Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The History of Student Activism at Seattle University

The following article was published in the first issue of The Participator in September 2008. The Participator is an independent newspaper that is collectively written and edited by a coalition of students at Seattle University. One of the goals of The Participator is to build alliances amongst activist oriented groups and individuals while exposing institutional oppression and supporting community self-determination.

For the Dissent We Make: the past & present of student activism at seattle university

As long as you can be convinced that you never did anything then you can never do anything
-Malcolm X

Beyond Glorification

In the winter of 2008 several series of photographs were on display in the Student Center for The Photo Legacy Project. This project was put together to educate the campus community on the history and institutional values of Seattle University. One particular photograph was of a man with a beard, wearing a white shirt, appearing to be in his late-twenties: an academic-looking Black man. Underneath this photograph read: “Emile Wilson: Seattle University’s First Rhodes Scholar.” However, a few words about this significant accomplishment does not do justice to what Wilson contributed to our University.

Beyond being SU's first Rhodes Scholar, Wilson was also an avid supporter of the Black Power movement, an anti-capitalist, and an organizer of many demonstrations on campus, some of which ended in property destruction and violence. He also frequently declared that SU was a racist institution. Highly influenced by Malcolm X, Wilson wrote an article in The Spectator (published April 4, 1969) arguing for a Black history course where only Black students were present. This article advocated neither integration nor segregation, but rather asserts that Black students need to build self-determination and pride within themselves in a safe and empowering space, prior to being forced to assimilate. Wilson was heavily involved in the Black Student Union (BSU), where they waged successful campaigns for the hiring and recruiting of Black professors and students, hosted a BSU state-wide convention in 1970 (on the Astroturf of the Connolly Center) and organized several Black homecomings (for which BSU refused funds from ASSU, not wanting to be tokenized).

Wilson also helped shape the Office of Minority Affairs (now Office of Multicultural Affairs), which at that time was used as a political tool for minority students to fight for student rights, affirmative action and ethnic studies. The office additionally hosted an annual daylong conference on racism, during which all classes were canceled. After the Liberal Arts Building (now the Administration Building) was bombed in January of 1970, Wilson was asked to comment about the event and said “That’s what you people get for being racists.” Wilson also briefly served as Publicity Director of ASSU. He helped bring speakers from groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Black Panthers. Despite his wide efforts to create change and empower his people, Wilson and his legacy are honored solely through his feat in receiving an apolitical scholarship.

This article is intended to be an introduction to the untold stories of the space in which we walk everyday. However, this is not a story about those deemed successful by SU, but is rather the history of people like Emile Wilson, who voiced dissent in the face of injustice and struggled to achieve the ideals of freedom, equality and dignity not only at SU but within our larger community.

Institutional Racism: A Core Value at Seattle University

The experience of Emile Wilson does not sum up the history of civil rights and anti-racism struggles on SU’s campus. An early example of this was in 1953, when Fred Cordova and other Filipino students created Bamboo: The Filipino People in American Life as well as other publications that promoted Filipino-American identity. This display of cultural and ethnic pride was becoming more prominent amongst Asian-Pacific Islander (API) communities, though such displays were often dangerous within the post-internment society that remained brutally racist toward those associated with the “yellow peril.” Less than ten years later, in the early 1960s, the first Luau at SU was organized by Hawaiian students. It has continued to be a positive display of the prominence of Hawaiian culture on campus every year since. Also in the 1960s, Associated Students of Seattle University (ASSU), inspired by the civil rights movement, appointed a civil rights officer, Gary Baldwin, who organized a contingent of SU students and faculty to join a demonstration downtown in support of an open housing ordinance. However, there remained wide opposition to the growing civil rights movement on campus. Throughout the 1960s one of the most active campus groups, the New Conservatives (NC), distributed their publication Vox Populi, which advocated segregation among other things. Additionally, NC brought speakers from the Birch Society, who spoke to over 1,000 students about the "communist endeavors" of the civil rights agenda. However, the fear that people of color were taking power into their own hands was not limited to students.

