Beacons of Light: Symposium Commemorates Vital Turning Point in Campus History

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By Tom McLaughlin

When Roy Jones CCAS ’70 enrolled at Rutgers University–Camden in the late 1960s, he looked around and was discouraged by what he saw. There were very few African American students like him on campus, he thought, while other ethnic minorities were even less represented, in stark contrast to the demographics of the surrounding Camden community.

“Just as significantly, the university had isolated itself from its host city – what we called ‘The Ivory Tower,’” recalls Jones, a Camden resident and executive director of the National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces, Inc. “Our isolation on campus was a key impetus to take action into our own hands, even if it was at our own risk.”

beacons-paper1What followed was a tumultuous but momentous period of student protest and desegregation efforts at Rutgers and in the surrounding areas. More than 40 years later, Rutgers–Camden will commemorate this vital turning point in its history with a full day of panels and discussions, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 30.

Olympic gold medalist and activist John Carlos, best known for his Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, will conclude the day’s discussions with a closing address.

“Beacons of Light: The Black Student Protest Legacy at Rutgers–Camden,” which is free of charge and open to the public, will be held in the Multi-Purpose Room, located on the main level of the Campus Center.

“It is important to remember the actions of those students who helped to make Rutgers–Camden the inclusive, diverse campus that it is today,” says Nyeema Watson, assistant chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers–Camden. “This remembrance comes at an especially poignant time for us as Rutgers University celebrates 250 years as a catalyst for positive change for the people of New Jersey and beyond.”

The first panel discussion, “The Rutgers–Camden BSUM 7 Legacy,” to be held from 9:30 to 10:50 a.m., will highlight the seven members of the Black Students Unity Movement – of which Jones was a member – who chained and occupied the Rutgers–Camden Campus Center in spring 1969.

“Of course, many of us were not surprised about the impact of our efforts nor the opposition to the takeover,” says Jones, who notes that several white student groups and faculty were supportive of their actions.

Moderated by Marie Downs CCAS ’69, the panel will explain how the students’ revolutionary actions led to practical changes on campus, including the creation of the Urban University/EOF program, the implementation of a night law school option, the adoption of a more inclusive admissions policy, and the renaming of the Rutgers–Camden library in honor of Paul Robeson, the third African American student to enter Rutgers University.

beacons-paper2In addition to Jones, the panelists include BSUM members Malik Chaka CCAS ’70, Freda Boddie Jones, and Myrna Williams CCAS ’69.

The second panel, “Black Student Protests in New Jersey and Beyond,” will be held from 11 a.m. to noon.

This discussion will explore how the desegregation of higher education was not just a university-wide phenomenon or even a regional one, but rather a movement fomented by the political and social unrest of the 1960s and prior decades, of which higher-education desegregation was just one result.

In the words of one historian, affirm the panelists, the democratization of higher education, as well as the black studies departments that emerged from it, was a “bureaucratic response to a social problem.”

Panelists are Rutgers–Camden faculty members Brandi Blessett, an assistant professor of Public Policy and Administration, and Wayne Glasker, an associate professor of history and author of Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania, 1967-1990.

The third panel, “Camden City and Civil Rights,” will be held from 1:10 to 2:40 p.m.

This discussion, moderated by Cheryl Amana-Burris CCAS ’73, a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law, will explore agents for desegregation as it relates to the city of Camden – a predominantly white city through the first half of the 20th century – from its political leaders and faith-based organizations to its institutions for public education. The panel will include reflections from community organizers, school administrators, and political movers who were active in the integration of Camden and its institutions during the 1960s and afterwards.

The panelists are the aforementioned Chaka; Yolanda DeNeely, a community activist; Monsignor Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church in Camden; and Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Rutgers–Camden.

The fourth panel, “Rutgers–Camden Today: Academics and Diversity,” will be held from 2:50 to 4:20 p.m.

capture-20160304-144957Moderator Keith Green, an associate professor of English and director of the Africana Studies program at Rutgers–Camden, will lead a discussion on the state of diversity on the present-day campus, specifically focusing on such issues as faculty of color recruitment and retention, student demographics, and diversified programming and curricula.

The panel will honor the strides that have been made in social justice and representation, while also calling attention to continuing ways that desegregation and diversity are unfinished projects.

The panelists are Stephen Danley, an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers–Camden; Stacy Hawkins, an associate professor of law at Rutgers Law School; Markenzie Johnson, a Black Lives Matter advocate and Rutgers–Camden student; Alicia Ojomo, president of the African Students Association at Rutgers–Camden; and Tom Knoche, a former part-time lecturer of urban studies at Rutgers–Camden.

Concluding the day’s discussions, Rutgers University–Camden Chancellor Phoebe A. Haddon, in partnership with the Rutgers American Association of University Professors, will welcome the aforementioned John Carlos to campus for the closing address. In the decades since his Black Power salute was seen around the world, he has pursued successful paths in professional sports, education, and global humanitarianism.

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