The youth politics of challenging Black leaders of HBCUs

It’s still news that Black folks prefer to keep inside problems, well, inside. Youth used to be regularly taught to keep family business to themselves, and not put such business in the streets, so to speak.

Even in earlier days of hip-hop gossip and the Internet, that admonition, at least among many, if not most, Black households held sway.

But times, apparently, they are a-changing rapidly.

In what would have seemed outright heresy a short time ago, large groups of Black students at vaunted Howard University just agreed to end months of loud, unsettling, sometimes downright disrespectful criticisms of their mostly Black administrators, particularly its president, Wayne Frederick.

Students were (and still are) very  angry that the Frederick administration abruptly ended the regular involvement of students in campus policy-making, and most especially, they were (and still are) upset over the lack of proper housing available on-campus for students. The housing that does exist, students say, is full of bugs, rodents, leaky water fixtures, and insecure wall structures. The water is too often off, the heat doesn’t work when it is supposed to and too often, the housing is simply a dump.

The students said they feel like they’re living in the ‘hood—the bad side. Where, the students have asked, is all the money going which the U.S. government and private donors keep announcing they are sending to the university? Howard is the vanguard of the HBCUs, the best of the best, say the students, but it is also too often run like a badly organized public housing area full of student hazards and disappointments. 

They have made very public criticisms of Dr. Wayne Frederick and his administration at Howard. Gone is that earlier veneer of home-training that taught against public chastisement of honored Black officials. Social media has taught otherwise and it presently holds more sway with Black youth, so there was no backing down from them.

Hundreds of students joined the protests, and several very high-profile Black leaders have weighed in supporting the students’ grievances, including Rev. William Barber II, leader of the National Poor People’s Campaign, the old warrior Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Martin L. King, III, to name a few.

This past week an armistice of sorts was called and the students have been told by the Howard administration that their demands will be met. The students, however, remain unconvinced, but have agreed to cease and desist for the time being.

In the meantime, in Atlanta, Ga., the seat of many of the other traditionally most-honored HBCUs—particularly Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Morris Brown and Spelman—the students remain riled up. Number one, they have been rallying to support the Howard students, and secondly, the students began their own protests in October demanding improved university student housing at all of the Atlanta schools and that Georgia’s newly elected U.S. Senators and House members had to provide more educational funding both generally for the HBCU schools and to relieve the onerous, crushing student loan debt problems most Black students carried. The students have demanded a sit-down meeting with the combined presidents of all the Atlanta HBCUs and, as of today, they are not budging.

They began their protest demonstrations right outside the Rush Memorial Congregational Church at the Atlanta University Center, the same site where HBCU students organized demonstrations in the 1960s. The students said they will not leave until their demands are met by all the college leadership and by federal officials.

This is a new day people. It seems some of our untreated problems not only didn’t die, they have found new carriers to bring them closer to our attention. We did tell our children to stand up and fight for what they knew to be right. They are and they should.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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