In November of 1967, President John Fitterer, S.J. censored an article in The Spectator, written by Dr. Ronald Rousseve, one of two Black professors at Seattle University at the time. Rousseve’s article presented an argument in support of birth control and contraception. In reaction to this censorship, the Political Union (an SU activist group) organized a rally in support of Rousseve and the American Association of University Professors demanded an investigation. Despite these efforts, Rousseve resigned in March of 1968, which according to Rousseve was solely due to an issue of academic freedom; however, many felt that this act of repression was one of many instances of institutional racism at SU (this position resonated with students of color, who frequently experienced prejudice from fellow students and professors). That same week, Ruth Watson, the other Black faculty member, resigned, and as a result of these departures there were no longer any Black professors on campus. Around this same time, many rumors were circulating throughout the campus that SU staff had been responsible for informing the parents of White students if their children had become “overly friendly” with Black students. With the exception of Rousseve, SU staff either denied or refused to comment on these accusations; however, several admitted that policies such as these had existed “in past years”. In addition to the events at SU, in April of 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As a result of what appeared to be an escalation of racism, the Black Student Union formed shortly afterward, in May of 1968.

Courage In The Face of Oppression

After its first year, the students of BSU achieved victory with the hiring of Clayton Pitre (the first Afro-American professor to teach Black History at SU) and in convincing the Board of Regents to agree to recruit more Black students. But it didn’t stop there. BSU and Charles Mitchell, then the first director of the Office of Minority Affairs and now Chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges, demanded that the university create classes on ethnic studies that portray the histories of third world perspectives in a dignified and accurate manner. When Mitchell started at SU in 1969 there were 50 Black students on campus and after his first two years the number grew to 250.

One BSU member, Bobby Davis, was recognized in The Afro-American Journal as the “president of all [WA] State Black Student movements” and was also famous for writing an essay called SCC-Black Manifesto, which demanded reparations for Black students. In the same call for justice SU student Bobby Vinson verbally attested to the brutality and discrimination of the SPD in the Central District and also pointed out the lack of Black community members on the force, during a talk at SU given by Chief Frank Ramon of the Seattle Police Department,

The Black students of SU were not the only ones to vocalize their demands for racial justice. In an inspiring letter to the editor, Asian and Arab students Vivian Luna, Mary Jean Buza, and JR Cordova stood in support of the efforts of their “black brothers and sisters” in demanding ethnic studies. Felix Ortega (one of four Chicana/o students at SU) found allies with the Filipino, Black and Hawaiian students on campus and additionally vocalized his concerns in The Spectator demanding the further recruitment of Chicana/os. There was also an independent newspaper called The Voice, which expressed the concerns of minority students at SU.

Throughout the 1970s the Pan-Asian Council organized teach-ins and events in order to address issues of identity, racism, and resistance within the API community. A short-lived Asian Studies program graced our campus from the years 1963-66, but has recently returned only as a minor. In the fall of 1975, Asian students boycotted OMA and created a new Third World student coalition after asserting that OMA director David Thomas had used discriminatory hiring practices by failing to replace the only Asian-American staff member with someone of API descent.

In the 1980s, the struggle against racism was extended to the South African anti-apartheid movement on SU’s campus (as well as hundreds of other campuses) with the university divestment movement, which required universities to pull investments from corporations that conducted business in South Africa. In 1997 Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA…Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán) was formed on campus and soon after its birth it created a coalition of students to combat the anti-Affirmative Action Initiative-200 in WA State. Several years after the passage of the widely opposed I-200, Nelson Mandela came to speak at SU in 2000. However, for many the highlight of the event was not Mandela’s talk. Rather the act of Robert Galvan, who held up a sign reading “Free Leonard Peltier”, a Native American activist who was falsely accused of the murdering of two FBI agents. The student was escorted out by security guards but then started to ask Mandela for help and spoke his tribal name. After having been escorted out of the building, Mandela requested that the student be brought back in and then told the audience that Galvan was a “freedom fighter” and that he was not afraid of freedom fighters.

To be continued...

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