Students Celebrate Black History Month with Major Kick-Off Event

On Feb. 1, Connecticut College’s Unity House celebrated the beginning of Black History Month by sponsoring a “50 years of Black Power” dinner in the 1941 Room for the campus community. The event, which featured a keynote talk on millennial activism, highlighted the role of students as torchbearers of Martin Luther King’s legacy. Unity House honored members of the community “who exemplify the legacy of Dr. King’s work” with several service awards. There were also artistic performances that sought to promote social change beyond the campus gates.

Jermaine Doris ’19, Chair of Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR), started the night with a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” The song, which explores an individual’s role in shaping collective consciousness, segued nicely into the event’s keynote address, delivered by Dr. Jeffrey Ogbar, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut. The speech, entitled, “It was All a Dream: The Intersection of Martin Luther King’s Politics and Millennial Activism,” chronicled Dr. King’s relationship with the Black Power Movement. History remembers the Black Power Movement as “caustic, causing fissures in society and hardening racial lines,” Dr. Ogbar remarked. The “grand narrative” around Black Power, however, stems from a misconception of the Civil Rights Movement.

Students often learn in high school that the Civil Rights Movement featured a coalition of blacks and whites dedicated to dismantling Jim Crow though non-violent means. By 1966, Nationalists entered the fray “and disrupted [the coalition] with calls for Black Power. There followed a purge of white people from civil rights movements, and riots ensued. The Black Nationalists had mastered rhetoric but lacked substance,” according to Dr. Ogbar. But because the Black Power Movement “lacked any institutional legacies, it provided a cathartic space for people to say certain things about white supremacy,” Dr. Ogbar argued.

In fact, Black Power provided a common venue for minorities to demand greater cultural recognition. The Black Panther Party, for instance, inspired by the message of black pride, established alliances with other activist groups. The Chicago division of the Party partnered with both the white Young Patriots and the Latino Young Lords to mobilize more activists. As a testament to the strength of these partnerships, the Latino Young Lords often served as pallbearers at Panther members’ funerals.

Although Black Power reenergized civil right activists, Dr. King seemed reluctant to associate with the movement during its early stages.

A 1966 Civil Rights march in Greenwood, Mississippi, for instance, pitted Black Power factions against Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership conference. Having witnessed the brutality directed toward the protesters, Stokely Carmichael, a Nonviolent Action Group leader, called for marchers to “stop asking to integrate and instead demand Black Power,” Dr. Ogbar said. Dr. King, by contrast, proclaimed, “we need freedom now. Not black power, white power, or green power.”

As the influence of the Black Power Movement grew, Dr. King tailored his speeches toward Black Nationalists. In his early speeches, Dr. Ogbar noted, King invoked Jefferson and Thoreau. But at the height of the Black Power Movement, Dr. King “relied on black folks and figures” to provide his orations with persuasive soundbites.

By 1967, the Black Power Movement had extended the scope of its influence beyond civil rights leaders to black youth. Invoking the ideologies of Black Power, students demanded the creation of Africana departments and black students unions across college and university campuses. Their efforts inspired other students of color to follow suit. For instance, at California State University and at Berkeley, student efforts led to the establishment of Mexican-American and Asian studies departments. Black Power, Dr. Ogbar concluded, “didn’t divide people, but brought them together.”

The expression of Black Power, for millennials, has evolved to encompass musical genres. Like Black Power, which shifted civil rights dialogues from passive declarations of suffering to militant rhetoric, hip-hop employs provocative political language. Music, Dr. Ogbar believes, can be a more authentic venue for protesting white supremacy than traditional civil rights catchphrases.

Emphasizing Dr. Ogbar’s claim that art raises social justice awareness, a member of New London’s “Writers Block” read an original poem, “I Wonder,” following his address. The poem, chronicling the African-American experience in modern America, provided appropriate context to distinguish campus efforts to ameliorate racial inequalities.

Unity House presented service awards to a Conn student, professor and staff member based on community recommendations. Jennifer Nival, assistant director of Unity House and an advisor for Conn’s Women’s Center, was honored for her efforts “to create a more intersectional approach to women’s issues.” Conn student Chakena Sims ’16 was recognized for organizing such events as “the get out and vote campaign” to combat social injustice. Professor Mohamed A. Diagne, the Oakes Ames associate Professor  of Physics and Conn alum of ’97,  received recognition for stepping up as Conn’s Muslim Community Program Leader.

In her remarks, Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Claudia Highbaugh noted that while the Black Power Movement made progress in bridging socioeconomic inequalities, the campus and wider community “still has work to do. Not all have achieved liberty and justice. We must use our talents to make justice a fully experienced reality.” •