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Black Students March on President's Office

In this WSB clip, filmed on February 26, 1974, over two hundred African American students at The University of Georgia, including members of the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Pamoja Dance Company, march to President Fred C. Davison’s office to present him with a list of grievances.  Three of the marchers—Ronnie Hogue, Etheleen Shipp, and Ken Lloyd—enter the office to meet with President Davison; a campus police officer, Charles Colbert; and Dean of Student Affairs Louise McBee.  Singing freedom songs, the remaining demonstrators wait outside.  (President Davison later thanked the students for “serenading” them during the meeting.)

The demonstration was said to have been a response to a fight that broke out on February 25 during a basketball game between the all-white Pi Kappa Alpha and all-black Omega Psi Phi fraternities.  BSU students felt that the fight was evidence that too little was being done to support African American students or to promote cultural diversity and open-mindedness.  The students wanted the school to offer more courses in Black Studies, and to end discrimination in the classroom: some of them cited instances of being called “nigger” in class. They also demanded vigorous recruitment of African American students, faculty, and administrators, and financial support for the development of a Black Cultural Center.  During the 1973-74 academic year, the Student Government Association, led by Coalition ‘72 member Steve Patrick, had allocated $2,400 to form of a Black Cultural Center. Yet, claiming that Patrick’s proposal could foster separatism, the President’s Review Committee had vetoed it.

Davison vowed to cooperate with the students within the meeting.  But Shipp, a third-year Sociology major and BSU chairperson, explained that evening to an audience of African American students that Davison actually had dismissed many of their complaints.  Davidson told them that the University had no additional funds to devote to a Black Cultural Center and was already engaged in minority recruiting, that issues concerning Black Studies should be discussed with the coordinator of that program, and that students should directly challenge classroom discrimination when it occurred.  Nonetheless, the students felt that their actions would eventually lead to institutional changes.  Their optimism was reinforced when the campus bookstore, after receiving complaints from BSU members, began carrying magazines and cosmetics tailored to African American consumers.  

On March 5, 1974, however, BSU’s hopes for change were shattered.  Demosthenian Literary Society had invited a Psychology professor at The University of Georgia, Lyle F. Schoenfeldt, to debate the Stanford University professor and engineer William Shockley, who had won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.  Shockley believed in eugenics: the restriction of reproduction through marriage laws, sterilization, and other means in order to create more intelligent and healthier people.   He had suggested that people with low intelligence quotients were producing more children than those with high IQs and should be restricted from doing so.  Demosthenian allegedly invited Shockley to campus in order to gain a better understanding of his ideas, to refute them through Professor Schoenfeldt, and to make a statement on free speech.  On the evening of the debate, BSU and the Young Socialists Alliance joined forces to demonstrate outside of the campus auditorium where it was held.  A few BSU student leaders entered and began shouting and hand clapping over Shockley so he could not be heard.  Professor Schoenfeldt asked the students to allow the debate to continue so he could logically criticize Shockley’s ideas, but they would not stop.  The debate ended abruptly after forty-five minutes. 

Editorials flooded the Red and Black condemning the actions of the African American students.  These letters accused the students of denying Shockley his freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and escalated to include accusations that African American students were “cowardly,” “disgusting,” and “immature.” Demosthenian sued BSU and the Young Socialists Alliance to recover the costs of the event, and demanded that the University withdraw financial support from BSU and deny its members space on campus to hold meetings.  On March 8, 1974, ruling in favor of Demosthenian, the Student Judiciary charged BSU four hundred dollars in damages, even though there was no evidence to indicate that BSU students intended to terminate the debate.   

Despite these challenges, BSU continued to fight for a voice on campus, for the University to prioritize cultural diversity, and for a Black Cultural Center.  Twenty years later, in 1994, the African American Cultural Center was founded at The University of Georgia, in order to foster "an environment of cultural growth, sensitivity and appreciation of African American History and the contributions of the African Diaspora."

BSU's story demonstrates how intellectual activism was a form of social change that students and faculty in the state engaged as a civil rights effort.  Integrating the schools with black and white bodies was a first step.  Next came the slower work of opening minds, raising awareness, and thinking of how the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia intended to accomplish more than a discussion of black-white relations.  BSU's efforts to open a Black Cultural Center were not only a symbol of integration's success and a bid to establish a collective space for African American students on campus.  They reflected an understanding of the benefits of exposing all University students to the histories, social practices, and concerns of groups like African Americans that had formerly been stereotyped or ignored.  By forming a coalition with the Young Socialists Alliance to protest an event that mutually angered them both, BSU modeled a pattern that would emerge in the 1970s: in spite of differences in race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, organizations and people often would unite in order to continue battling discrimination, poverty, violence, and other social issues from the 1960s.  

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Discussion Questions

1. The word "nigger," which offended the BSU students, is otherwise known as the N-word and has a long and complicated history in American language.  Some African Americans avoid the word altogether, because of its historical use during slavery and the era of segregation as a derogatory and racist epithet.  On June 29, 2007, for example, the rap artists Kurtis Blow and Eric B. joined forces with the NAACP to launch a campaign to stop what they perceive as the demeaning and self-hating use of the N-word in film, music, and other media.  A group called Abolish the N-Word encourages members to take specific steps to eliminate the  N-word from public usage.  Other Americans, especially African Americans who may have been born after the Civil Rights Movement, think that using the word in ordinary conversation and popular entertainment is an effective way of divesting it of its power to wound and insult people of color.  Where do you stand on using the N-word?  Discuss additional hurtful words or phrases that people of color or other groups of people have defused by associating them with new and non-offensive meanings.

2. The establishment of Black Studies programs on college and university campuses during the early 1970s was a direct result of the activism of the Civil Rights Movement.  These programs engage in scholarship on African Americans and people of African descent worldwide, and also participate in recruiting African American faculty and students.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of including courses focused on African Americans, Native Americans, women, and other historically marginalized groups in college curriculums?

3. Read the article in the "Freedom on Film" Athens page entitled Coalition '72 and the Democrat National Convention. What strategies did the student members of BSU and Coalition '72 borrow from the Civil Rights Movement?  How have these student groups advanced to another phase of the Movement in the tactics they employ and the goals they have identified?

      Take it to the Streets!

The field of bioethics focuses on the analyses of scientific issues that raise moral or philosophical dilemmas that are not easily resolved. Take a look at Wikipedia's list of issues in health sciences that bioethicists have raised.  Select one of these issues, and write a 5-7 page research paper discussing both sides of the issue that a scientist would want to consider before making a decision or embarking upon research about it.

Writer: Aggie Ebrahimi
Editor: Professor Barbara McCaskill 
Researchers: Aggie Ebrahimi, Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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