rose concomitantly with the growing black population at the College. On March 12, 1969, Williams Afro-American Students (WAAS), frustrated by their sense that the College did not address issues of race effectively, presented a list of 15 demands on the administration, including the bolstering the Afro-American studies program, which had been created that year; the implementation of housing exclusively for black students; and changes to the admissions process in regards to black students, including the hiring of a black man in the admissions office.

WAAS stipulated an April 4 deadline for a response to their demands. Sawyer responded to the demands in a letter on April 4 (“Sawyer Urges ‘Thoughtful Collaboration,’” April 4, 1969). In the letter, Sawyer outright rejected the request for exclusively black housing. Meanwhile, he expressed broad sympathy for the other demands but stated that there were logistical impediments to meeting the demands by the stated deadline.

In response to the administration’s failure to meet demands, WAAS occupied Hopkins Hall beginning early on Saturday morning, April 5. Classes were cancelled on Monday, April 7 and Tuesday, April 8, and campus-wide discussions were held surrounding the demands and the issues raised by the occupation.

The occupation ended early Tuesday morning. In resolving the occupation, the administration and WAAS released a joint statement on housing, which stated that the administration would enact an option for larger “concentrations” of black students in housing, including for first-years, and provide centralized dining. Furthermore, the administration agreed to meet all of WAAS’s other demands; however, both WAAS and the administration claimed that neither had compromised its principles, and that the failure for the two sides to agree initially was rooted in poor communication on both sides.

1980 cross burning

Other issues that spurred activism arose throughout the ’70s. In particular, black students occupied Snack Bar for two-and-a-half hours in 1972 in response to perceived racial discrimination by the Snack Bar staff, and in 1978, the Thursday Night Coalition began a movement demanding that the College divest itself of South African stocks in response to Apartheid.

However, in the fall of 1980, the campus was forced to confront far broader issues of racial discrimination. On the evening of Sautday, Nov. 1, the day of Homecoming, about 40 students saw a pair of “shrouded figures” light a cross and “a semicircle of flame” and then apparently flee to a car (“Campus Shocked by Burning Cross,” Nov. 4, 1980). There were suspicions that the cross-burners were targeting the Black Student Union (BSU) party in the Weston Language Center next door. The College did not inform students until Sunday at 4 p.m., when administrators held a meeting with most of the College’s black students, who were upset that they had not been not informed earlier.

There was a rally of about 1200 students on Monday, during which President John Chandler gave a speech. On Wednesday, the BSU library in Mears House was ransacked, and a potential moratorium on classes was discussed throughout the week. On Friday, the Faculty Steering Committee discussed the moratorium and decided to recommend against it, and in response, the BSU – supported by some faculty – called for a boycott of classes the following Monday.

However, the course of events was changed over the weekend after black students received threatening notes, and Chandler received threatening letters signed by the Ku Klux Klan and postmarked Nov. 5 in Cleveland. Chandler decided on Sunday to call for a moratorium on classes the upcoming Tuesday. There was a large gathering of over approximately 1300 students in Chapin Hall, and students then broke up into 30 smaller groups to discuss issues of racial discrimination at the College.

Creation of the MCC

In the spring of 1988, a group of students again occupied an administrative building in pursuit of an expanded engagement in issues of diversity on the part of the College. An array of students from underrepresented backgrounds from the College’s branch of the Coalition Against Racist Education (CARE), a national movement, made a set of 13 demands of administrators to address minority concerns on campus on March 4. The list of demands included the creation of a multi-cultural center, better admissions recruitment processes for minority students, the hiring of more minority faculty and a specific dean for minority concerns and the implementation of a mandatory course for all students exploring the minority experience. They met with administrators on March 17, at which point President Francis Oakley agreed to parts of 13 of the demands.

Negotiations continued throughout the spring, but CARE members did not feel that the administration addressed their demands effectively. On Friday, April 24, CARE occupied Jenness House, the temporary home of the deans’ office due to construction on Hopkins Hall. The occupation lasted until Monday afternoon, with 15 students in the building at any given time. The occupation was divisive on campus, and acts of violence or racial discrimination were perpetrated in response. On Saturday, April 25, rocks were thrown at the windows of Jenness during the occupation, and one student who was involved in the movement returned to her room during the occupation and found the words “N****rs get out of Jenness” written on her door in shaving cream (“Minority students take over deans’ office,” April 26, 1988).

The protestors had 25 hours of negotiations with senior staff, and the senior staff agreed broadly to make curricular, admissions and student life changes on behalf of the students. The first exploring diversity requirement was implemented in the fall of 1988, and the Multicultural Center (MCC) was formally established in the summer of 1989 following an extensive national search procedure. The College hired Nura Dualeh ’85 to be the MCC’s first director.

