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Book of Matthew: Scenes from Brandeis’ past, part two: Occupying Ford Hall

Published: January 21, 2011
Section: Opinions


In 1969, a group of African-American Brandeis students, fed up with what they perceived as unfair treatment of the Brandeis African-American community, did the unthinkable and occupied a building for 10 straight days. Their story of the Ford Hall takeover is often referenced—especially to prospective students looking to learn about Brandeis’ radical past—but rarely retold in full.

The story begins with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated this week. King visited Brandeis twice—first in 1957 and again in 1963—to discuss nonviolent resistance. As the crowd of Brandeis students listened in silence, King spoke about the problems of race relations, the struggle for civil rights, and his admiration for Brandeis and its liberalism.

On April 4, 1968, King lay dead and the nation lay in convulsions as riots broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities. At Brandeis, the question of how to honor and memorialize King severely divided the student body. According to the April 9, 1968 edition of the Justice, memorial demonstrations held on-campus and at the Boston State House (with Brandeis students in attendance) were peacefully but undeniably segregated along racial lines. Instead of attending a university-sponsored service, the Brandeis Afro-American Club held its own hour of silent meditation at Harlan Chapel—for black students only. Club member Jackie Shearer ’68 told the Justice that the group felt that any response to the murder by white students would be “hypocritical” because it would be belated awareness at a time when much more attention was being paid to the draft and the war in Vietnam.

Perhaps for those African-American students, who had just lost one of their most respected community figures, splitting off into their own group was the only sensible thing to do. Attending college with white students in the 1960s was not always easy for African-Americans, even in the generally more liberal institutions of the Northeast. In many ways, attending a school like Brandeis, with its reputation for liberal political thought, was actually worse for African-Americans because they were not always treated as they expected to be.

In the Jan. 14, 1969 issue, Larry Hirschhorn wrote in his analysis of the events of the Ford Hall takeover that, “The painful experience of the black at Brandeis has been well-documented […]. His insecurity, the academic pressures, the competition from whites, the ambiguous status of TYP, the fear of failure, his perception of hostility, all serve to magnify and compound the normal and sometimes overwhelming pressures that every young man faces in his first years of university life.”

A Jan. 21, 1969 Justice editorial criticized the “arrogant, subtly racist assumption that the needs of black students can be met in an educational environment styled primarily for those who are affluent, middle-class and white.”

Indeed, Brandeis’ efforts to improve the condition of its African-American community in the wake of King’s assassination left much to be desired. Outgoing President Abraham Sachar had been a believer in equal rights; his successor, Morris Abram, was not as trusted in that area. Though the faculty had approved an African and Afro-American Concentration in December 1968, it was not its own academic department. The first TYP (Transitional Year Program) class—which was designed to offer students with limited educational opportunities the chance to attend Brandeis for one year—met under Professor Jacob Cohen, but Brandeis had not assumed its funding yet (the Zale Foundation, the Office of Economic Opportunity and several professors funded it instead). Many African-American students even felt unsafe on campus, especially after Dec. 18, 1968, when a white student shot an African-American student in the cheek with a BB gun. The white student was caught, but the administration refused to expel him without a formal trial, which never occurred.

So, nine months after King’s death, a group of African-American students who had been inspired by a student strike at San Francisco State University decided that the only way to gain the attention of the Administration and their fellow students was to do something drastic.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 1969, approximately 10 to 15 African-American students entered the switchboard room of Ford Hall and told the two operators present to leave the building. They targeted Ford Hall because it was one of the central buildings on campus and housed the university’s central computer center and communications switchboard. According to Justice reports at the time, the occupying students—whose numbers had grown to between 60 and 75 by the time they took control of the phone system—moved throughout the building and told those in classes to leave the building.

Meanwhile, the two displaced switchboard operators alerted Campus Communications Director Ruth Kelly, who informed Director of Business Administration David Rolbein. Rolbein told the Justice that he went to the switchboard personally to witness the beginning of the occupation and then proceeded to inform the resident’s office. Rolbein also ordered campus security not to enter Ford Hall.

After securing the building, some of the occupying students held two news conferences. The first took place in the office of Lathan Johnson, the black student adviser. There, Ridgewood Residence Counselor Ricardo Millet ’68 and Brandeis Afro-American Society President Roy DeBerry read a prepared list of 10 non-negotiable demands of the university administration. They asked for an African Studies Department with the power to hire and fire; year-round recruitment of African-American students by African-American students headed by an African-American director; the doubling of the number of students in the TYP program and the funding of the program by the administration; an African-American director for the program; the addition of African-American professors to various departments; the establishment of an Afro-American center designed by African-American students; written clarification of the position of TYP students encompassing the areas of financial aid, admission and criteria for satisfactory work; the expulsion of the white student who shot the African-American student before the Christmas holiday; that the brochure for African-American student recruitment must be accepted in its present form or only with changes accepted by African-American students, and that the brochure must be published immediately; the intensification of recruitment of African students in the Wein program; and 10 Martin Luther King Jr. automatic full scholarships for on-campus and off-campus African-American students (including transportation from the TYP program on up to graduation from the university).

