Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on the Black Revolution on Campus, scheduled for November 7th, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.
Professor John H. Bracey, Jr. has taught in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst since 1972. His major academic interests are in African American social history, radical ideologies and movements, the history of African American Women, and more recently the interactions between Native Americans and African Americans and Afro-Latinos in the United States. During the 1960s, Professor Bracey was active in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements, and other radical movements in Chicago. He has maintained those interests and commitments both on campus and in the wider world. Among many books, most recently Professor Bracey is a co-editor with Professor James Smethurst and Professor Emerita Sonia Sanchez of SOS — Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader.
Dr. Shirletta Kinchen is Associate Professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. She holds a PhD from the Department of History and Geography at the University of Central Oklahoma. She studies African American history, with a particular focus on the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, and 20th-century US History. Her book, Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965-1975, and her continuing research examines the impact, influence, and intersection of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements on youth and student activism in Memphis, Tennessee.
Conversations in Black Freedom Studies: For our upcoming conversation, we’ll be talking about an important site of struggle for Black freedom, the college campus. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve written about the Black revolution on campus and how you came to study this?
Shirletta Kinchen: My research on Black campus activism was actually an outgrowth of my desire to understand the impact of the Black Power Movement in Memphis, Tennessee. That was really my starting point, and much of my work has been an examination of that activity and organizing in the city. In order to understand how that movement was driving the more radical political dynamics in the city, I had to figure out who and what constituted the nucleus of that activity — and it was located in youth and student organizations and their organizing in the community and on high school and college campuses. So my study began to take shape by examining the movement through that gaze — which eventually led me to exploring their activism on campus.
Memphis is home to several colleges, but the two that I study specifically are LeMoyne-Owen College, a Historically Black College affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and what was then Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). These two campuses, comparing and contrasting the activism of the students there, proved to be a really interesting undertaking. Although Black students on both of these campuses share the same orbit as young Black people coming of age in Memphis during the Black Power era, their experiences on their respective campuses play out very differently. The identity and politics of the students were evolving, and the ability to look at what was happening at historically Black LeMoyne-Owen and historically white Memphis State provided two different case studies of Black revolution on campus happening almost simultaneously within the same city. While the revolution evolved differently on both of these campuses, both movements were not only important to altering the dynamics on the campuses, but because these schools are so connected and central to the Memphis community and its identity, they impacted the city as well.
John Bracey: I chose history as an undergrad major. I just as easily could have chosen sociology, geography, or literature. But everything everywhere has a past, so history let me pursue all of my wide-ranging interests. I began to document the movements that I was a part of while I was a participant in them. My first edited work with August Meier and Elliott Rudwick was Black Nationalism in America published in 1970. It contains documents on campus movements as well as from various groups affiliated with the Revolutionary Action Movement. I had also convinced Meier and Francis Broderick to include documents on revolutionary nationalism in their Negro Protest Thought in America published in 1965. I have continued this practice throughout my publishing career, whether in edited volumes, articles, or microform editions of documents or archival collections. If you don’t save it, future historians can’t read it.
CBFS: Given the rich cast of characters you explore in your research, can you share a story of a struggle or a figure from these struggles that our readers might not be familiar with?
Shirletta Kinchen: I think primarily everyone that I discuss in my work would be unfamiliar to most people because the Black freedom struggle in Memphis, until recently, has been largely understudied. In researching my project, I found a lot of interesting stories of these smaller battles that would eventually lead to the larger contestations between Black student activists and the school administration. However, in particular with the struggle at Memphis State, it was the dynamics of that struggle and the organizing that in my opinion was most fascinating. This cadre of older students, many of who were military veterans, led the Black student movement at Memphis State. There are these seasoned student activists along with the younger students who are fighting to change the racial dynamics on campus, but they are also battling within their own ranks to guard against the varying levels of engagement and apathy that could be detrimental to a movement.
John Bracey: Having participated in campus struggles throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and teaching years, I view other participants more as friends, comrades, allies, and adversaries than as “characters.” There are a host of such persons whose activities should not be forgotten, and from whose stories current generations will find of much interest. First and foremost, I would offer Muhammad Ahmad (Maxwell C. Stanford, Jr.), who was the driving force and leader of the Revolutionary Action Movement of which I also was a member. Muhammad is alive, living in Philadelphia, and still active as a teacher and mentor to younger activists. A serious examination of his activities would shed much light and add much needed nuance to the existing narratives of the shape and trajectory of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements. I surmise that RAM has been neglected by some younger historians since its goals and actions do not conform to their preconceived notions of revolutionary nationalism. Another reason is that the complexity of RAM as an organization, including an “underground” and secret membership, has made research more difficult. It continues to be of great interest to me that two of the most respected and influential participants in the activities of the Revolutionary Action Movement were two Asian American women: Grace Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama. I never heard even the slightest questioning of the appropriateness of the roles they played or of a failure to engage with great seriousness the advice and counsel that they offered. They were Grace and Yuri, and that was that. There is a story here. I just am not sure what it is. History is like that sometimes.
My participation in campus struggles after the Summer of 1963 was defined by my roles within RAM. During the takeover of Northwestern University in 1968, my suggestions of strategy and tactics and my decision not to take a more public leadership role were as much about politics in the larger Black community (and the safety of the Black undergrads) than of any interest in transforming the academy as such. The choice to make C.L.R. James and Lerone Bennett our first hires in the struggle of Black Studies enabled us to be in intellectual and political contact with the leading Black revolutionary in the world, and the most prominent, insightful, and popular “public intellectual” of his day. Northwestern was a place that had the resources to make this happen, and provided us with the opportunity to show that there is no necessary correlation between traditional academic credentials and brain power.
CBFS: Considering the continuing fight for Black freedom today, how does this history help us understand or even act in our current moment, both on and off campus?
Shirletta Kinchen: History by nature is instructive, so just exposure to this history is an important place to start. This past spring, I had the honor to moderate an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Black Student Association’s protest movement at the University of Memphis. It was important for the current students at that institution to hear and bear witness to how those before them worked to make things better. It was essential for them to get a real sense of the level of engagement, organizing, and commitment to mobilizing that these students had in the face of overwhelming opposition and repression. There are Black students around the country today who are building on that legacy, and they have similar passion and fire as their predecessors. I get excited to teach and interact with these students. I let them know that they do not have to reinvent the wheel. A few years ago, students at the University of Louisville where I teach staged a “die-in” to support Black Lives Matter and protest against police violence and brutality. They used direct action protest that students decades before utilized, but used it to speak to the current social justice concerns. There are crucial lessons in these past movements that they can use as they shape their contemporary struggle.
John Bracey: During the past five years, I have been asked to give more interviews and lectures, to write more reflections, and to attend more conferences on the struggles of the 1960’s than in the previous 25. This current generation of young people have a deep and almost desperate desire to know what the struggles of the 1960’s were about, what they felt like. They want to know whether it was okay to be afraid, to not want to risk one’s life. They want to hear that we did not regret or repudiate our efforts, that with the best intentions we did the best that we could for our day. They want to know what we think about what they are doing. They want advice and support, not marching orders. Each generation, if they are lucky, will define a task for itself and carry it through as far as they can, knowing that there will be goals unmet to be taken up by future generations. If the study of history has any value, it is to make human beings aware that what they see in front of them is not forever. Events, nations, peoples, circumstances have beginnings and endings. Change is made by the activity of human beings and everyone has a part to play. Human beings made the world we live in; human beings can change it.
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