The Student Occupation of Ford Hall

“In the Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture...Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our Revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for Independence: ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet it took many years before ideals became a reality for black citizens. In celebrating Black History Month...we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

-President Gerald R. Ford Message on the Observance of Black History Month February 10, 1976

As someone who devours history books, reading about race relations in the United States through books has been educational and provocative. In contrast, reviewing materials from the late 1960s as they happened on a day-by-day basis has been a raw, visceral experience. Small events built up to a greater unrest, until the tension became too much. One such case occurred on January 8, 1969, when 60-75 members of the Brandeis Afro-American Society took over Ford Hall for 11 days. How did it get to this point?

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This led the Brandeis Afro-American Society to encourage the university to develop an Afro-American studies department, hire more black professors and recruit more black students. Ten Martin Luther King Jr. scholarships were created, as well as the Transitional Year Program (TYP), in order to demonstrate a commitment to social justice. The program, which began in September 1968, created educational opportunities for students who did not have the chance to develop the skills to attend - and succeed - in college. In December, the African and Afro-American studies concentrations were approved. One week later a white student allegedly shot a black TYP student in the face with a BB gun.

On January 7, 1969, presentations were given at Brandeis about the student strike at San Francisco State. The strike had started November 6, 1968, and eventually lasted through March 20, 1969. It involved riot police and tanks, and protesters from many backgrounds coming together. The presenters discussed how this strike related to Brandeis. On January 8, 1969, one of the presenters, Brandeis Assistant Professor of Sociology Neil Friedman, announced to the University that he would be striking for one week in support of San Francisco State, and requested his salary be suspended. That afternoon, the takeover of Ford Hall began.

Ford Hall was evacuated, the building was secured, and the Brandeis Afro-American Society held a news conference. At that time a list of ten demands was presented. By January 9, 1969, white students had started a sit-in supporting the Afro-American Society. By January 14, 1969, 22 white students had started a hunger strike. By the time the occupation ended on January 18, 1969, the ten demands were still not approved, but the students were granted amnesty. Several of the demands were later discussed and implemented, including the hiring of a black chairman for the new African and Afro-American studies department. A step had been taken toward equality, but many were still unsatisfied. There was still a long road to travel.

Have we reached our destination yet? Are we all finally “equal” and satisfied? What do you think?