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New book recounts 1960s fight for Black acceptance at WSU

The front page of a March 1969 edition of the WSU Evergeen newspaper chronicles the aftermath of a standoff between Black demonstrators and white residents. The confrontation happened when members of the Black Student Union sought to block the incarceration of five Black students involved in a fight an at all-white fraternity house.
WSU Libraries Digital Collections/WSU Office of Student Media
The front page of a March 1969 edition of the WSU Evergeen newspaper chronicles the aftermath of a standoff between Black demonstrators and white residents. The confrontation happened when members of the Black Student Union sought to block the incarceration of five Black students involved in a fight an at all-white fraternity house.

Indelible images of the 1960s civil rights movement captured acts of appalling violence and inspiring heroism. The photos and films people remember almost always hail from places like Selma and Birmingham, Alabama; Oxford and Jackson, Mississippi; and innumerable small towns of the Deep South.

But racial animus and struggles for acceptance and validity were not limited to the Gulf states. Black students at Washington State University, along with key allies, waged their own fight for belonging in the mid- to late 1960s.

Their story is told in the forthcoming book Washington State Rising: Black Power on Campus in the Pacific Northwest. It is set for release August 22.

“When we look at the Pacific Northwest, we see some of these more problematic elements of American history, some of these elements that were violent or suppressing social justice,” the book’s author, Dr. Marc Arsell Robinson, told Spokane Public Radio. “But we also see efforts to make the nation better. Efforts to push for change and justice were also present in eastern Washington.”

Washington State University’s student roster in the 1960s reflected the predominantly-white demographics of eastern Washington itself. The total Black student population at the school was estimated at 24 in the 1960-61 school year. By 1968, it had risen to about 80 students – still less than one percent of the total student population, Robinson said.

By the mid-1960s, a quickening tempo for racial change in the United States, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, and a rising desire for change at WSU helped stir Black students to launch the Afro-American Association. The advocacy group morphed into the Black Student Union (BSU) in 1968.

Robinson, an assistant professor in the history department at California State University San Bernardino, said BSU’s major goals included raising the proportion of Black students at WSU’s Pullman campus, launching a Black Studies program, and gaining greater acceptance as individuals and as a group.

“The recognition that their small numbers indicated policies and procedures happening on campus needed to be addressed,” Robinson said. “Policies that we might today call institutionally racist or unfair. Policies that were not providing equitable amounts of access to education.”

While BSU and its members received support from WSU President Glenn Terrell and some faculty, the group’s path was not a smooth one. As BSU members and their allies became more visible and their requests for substantive change became more audible, some white students and members of the community became increasingly concerned – a fear, Robinson said, motivated in part by stereotypes of Black people as inherently violent or dangerous.

January 1969 brought a new and dangerous test for race relations at WSU. What began as a fight at an intramural basketball game between Black students and the all-white Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity grew into a communitywide concern. The basketball skirmish resulted in full-on fisticuffs at the AGR house four days later.

Three students pled guilty to assault charges. Two others admitted to firing guns during the fracas. All were Black. No white students were charged.

During the weeks that elapsed between the fight at the fraternity house and the conclusion of the trial, Robinson said, rumors developed and grew, including a false report that Black Panthers were on their way to Pullman. The rumors only heightened fear and mistrust between Black and white residents on and off campus.

The situation came to a head when the five students were brought to the Whitman County Jail to serve their time – by judge’s order, to be served on weekends as they continued their studies at WSU. Seventy-five Black Student Union members and allies from other area colleges gathered to block the jail’s entrance. White residents also congregated at the jail, threatened the demonstrators and threw rocks.

As the crowd grew increasingly hostile, Whitman County Sheriff Mike Humphries got the five convicted students and the BSU contingent into the courthouse, then into a nearby Methodist church as more white people gathered through the evening – some of them armed. The next day the demonstrators were arrested, in part for their own safety.

“It serves at this climactic moment…where there was a serious concern and a real possibility that someone could get really hurt,” Robinson said. “Fortunately, that did not happen. But it speaks to the way in which eastern Washington and parts of the Pacific Northwest had some of the same hostilities, same kind of anti-Black or racist tendencies, that you find in other parts of the country.”

Ten months after the confrontation at the courthouse came the apex of BSU’s early years, Robinson said. That was in December 1969, when WSU hosted the Pacific Northwest’s first conference on Black Studies as an academic discipline.

“In some ways, it serves as a crowning achievement of the Black Student Union in its early phase,” Robinson said.

Facing doubts about whether Black Studies was a legitimate field, BSU members and others made lists of relevant books and created mock syllabi to demonstrate that a Black Studies program was feasible and worthwhile. They prevailed, securing WSU’s sanction for an initial Black Studies course.

While the book’s main narrative ends in 1970, Robinson said there is still more work to be done to tell the whole story of how people of color mobilized in Washington higher education in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Organizations and campaigns launched by Asian and Pacific Islander, Native and Indigenous, and Chicano/a/x and Latinx protesters in the Pacific Northwest deserve in-depth study,” he wrote. “Likewise, there remains more to be written about the student politics of the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.”


Special thanks to KVCR's Rick Dulock, who recorded Dr. Robinson's portion of the conversation in California.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.