Voices and Viewpoints

Student Activism on Community College Campuses: Black Lives Mattering Then and Now

by Fredrick Douglass Dixon / Jun 5, 2017

The history of student activism in higher education finds its origins in the antebellum period of American history (Ireland, 2012). Since the inception of American’s oldest public junior college, Joliet Junior College in 1901, student activism on community college campuses continues to shape the tapestry of student protest. The ubiquitous term “student dissatisfaction” can apply to the actions, attitudes, and behaviors of students at community college and four-year institutions seeking to assert their power by challenging the hegemony of American education. Traditionally, the bulk of the scholarly research on student activism centers on white students at four-year predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Additionally, when scholars mention the most salient events of the Black Campus Movement (BCM) they repetitiously highlight student activism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Hence, the scholarly research and writings regarding Black students and student activism on community college campuses remain scarce and at the periphery of the mainstream narrative on student activism. 

The turbulent years of the late 1960s provide a watershed moment for the rise of Black student activism at community colleges. For a critical mass of Black college students, an ideological shift took place from seeking incorporation into existing institutions to demanding control of community institutions. On college campuses, police brutality continued as a point of contention for Black students. For example, the birth of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland in 1966 tied student activism and self-defense to higher education. Merritt College, an Oakland community college, became the symbolic home of the BPP, as former Merritt students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale used the Merritt campus as a base for organizing a national movement for self-defense (People’s Minister of Info JR, 2012).

A rise in student activism at community colleges swept through major cities in America, which aligned with the explosion of the BPP from 1966 to 1972. The nature of repression that dominated the BCM (i.e. rising expectations from civil rights legislation, disgust with America’s participation in the Viet-Nam War, and police brutality) stimulated Black students to employ a nationalism that looked directly to formal education and liberalism as apparatuses of oppression. Police brutality became a national problem and remained one key reason Black college students embraced a flexibility of strategies and techniques that rejected non-violent paradigms of the civil rights movement and endorsed aggressive methods of Black Power for self-defense (Kendi, 2012). Two Chicago community colleges ignited a Black militant consciousness where community control dominated the theoretical perspectives and practical stratagems of student activism, where a critical analysis of the usefulness of the current educational program emerged and fomented.     

Chicago’s Crane College and Woodrow Wilson Junior College became centers of student activism where Black students sparked educational reform. Radical students took a sharp position to agitate and disrupt the daily operations of these colleges by successfully organizing administration office and classroom takeovers. Students on both campuses simultaneously demanded and secured a separate curriculum, which evolved into Black Studies programs, hired each college’s first Black presidents, and influenced permanent institutional name changes (Cruthird & Williams, 2013). As a result of Black student mobilization and activism at community colleges, these institutions bear the names Malcolm X and Kennedy-King College, respectively.

In a parallel fashion to the BCM, contemporary student movements’ parallel times past with protesting of police brutality, the trappings of liberal control, and the domination of capitalism. These concerns and a litany of others are galvanizing students to use revolutionary means to change the current social atmosphere. In response to the murder of LaQuan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, college students from Kennedy-King and Malcolm X Colleges organized and participated in a boycott of Black Friday 2015. In concert with four-year institutions, grassroots organizations, and religious organizations, Black community college students stopped traffic on Chicago’s most exclusive shopping district, the Magnificent Mile, halting profits for retail moguls on their most profitable day (Ortiz, 2015).

Parallels exist between student activism at the inception of the BCM and today’s student movements, but modernity offers unprecedented advancements for contemporary student activists. Student protest has and continues to own and cultivate a candid realization of positionality for community college students (Biondi, 2012). Black student activists from the 1960s and today share the understanding of being oppressed and Black first, then identifying as students second. Because of violent interactions with police, daily contact between community college students and the police differed significantly from that of their four-year college counterparts. A collective response to police brutality created a clarion call for immediate action, particularly by Black community college students. Past student activism reveals a vast network of tightly woven associations with an abundant cultural and social capital, such as the Black church, and word of mouth connected and aided the organization of diverse student populations. Today’s student activists have new platforms to push for social justice given the technological advances that include access to various social media tools that streamline organizing by collapsing time and space as tools for collective resistance.        

There is a resurgence of student agency and voice amid what journalist Jack Dickey has deemed “The Revolution on America’s Campuses.” As with the advent of the BCM of the late 1960s, media coverage and scholarly recognition of today’s student activism remains centered and fascinated with the student activism at four-year PWIs.  This phenomenon severely interrupts and diminishes the historical accuracy of the fight for Black liberation in education by community college students and their surrounding communities. Unfortunately, community colleges and the large numbers of Black students they serve have been on the margins or left out of the coverage of student protests and activism. The inclusion of Black community college students allows a more analytic and comprehensive narrative of the BCM and makes visible that coalitions to affirm Black Lives Mattering on- and off-campuses is not a new emergence but has been a long standing necessity.


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Photo by Fibonacci Blue
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