Black Student Union University of Washington

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Part 4: Confrontation

By May 1968, the BSU felt the time had come to assert their demands. On May 6, 1968, the BSU drafted a second letter to UW President Charles Odegaard, outlining a list of BSU demands and their justifications.   The BSU wrote:

(1) All decisions, plans, and programs affecting the lives of black students, must be made in consultation with the Black Student Union.  This demand reflects our feeling that whites for too long have controlled the lives of non-whites.  We reject this control, instead we will define what our best interests are, and act accordingly.

(2) The Black Student Union should be given the financial resources and aids necessary to recruit and tutor non-white students.  Specifically, the Black Student Union wants to recruit: 300 Afro-American, 200 American Indians, and 100 Mexican students in September.

Quality education is possible through an interaction of diverse groups, classes, and races.  Out of a student population of 30,000; there are about 200 Afro-Americans, 20 or so American Indians, and 10 or so Mexican-Americans.

The present admissions policies are slanted toward white, middle-class, Western ideals, and the Black Student Union feel that the University should take these other ideals into consideration in their admissions procedures.

(3) We demand that a Black Studies Planning Committee be set up under the direction and control of the Black Student Union.  The function of this Committee would be to develop a Black Studies Curriculum that objectively studies the culture and life-style of non-white Americans.

We make this demand because we feel that a white, middle-class education cannot and have not met the need of non-white students.

At this point, an American Indian interested in studying the lives of great Indians like Sitting Bull or Crazy-Horse has to go outside the school structure to get an objective view.  Afro-Americans member of the Black Student Union have had to go outside the school structure to learn about black heroes like Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, and Malcolm X.

One effect of going outside the normal educational channels at the University has been to place an extra strain on black students interested in learning more about their culture.  We feel that it is up to the University to re-examine its curriculum and provide courses that meet the needs of non-white students.

(4) We want to work closely with the administration and faculty to recruit black teachers and administrators.  One positive effect from recruiting black teachers and administrators is that we will have role models to imitate, and learn from.

(5) We want black representatives on the music faculty.  Specifically, we would like to see Joe Brazil and Byron Polk hired.  The black man has made significant contributions to music (i.e. jazz and spirituals), yet there are not black teachers on the music faculty.[37]

In the letter, the BSU largely restated the goals that had been part of its program from the beginning: greater minority enrollment, a Black Studies program, and the recruitment of more Black faculty and administrators.  Also, BSU's commitment to multiculturalism showed up in the letter: the recruitment of Mexican Americans and American Indians were explicitly outlined in demand number two and references to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were cited in demand number three.[38]  Furthermore, demand number three suggests that the Black Studies Program the BSU envisioned would not just teach about African-American history and culture, but would encompass the stories of other minority groups as well.

The two individuals, Joe Brazil and Byron Polk, that the BSU recommended be hired into the Music department were good candidates.  Both were accomplished musicians: Brazil was a saxophonist, flute player, and combo leader, and Polk was also a saxophonist and sextet leader.  Furthermore, Brazil was already employed at the UW as an assistant in the Applied Physics Laboratory.[39]

In response, President Odegaard sent a letter to the BSU stating his support for many of their ideas and willingness to cooperate.  On Friday, May 10, representatives of the BSU and the University Administration met for two and a half hours to discuss the BSU proposals.  The outcome of this meeting was described as “encouraging.”  Carl Miller explained, “Odegaard gave preliminary agreement to our suggestions for implementation of our demands.  However, stress should be placed on the word preliminary because there are many details to be ironed out.”[40]  Mostly, what needed to be ironed out was availability of University funds to support the BSU recruitment goals and other initiatives.  The BSU wanted some of its members to be hired as University employees and work recruiting from communities of color.  Odegaard claimed that allocating funding for recruiting would take significant time to secure.

A followup meeting was set for BSU members to meet representatives of the Anthropology, Art, English, History, Music, Psychology, and Sociology departments to discuss curriculum for a Black Studies Program.  But funding issues also hampered this initiative; the BSU wanted Nathan Ware and James Garrett, experts from California, to help create a Black Studies department at UW.  Explaining this, Miller said: “These two men have set up very effective programs in the Bay Area and we feel their expertise will heighten and aid our program.”  While agreeing on principle, Odegaard once again resisted the allocation of funds to bring the men to UW.[41]

During the meeting, 300 BSU sympathizers gathered outside the Administration building (now called Gerberding Hall).  At the close of the meeting, they held a rally where many white students voiced their support for the BSU demands, especially the creation of a Black Studies program.  Robbie Stern, a Law student, said:

It is terribly important that we be here.  It is also important to understand that these demands are in our own best interest as white students because they involve the kind of education we are getting here…the education that we get here is white and middle-class.  It is clear at this point that what is happening in the world requires us to have an understanding of non-white America and a non-white world.[42] 

Kathy Halluran of the Black and White Concern Organization declared: “There are 23 million black people in America today and we need to know about them.  We are the ones being hurt by the lack of courses on black culture.”[43]

A week later, the BSU was disappointed to find that their efforts had still not produced tangible results.  And with the school year coming to a close, many BSU members believed this was an unacceptable situation.  On Thursday May 16, the BSU drafted their boldest letter yet and sent it to President Odegaard.  It demanded that he allocate $50,000 for the BSU initiatives and promise to deposit the funds into the BSU account by June 1.[44] 

That evening, E. J. Brisker, the de facto leader of the BSU, telephoned Odegaard’s office.  He spoke with Dr. Eugene Elliott, Special Assistant to Odegaard, and outlined the same stipulations of the letter and gave the deadline of twelve o’clock noon the next day (Friday) for the pledge of money.  If there was no pledge of money, Brisker warned there would be “new action” to implement their demands.[45]

Odegaard ignored both the phone call and the letter, which arrived on his desk at 11:40am Friday, and allowed the deadline to pass without any statements.  The BSU then decided to take its demands to Washington Gov. Dan Evans, who happened to be on campus.  After negotiating with Dr. Elliott, UW Vice President Ernest Conrad, and Faculty Senate Chairman Charles Evans, E.J. Brisker was allowed to hand the letter of demands to Governor Evans.  After doing this, Brisker turned and left; Evans, appearing unperturbed, said nothing[46].

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