Panelists question how far university has come since Ford Hall 1969

March 1, 2019

Alumni who led the Ford Hall 1969 protests that established the department of African and African American Studies (AAAS) gathered to celebrate its 50th anniversary on Feb. 8. But some of the panelists expressed the feeling that Brandeis hasn’t done enough since the protest in 1969.

“The question I keep wondering is has the university really learned?” asked panelist Hamida Abdal-Khallaq ’72 at the end of the discussion.

Seven panelists gathered in front of the crowd of faculty, students and staff that filled Levin Ballroom. Each had played a role in the Ford Hall 1969 protests, from negotiating with then university President Morris Abram to organizing the sit-in.

During their descriptions of Ford Hall 1969, panelists questioned whether Brandeis had learned from the protest, and the same question was addressed by audience members after the panel. Abdal-Khallaq spoke, saying, “I’m still not sure that Brandeis, besides possibly on these two days, has really… said this is what we learned that we have to do differently and not just for black students.”

The seven panelists together described what happened in January 1969.

Ford Hall 1969 was in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, whereafter students came up with a list of demands and later met with students in San Francisco State University who were protesting for the creation of a black studies department. After Brandeis students met with some of the San Francisco students, they developed a list of 10 demands, the first of which was the establishment of an African and African American Studies Department.

Ricardo Millet ’68 and Roy DeBerry ’70, who both attended the panel, read the students’ demands at a news conference. The next day, on Jan. 8, 1969, students occupied the Ford Hall building. Though not all the demands were met, the protest established the AAAS department.

Returning to Brandeis for the anniversary of the AAAS department, DeBerry felt that “The fact that we are here 50 years later is a legacy today.”

DeBerry also spoke about how, after a meeting with Abrams, he knew “some bold action needed to be taken.” Millet spoke about the experience during the sit-in at Ford Hall, saying, “There was nothing that could get me up, to give up that stand, because there would be nothing left of me if I did.”

Another panelist, Vere Plummer ’74, a Transitional Year Program (TYP) student, spoke about meeting with the administration and how “It was very apparent to everyone in that room what was happening. The university was giving us the runaround.” After realizing this, Plummer and other students felt that action needed to be taken and decided to take over the building. “We wanted to keep it peaceful; we didn’t want any violence,” Plummer said. “We were in it to win it, and we did.”

After the protest began, Dean of University Planning and Development Clarence Berger released a statement from the president, condemning the actions of the students. The faculty senate also passed a resolution with 153 votes to 18, condemning the black students’ actions, according to a timeline of the occupation provided by the Archives and Special Collections department of the library.

The panelists described how they feared losing their scholarships, being expelled or even being arrested. Abdal-Khallaq spoke about how, in a meeting, President Abrams told Abdal-Khallaq that, “‘As of six tonight, all of you have been expelled, and as of eight, the police are coming…’ I sat there, and I said, ‘I guess I’m going to graduate from UMass.’”

Another panelist, Patricia Van Story ’72, described how she was contacted by the FBI and described the conversation. The officer told her he would like to ask her a few questions. “I said is this mandatory? He said no. I said have a good day.”

After the panel, the alumni answered questions from the audience, centering around what Brandeis had done since. And in a video presentation before the panel, R Remi Matthews ’19 spoke about how there seems to be a lack of awareness about Ford Hall 1969 and Ford Hall 2015 on campus. Ford Hall 2015 was a protest for more diversity, specifically students and faculty of color, inspired by the original protest in 1969.

“Ford Hall 2015 wasn’t random. It didn’t just happen out of thin air, and there is a foundation to it… There are a lot of people on this campus who aren’t even aware that there was Ford Hall 2015, but even worse, there’s people who didn’t know that Ford Hall ’69 happened at all,” Matthews said.

“I think that just speaks to a bigger issue at Brandeis. You know, what Brandeis as an institution actually cares about,” he continued.

A recent study by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute (SSRI) also described awareness of Ford Hall 2015. The survey compared the results of a survey taken two months after the Ford Hall 2015 protests to identical questions asked in 2018.

The survey found that, “By 2018, awareness of the #FordHall2015 protest was relatively low. Although awareness was higher among black students, only 52 percent of all new students had heard about the protest, and 43 percent of students who were on campus at the time of the protest had not spoken about it during the 2018 spring semester.”

The Brandeis Hoot spoke to Chair of the AAAS department, Prof. Chad Williams (AAAS), who said he wasn’t surprised about the lack of awareness of the Ford Hall protests, saying, “Brandeis is part of America, and America has a problem with historical amnesia.”

Williams spoke about remembering Ford Hall not just as a physical place but as an integral part of the history of Brandeis. The Shapiro Campus Center (SCC) currently sits on the land where Ford Hall used to stand.

“If Brandeis purports to being an institution committed to social justice, to openness, to inclusivity, to truth unto its innermost parts, it has to take that seriously and to be introspective, to be honest, to engage in the type of critical reckoning with its past which is essential for growth,” he said.

“This is, I think, an important part of that process, but it can’t just be about celebrating our department. It can’t just be about Brandeis celebrating itself. It has to be part of an ongoing process of looking in the mirror of being honest and courageous of what Brandeis aspires to be, the ways in which its fallen short of its aspirations and ways in which it can be better,” Williams continued.

Williams also spoke about the challenge Ford Hall posed to Brandeis, saying, “Ford Hall was about fundamentally challenging what a university should look like and how a university should operate. And those are critical questions that still remain with us today.”

Associate Professor Faith Smith (AAAS, ENG, WMGS) also spoke to The Hoot about the evolution of the AAAS department in her 20 years at Brandeis, through the Ford Hall 2015 protest.

Smith has also cited institutional amnesia when speaking about the lack of awareness of Ford Hall and spoke about the importance of actively teaching about Ford Hall as well as questions of race. “Transformation is a doing; it’s not an abstraction,” she said.

Smith also described a sense of complacency within Brandeis about race, citing the example of the firing of basketball coach Brian Meehan for racist behavior towards players which happened in 2018, three years after Ford Hall 2015. The process of addressing race and other issues at Brandeis is constant and Brandeis must be vigilant, Smith said.

Smith spoke about coming to the AAAS department 20 years ago, in the 1990s, and feeling that the AAAS department was pressed to justify itself and its importance. “When I came here in the mid ’90s, I did feel often that we were explaining more than we had to, to administrators and colleagues, that this was an important area of study. And it often felt—and I’m not saying that this has disappeared—but it certainly felt more so than it does now that very often colleges and administration saw the department as a kind of symbol of being ‘kind to the Negro.’ As if that was the value of the department, rather than an academic and scholarly partner.”

Though Smith described the department as still fighting for resources, she felt AAAS is not as pressed as it used to be to explain why it is important. “We had to kind of struggle or fight for a place, for resources. Again, small departments are often placed in this situation. At this moment we’re all still fighting for a place, but I don’t get the sense that we’re as pressed as we used to feel.” Smith explained that the growing national consciousness over race, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, has helped draw attention to the department.

Smith also described seeing part of Ford Hall 2015 when she was on campus, although she was on leave during most of that year. She described the powerful sight as students moved from the SCC to the quad outside the administrative buildings but also spoke about how it was unfortunate that students who had come to Brandeis for an education then had to educate the university itself.