The second news conference was held in Mailman Hall, where Phyllis Raynor ’69, a member of the Afro-American Society, presented the 10 demands to a gathering that included many white students. According to several Justice reports, it is clear that the occupying students hoped to win white support in their efforts to pressure the administration.

President Abram had been in New York when the occupation began, but when he arrived home he immediately met with all senior staff and deans, as well as faculty and several students. They conducted a lengthy discussion, in which several courses of action—including forcible eviction—were debated and ultimately ruled out. Finally, at 7:45 Wednesday evening, Abram announced that the faculty had voted 153 to 18 to condemn the actions of the occupying students and to call for the end of the occupation and the beginning of negotiation.

At first, Abram refused to go to Ford Hall himself. According to the Jan. 10, 1969 issue of the Justice, Abram “reiterated his decision not to visit those committing an illegal act.” It was not until 11:57 p.m. that Abram went on foot to Ford Hall and asked to be admitted, which he was. The meeting with the occupying students lasted less than 20 minutes: according to the Justice, Abram signaled a willingness to negotiate, while DeBerry insisted on complete concession by the university on all 10 demands. Little more was accomplished that night, with Abram awaiting action from the Student Council. It finally came at 4 a.m., when Student Council President Eric Yoffie reported that the council had voted 13-0-2 in favor of a resolution opposing the occupation and calling for further negotiations at a neutral area.

The next several days consisted of a media firestorm. Coverage of the occupation reached the front page of every Boston area daily newspaper and even made it as far as national television and radio news reports. On campus, the tussle between the occupying students and Abram had become increasingly visible, and more students were becoming aware and involved. When Abram announced on Thursday that he had set the deadline for amnesty at 9 a.m. Friday morning, and claimed to have obtained a court order restraining students from occupying campus buildings, students demonstrated outside of Bernstein-Marcus in support of the occupying students.

Abram took a hard line against the occupying students. At a press conference held in his office at noon on Saturday Abrams announced that he had suspended the occupying students on Friday morning when their chance for amnesty passed. This announcement did not pose much of a threat to the occupying students, however, because neither Abram nor any other member of the administration had a list of the students in question. The announcement did have the effect of further inciting protest: at least 100 students signed a petition pledging to withdraw from the university if the administration punished the students occupying Ford Hall. Picketers marched outside carrying signs that read “Not 1, not 2 but 10 demands.”

Also during the press conference, Abram maintained that he was working toward what he felt would be a fair settlement to the crisis. In the Jan. 14, 1969 issue of the Justice, he was quoted as saying: “We have been guided by three principles: 1.) We cannot establish academic policy by intimidation of any kind. 2.) The University’s operations and total well-being must not come to a halt because of the outrageous conduct of a few. 3.) I have never forgotten that these trespassers are students of Brandeis University and as President of the University I have a deep concern for their personal welfare and their future careers.”

The occupation of Ford Hall continued for a total of 10 days. Several meetings took place between representatives from the occupying students and representatives from the administration, including Abram. At times, negotiations became heated: in one instance, the occupying students threatened to destroy a Ford Hall computer if police were called. This pressure appeared to work, for even though Abram had gotten a civil restraining order issued to the occupying students ordering them to leave Ford Hall he did not call the police to evict them by force. It became clear through negotiation, however, that members of the Administration would be willing to consider many of the student demands as long as the students left Ford Hall first.

On Saturday, Jan. 18, they finally did exactly that—almost every member of the occupation exited Ford Hall through a second story rear fire escape. Though no concrete decisions had been made regarding the 10 demands, Abram explained at a press conference that he had extended full amnesty to all participants. He also said that the fact that the occupation and the subsequent reaction had remained non-violent allowed the administration to consider the 10 demands in a “voluntary, positive and speedy” way, adding that every “legitimate” demand would be considered.

Indeed, many were. On April 24, 1969, the faculty approved the African and Afro-American Department. Six days later, a Chair—Ronald Walters—was chosen. In May of that year, efforts were made to evaluate and strengthen TYP, and the faculty chose a new director. Then, on March 6, 1970, acting President Charles Schottland agreed to bring 80 more minority students to Brandeis, signaling an increased willingness to work with the African and Afro-American department and the university’s African-American community.

That was 42 years ago. In 2011, much has changed. Ford Hall no longer stands at the center of campus, having been replaced by the Shapiro Campus Center in 2001. But although it only exists on paper, in computer archives, and in the memories of the few who were there, Ford Hall leaves behind a massive legacy that we still feel today. The African and Afro-American Department remains strong, with diverse courses and an experienced faculty. With “diversity” as one of the core pillars of this university, programs such as TYP and Posse still operate and enrich campus with their members. Progress has been made and continues to be made, and one could argue that race relations on campus have never been better.

That’s something to be proud of.