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Shirletta J. Kinchen

Shirletta J. Kinchen is an associate professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville.  She is the author of "Black Power in the Bluff City: African American Youth and Student Activism in Memphis, 1965-1975." 

Memphis campus looks back 50 years at the Black Student Association sit-ins

By Published: April 12, 2019 1:55 PM CT

Shirletta J. Kinchen will moderate "Black Students, Black Power: 50 years after the 1969 BSA sit-ins," a panel discussion at 2 p.m. April 12 in the University of Memphis Administration Building atrium. 

<strong>Shirletta J. Kinchen</strong>

Shirletta J. Kinchen

When I moved to Memphis in 2005, I found out that whatever you think you know about the history of the city, throw that out of the window.

That was especially true when considering its history of the “Black Freedom Movement” or the “Black Freedom Struggle,” terms historians have used to define and interpret the myriad ways in which African Americans have organized and fought against the systemic and institutional resistance to their freedom.

African-American history is woefully undervalued and thus sparingly taught at many of our public schools, but society’s larger understanding of civil rights history at least includes the parameters of movements like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, and the struggle for voting rights in Selma in 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the common denominator in all of these movements; his presence loomed large in all of those struggles.

As an outsider arriving to begin a Ph.D. program in history at the University of Memphis, what I had to re-learn about the black freedom struggle was that the movement was as much grassroots as it was hierarchical. Here in Memphis, Dr. King’s presence also looms large, casting a light or a shadow depending on who you talk to. What I learned was that black youth in the city stood at the center of change. From the sit-in movement to desegregate public facilities in the early 1960s, to community and campus organizing, the historical record does not do enough to highlight those efforts.

Movements like the one that happened 50 years ago on the campus of what was then called Memphis State University were among the most significant in terms of the racial dynamics in the history of the city. Almost a decade after the first African-American students enrolled at the university in 1959, the campus was still segregated, if only in practice, and openly hostile to black students. While black students attending Memphis State in the mid-to-late 1960s did not need police to escort them to their classes or have to leave the campus every day by noon like the first eight African-American students who arrived at the school in 1959, they still felt unwelcome and unwanted.

But there is power in numbers. As their ranks grew, so did their demand for change and their will to make it happen. With the explosion of student activism on campuses across the country in the mid-to-late 1960s and the early 1970s, African-American students at Memphis State would not settle for second-class citizenship, especially when they paid tuition like their white counterparts, and their parents’ tax dollars supported the institution like the parents of their white counterparts.

So what did they do? They organized. When and where they were excluded, they created organizations like the Black Student Association (BSA) and implemented study groups to provide black students with opportunities to learn the black history that was missing from the curriculum, all the while holding the administration accountable for correcting these deficiencies.

Initially, their demands for black studies courses, for the admission of more black students and the hiring of black faculty fell on deaf ears. Black students also lacked the same access to cheerleading squads, student government, and the student newspaper staff positions that white students had. When campus administrators were not open to providing African-American students with a culturally representative college experience, the students took their demands to the administration building, directly to the front door of university president Dr. Cecil C. Humphreys’ office.

They refused to leave until their demands were met, and 109 students were arrested on April 28, 1969. Upon learning that they would be arrested for their actions, Ester Hurt, one of the BSA leaders, told the students as they crowded around the president’s door, “Everybody come in that’s going to jail with me!” Hurt, along with BSA leaders such as James Pope, James Mock and David Acey, understood that struggle required sacrifice, and they were willing to go to jail to change the racial dynamics on campus.

I’m sure if I were to ask some African-American students at the university today, there would still be stories about how things can and need to improve. I can even think back to my experience as a doctoral student – I graduated in 2011 – and highlight issues of concern in regard to the treatment of African-American students.

While we commemorate the sacrifices of those students in an April 12 ceremony in the same administration building where they gathered to protest 50 years ago, it is important to reflect on what those students were able to accomplish and their legacy.

Dr. David Acey eventually became a tenured faculty member in the communications department at the University of Memphis, reaping the fruits of the struggle he helped to initiate. He reflected on the legacy of the movement and that moment when he said that the BSA showed “the students and those who came after us, that freedom is not free. If you don’t continue to work at it and keep it, you’ll lose it.... We established this spirit of change that led to the integration of Memphis State.”

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Memphis State Black Student Association

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