The last year has seen a wave of protests on college campuses. From Yale to Missouri, students have garnered a fair share of attention for demonstrations against institutional racism and microaggressions, prompting nationwide discussions about race, higher education and free speech.
Duke was no exception. On April 1, 2016, nine students began a week-long occupation of the administrative Allen Building in the wake of reporting on the now-infamous Tallman Trask incident. A list of demands by the students included the resignation of Trask and steps to improve the treatment of workers on campus.
But the demonstrations at Duke paralleled other demonstrations nationwide only in that they happened to fall during a period ripe with discontent. To brand the most recent Allen sit-in merely as an extension of similar efforts elsewhere on one hand or as an isolated incident on the other would be to minimize its impact and ignore a legacy of activism at Duke that involves students, workers and faculty alike.
In this political moment, the art of protest has become more relevant than ever. Already, organizations like the Council for Collaborative Action have set up rallies for solidarity following Donald Trump’s election, while Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity—which has its roots in the April sit-in—has only intensified its efforts toward fair treatment of workers and administrative accountability. It is worth investigating, then, how protest has shaped the university’s history.
“A dirty word”
Fifty years ago, Duke was a Gothic cocoon on the outskirts of Durham, both sheltered from and indifferent to the poverty surrounding it. The South had begun to desegregate, but the overwhelmingly white institution was behind the curve. As Peter Applebome Trinity '71, a former Chronicle writer and current New York Times Deputy National Editor said, “activism was little more than a dirty word.”
This is not to say activism was nonexistent. The silent vigil of April 1968 marked the first instance of protest as a visible, effective force on campus. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., nearly 1500 students occupied the main quad. Although a primary goal of the vigil was to mourn King’s death, it was driven equally by efforts to address Duke’s legacy of racism and segregation. And although students made up the bulk of participants in the vigil, it was undergirded by organization on the part of campus workers. In what has become a common theme in activism at Duke, workers, as much as students or faculty, were agents of change.
“At its very core, it’s groups of workers who are organized, who say, ‘you, students, you can make signs, you’ve got institutional protections; come here and throw down with us,’” Lara Haft, a DSWS organizer and one of the nine students who occupied Allen Building in April, said. “Then the students say, ‘yeah, sounds good,’ and the faculty leverage their power.”
The 1968 vigil set an example for the collective power of those three factions—worker, student and faculty. Even before King died, members of the Local 77 labor union had collaborated with students to plan a demonstration. The unexpected tragedy only compounded those plans and wrapped up with the vigil came demands for Duke's President Knight to resign from his segregated country club, appoint a biracial committee to ensure fair treatment for all within the university and work toward a $1.60 minimum wage for university workers. On the quad, students ran the vigil like a factory, sitting in neat rows of fifty and mass-producing snacks. Many faculty members showed solidarity by supporting class boycotts or joining rallies.
Apparently pressured by alumni to give some sort of explanation for what was transpiring at Duke, Frank Ashmore, then vice president for institutional advancement, gave a speech to the Greensboro Alumni Association that was later published in the Chronicle.
“The group of students were in a frame of mind different from any seen before,” Ashmore reportedly said. “It was a mixture of guilt, depression, commitment and idealism.”
The silent vigil brought to light institutional issues and student-worker collaboration that would dictate the movements toward change to the present day.
“It ain’t over yet”
The most obvious antecedent to the 2016 Allen sit-in occurred not a year after the 1968 vigil. Known as the Allen “takeover,” the events of February 13, 1969 brought some of the same issues addressed in the vigil to a head and ended in violent fashion.
At 8 a.m., about 75 students from the Afro-American Society occupied the Allen Building and presented a list of thirteen demands, which included increasing black representation in the student body, setting up the department now known as African & African American Studies, ending mistreatment of black students by police and granting the occupying students total amnesty.
“We seized the building because we have been negotiating with the Duke administration and faculty concerning different issues that effect (sic) black students for 2 ½ years,” read a statement by the Afro-American Society after the sit-in began. “We have no meaningful results. We have exhausted all the so-called proper channels.”
The takeover ended ten hours later after police were summoned to the campus. Even after the 75 students had exited the building peacefully—chanting, “It ain’t over yet, baby!”—police unleashed tear gas on them and the crowd that had gathered near the main quad, much of which had gathered in solidarity with the students inside.
The parallels between the 1969 and 2016 sit-ins are striking at first glance. In many ways, they demonstrate just how little has changed in the intervening 47 years. (A freshman interviewed during the 1968 vigil may have said it best: “It takes a long time to get things changed at Duke.”) One cannot read, for example, the calls by the 1969 protesters to end police brutality without noticing the resemblance to current events. And the call for a more fair minimum wage has not changed—only this time it was $15, not $1.60.
Haft was quick to note, though, that the two sit-ins differed in a key respect: while the 1969 takeover was orchestrated by a black affinity group, the Afro-American Society, the organizers of the 2016 sit-in, DSWS, have a pro-worker vision while aiming to represent the interests of all marginalized groups. Increasingly, protest movements interconnect the struggles of many.
“With the people power that we generate, we’re not just single-mindedly going towards this anti-racist, pro-worker vision,” Haft said. “We understand that we cannot be free until black people are free, and until workers are treated with dignity. But also that our liberation is tied up with the liberation of [all]—everybody has to be free, period.”
“They know we’re coming”
Between 1969 and 2016, a number of protest movements have effected real change at Duke. Although it often goes unseen, activism and administrative pressure is often necessary to bring about reform.
A zine published by Haft and DSWS earlier this year chronicled some of the progress made by workers and students in the last 50 years. The last official “protest” acknowledged in a 2013 online exhibit on Duke’s black history took place in 1975, yet an investigation of the gains made since then—like the establishment of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, the 1985 resolution to double the number of black faculty and the decision to cut ties with South Africa during Apartheid—reveals they were only possible through protest.
Indeed, Duke’s history is filled with instances of protest, many of which go unremembered even if their goals succeed. Speaking on the April 2016 Allen sit-in, Haft acknowledged that while many of the demands of the nine students have not been met, one of the most powerful victories of the protest—aside from a push to a $13 minimum wage for full-time employees—was inspiring fear in the administration.
“They know we’re coming, and they know we’re winning,” Haft said.
It may take a long time to get things changed at Duke, but, as in society as a whole, protest has proven to be an essential tool in enacting those changes. In a year as turbulent as 2016, this is a lesson worth remembering.
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