In 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, eight black college students risked everything to make a difference at Swarthmore College by demanding more educational representation for a Black Studies curriculum. Their historic, peaceful eight-day sit-in began a widespread movement across the country and universities—an inspiration and a testament that when you stand up for representation and against injustice today, you open opportunities for future educators, students, and leaders.
Today, all eight students, who represent an array of fields including a medical doctor, a lawyer, a biologist, four educational leaders, and a computer scientist, have authored the newly released book Seven Sisters and A Brother:Untold Truths Behind Black Student Activism in the 1960s. The book tells the story of the historic movement and its effects, which led to the co-founding of the Swarthmore Afro American Student Society(SASS).
Marilyn Allman Maye, one of the book’s eight co-authors, provides insight on the inspiration behind the book, its relevance to student activism today, and what readers of all ages can learn and understand.
What was the inspiration for writing this book?
We had read many stories about our actions, but our stories were not being told. We needed to correct the record officially, while we were still able to. We heeded the African proverb, that the history of the hunt will be written to glorify the hunters, if the lions don’t have their own historians.
We are not aware of any other published first-person account from the hundreds of black student organizations and protests on predominantly white campuses during the late 1960s.
Are universities experiencing a resurgence of student activism? What do you think is the reason behind this?
Yes. Definitely. Numerous news stories in the past two years show activism at both high school and college levels, around issues such as gun violence, gender harassment, racism, religious intolerance.
We recognize that there is still much work to be done if there is to be real diversity on predominantly white campuses. Despite black administrators and those who specialize in overseeing diversity, real diversity remains elusive on these campuses. There is disproportionate under-representation of blacks in higher education and over-representation of black young adults in the prison.
E.g. under-representation in STEM, under-representation of men, over-representation in for-profit educational institutions and community colleges, low percentage of blacks among full-time tenured faculty, administration and trustee boards and educational leadership roles.
Although we built a foundation, we are committed to and encourage other black alumni to help financially support today’s and future students to engage social justice work around issues that remain and will persist into the future.
Do you think other students who experience racism on their college campuses might be inspired now to share their story?
Definitely, and there are better tools for sharing them now than ever before.
To what extent do you believe the civil rights movement was shaped by college and university students?
High school and college students were in the forefront of the fight to desegregate public schools and accommodations in the South. The Civil Rights movement extended into all of US society and institutions. Once doors were forced open, it was often students who had to discover strategies for surviving the day-to-day stress of studying, working and living as a minority in environments new to integration.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
In exploring our experience, we realized how much BLACK FAMILIES MATTER. We found the courage to resist the status quo of disrespect for African Americans because of the strong families that raised us to stand up in the face of adversity. Our families also modeled the value of friendship and trust and faith, that enabled us to remain united despite opposition.
We want young readers to know that strong FAMILY-LIKE BONDS can overcome other disadvantages. We want them to see that REACHING OUT TO THE COMMUNITY outside the institution provides opportunities for valuable, often unexpected, support.
We want all readers to understand that EVERYONE BENEFITED FROM the struggle for civil rights and Black representation in academia – other ethnic groups, the college as a whole, and American society as a whole. Four decades later, College officials acknowledged our struggle as “the single, most consequential event in its 150-year history.” Many of the outstanding leaders in our nation today are beneficiaries of the opening up of American colleges in the 1960s in response to Black student demands.