50 Year Tradition of Protests at Howard University over Black Equality in Education

March 1968 was a time of many protests in America and particularly in Washington D.C. Howard University stood at the center of this for a great deal of time. Howard University was a predominantly Black university that strived for strong education. Starting in 1965 protests were becoming more and more prevalent in society, beginning with a picket at Berkeley (Lowe and McDowell, 81). These student demonstrations started a ripple effect of student protests across the country. From 1965 until 1968, Howard University protests increased and additional issues of Black equality surfaced.

The Howard University Protest of March 1968 was located inside the School’s Administration Building where students congregated to get a reaction from school officials. The seizure of a university building pushed classes to be canceled for nearly a week. Several hundred students had rushed into the building and were insisting that their demands were to be met. A freshman at Howard in 1968, Jeffery Fearing, remembers students bringing mattresses from their dorms and into the administration building as part of the protest. These protests caused great controversy throughout the entire school. With many students involved, this event became monumental in history and especially a key part of 1968 as a year of turmoil. Students were fighting for their freedom and even though there was excitement about trying to protect these rights, there was also concern about the risk of being expelled. During 1968 and at the age of 18 you were required to enlist into the draft for the Vietnam War. However, there was a rule that stated while one was in college that they would be exempt. Therefore, the idea of pushing this protest to the limit worried many students who risked becoming expelled and later drafted (Heim, 1-2).

Students brought mattresses to the administration building during the protests.



The main demands that were being specified included the students pushing for changes in administrative policies, wanting more input in academic choices, and emphasizing the “relevance” of this Black university (Lowe and McDowell, 81). This word “relevance” is of great importance for these struggles as it’s emphasizing not only what you learn in a classroom but how you make it usable in real life situations (McDowell, Gilbert, and Doris, 385). Some of the specific demands that were requested included the official resignation of the President, James M. Nabrit Jr., removing obligatory ROTC participation, and the creation of African American history and culture programs. All of these demands relate back to getting equal rights throughout the university and conserving the idea of Howard being a historically Black school (Heim, 2).

After this 1968 protest, controversy struck up again in 1989. This event occurring only a little over twenty years after the first protest shows the importance and continuity of these ideas still today. This March 1989 protest, once again at the administration building, pushed for the university to reestablish itself as a Black university. The alumni from both of these years emphasized how the same issues were still reoccurring and now at 50 years that it has become a trend.

1968 protesters ensuring their voices are heard and representing Howard University as a Black university.



These protests are still causing issues today and as the 50th anniversary just passed us, we see the relevance that they still hold. The memory of the 1968 protest is not only present but now instrumentalization acts to put the memory to use. Although these protests seem to have happened over night, they went through a planning process that took months. On the 50th anniversary protests occurred once again asking for similar demands. These nine demands were created to encourage a broader view throughout the country (Heim, 1-3). Now 50 years later, the students demanded affordable housing, ensuring student safety is of the upmost importance with mental health and sexual assault prevention, and eliminating unnecessary tuition increases. Although these broader demands differ from those of 1968,  the overarching theme of all three of these protests has included Black rights and equality in education. The demand list was sent out on Sunday, March 25th 2018 and by Thursday, students were already crowded into the administrative building just like in 1968. This 50th anniversary of a protest turned itself into the longest protest in Howard University’s history. Although this is a very particular memory with the dates of the protest, it can be viewed as a partial memory in that multiple stories are heard about the exact background of these issues.

2018 protesters outside the administration building as they begin their protest over Black rights and education. 



This 2018 protest is not only based upon these new demands but historic parts of this Black university. Students argue of “administrative negligence” and how this school needs to be emphasized as a safe place for Black students (Held, 1). They are calling for change and respect of equality in races. University students of 1968 returned for this rally. They believed that although issues with housing, tuition and self-determination are still apparent, the emphasis has shifted to centering the university around the student body (Heim, 2).

1968’s protests were ended by acceptance of some of the student demands, with the most important being African American studies added as an important topic of study at the university. However, the student equality issues were bigger than just Howard University and needed to be recognized throughout the US. These student protests represented voices that were not being heard. Students were protesting for their rights, and emphasizing the need for permanent changes as these stories can come and go even if we want them to last forever. This one protest is still prevalent today as 21 years later and 50 years later the university is still in the same position. This is a processual memory that continues to be important throughout many years. Howard University’s protest of 1968 serves as a memory of where we started with Black equality and the fight that is still occurring today.

A link to a source about Shirley Chisholm who spoke after the 1968 protests.

Works Cited:

Heim, Joe. “Echoes of the Past Reverberated in Howard University Student Occupation.” The Washington Post, WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post, 7 Apr. 2018, https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/2022778482?accountid=14244

Held, Amy. “One Week And Counting: Howard University Student Protesters Still Aren’t Budging.”  The Two-Way [BLOG]; Washington, NPR, 5 Apr. 2018, https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/2022029638?accountid=14244

Lowe, Gilbert, and Sophia McDowell. “Participant-Nonparticipant Differences in the Howard University Student Protest.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 40, no. 1, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2966929.

McDowell, Sophia, et al. “Howard University’s Student Protest Movement.” Oxford Journals, vol. 34, no. 3,  http://www.jstor.org/stable/2747967.

Posted by: Rachel Sorensen

2 thoughts on “50 Year Tradition of Protests at Howard University over Black Equality in Education”

  1. This was a very informative and engaging post – I thought you did a really great job with following the legacy of the 1968 Howard protest and bringing the conversation into a modern context. I agree that this particular site of memory is a great example of the processual nature of memory as the fight continues today – I think that it can also encapsulate the partial and universal nature of memory as the protest may be specific to Howard students, but also represents a larger fight for equal rights and freedom.

  2. This was a really interesting post. I think you do a good job of showing how protest has to evolve over time, and how the past can end of informing the present. One thing that I thought was interesting was the fact that students were worried that if they took the protests too far and were expelled, they would be required to go fight in the Vietnam War. I was struck by this because it shows how one memory can end up being connected to so many other memories. Not only is this a memory of a protest for student rights, but also a memory of the struggles of young people during the Vietnam War.

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