Racist incidents of the last 20 years

Even with the advent of the MCC, issues of racism continued to foment. First in 1991 and then again in the spring of 1993, Latino students staged hunger strikes pressing for Latino studies to be integrated more fully into the curriculum through the hiring of professors of Latino history. Following the hunger strike in 1993, the faculty met and voted to support appointing a tenure-track professor in U.S.-Latino studies as well as to utilize an “‘external committee of experts’” to assist in the search process. Though some students considered the hunger strike an extreme measure, the participants felt that they were illustrating their commitment to the issues.

There was also a scandal surrounding racist speech and related activism in 1993. On Jan. 27, threatening messages with the word “n****r” were found on three pieces of paper posted on the door of the BSU. The BSU responded with an all-campus mailing and with posters across campus, in which they commented on their concern that there was a “pervasive attitude that Williams students are incapable of such actions or beliefs” (“Black student suspended for racist notes,” Feb. 9, 1993). Many on campus found the posters and mailings accusatory. It was revealed to the BSU on Jan. 30 that a black student had posted the messages after the student turned himself in; however, the posters remained up around campus, and the BSU remained silent on the issue until the publication of a Record editorial on Feb. 9 suggesting that the BSU “perpetuated an implicit lie” (“Silence Creates Mistrust,” Feb. 9, 1993). The student that posted the messages was quickly suspended after coming forward.

In recent years, student activism in response to racist events has been prevalent. In February 2008, an activist movement of students, faculty and staff called Stand With Us arose after the word “n****r” was found written on a first-year’s door. Stand With Us led a rally of 500 students, and Claiming Williams Day grew out of the movement.

The campus response to the hate crime in Prospect has continued the tradition of powerful student response to instances of overt racism at the College.

Reflections on activism over time 

Professor of English and Africana Studies D. L. Smith, who joined the College in 1980, takes a positive view of the types of activism that emerge out of racism. “I would say there’s a paradox about these incidents,” he said. “On the one hand, any time they happen, they are negative events, and they excite a lot of passion of various kinds. On the other hand, I think these events do provoke processes of discussion and self-reflection that are actually a valuable part of the educational experience of students on [college] campuses and also a valuable part for faculty and the administration who, unless prompted, do not have occasion to engage.

“The nature of the incidents that happen is that they are the same thing over and over again, or it is one of a small set of things that have been happening since the 19th century,” Smith continued. “It’s hard to evolve when the object you’re responding to is stuck in the remote past.

“I think the challenge is a much a broader cultural challenge,” Smith added. “It is not a challenge that is about racial definition or ethnic identity of particular groups of students or populations on campus. It’s a problem for colleges in the broad sense of coming to an adequately sophisticated and informed understanding of what kind of processes are needed in order to fully integrate all elements of campus population.”

Lili Rodriguez ’01, director of the MCC, noted that the MCC has tried to move in a more activist-oriented direction, but its path has been fraught. Rodriguez said that she wondered whether the events in the wake of the hate crime at Prospect might change those viewpoints.

“This reigniting of activism is quite fascinating to me, because of the resistance that we’ve faced as a Center as we move into that direction,” Rodriguez said. “I think at first people were really afraid of that, and I do wonder if now they see why it’s an important aspect of an educational institution’s mission, to make sure that it’s graduating student leaders realize their place as advocates and allies in the world. I hope that, in light of recent events, people are starting to rethink the place of advocacy and activism in everyday life at Williams College.”

“For me, this has been an extraordinary educational moment about the last 50 years of the issues of race on the campus,” President Falk said. “Not only about individual incidents – I learned about things that happened in ’93, ’80, ’69 – but I heard from 200 alumni, largely in response to the letters we sent, and largely what they talked about were their own experiences here at Williams, experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia. There are very different generational views, very different ways of reflecting on experiences then and now.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Rosenberg, features editor.

CORRECTION: This article originally reported that the hate crime occurred and was discovered on Nov. 11; was edited to reflect that the hate crime was discovered on Nov. 12.

Comments (2)

  1. by Thomas Sowell

    The real egalitarians are not the people who want to redistribute wealth to the poor, but those who want to extend to the poor the ability to create their own wealth, to lift themselves up, instead of trying to tear others down. Earning respect, including self-respect, is better than being a parasite.

    What do you call it when someone steals someone else’s money secretly? Theft. What do you call it when someone takes someone else’s money openly by force? Robbery. What do you call it when a politician takes someone else’s money in taxes and gives it to someone who is more likely to vote for him? Social Justice.

  2. We are all Gods children and love one another no matter what color,creed or religion.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *