4400 Mass Ave

Say it Loud: Black and Proud

Conversations about AU’s black campus movement

African American student with arms crossed outside the President's Office Building
OASATAU marshall guards president's office during a rally on the lawn (Eagle)

Against the backdrop of the 1960s—an era of urban unrest, assassinated leaders, and tectonic social and cultural shifts—a handful of African American students on AU’s campus formed one of the first black student unions based at a predominantly white university. They called themselves the Organization of African and Afro-American Students at the American University, or OASATAU (pronounced oh-SAH-toh). 

While a black campus movement gathered momentum across the country, the students at AU focused on their local needs. They came together to ease the loneliness of being a tiny minority in a white milieu, to demand relevant black studies courses and more African American faculty, to request a budget for community work, and to create a campus culture that embraced their cultural and academic interests. 

In this series of 11 oral history narratives, excerpted from interviews with OASATAU founders and members, black alumni look back on their early activism and reflect on its relevance for these times. Read some of their stories below.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Gerald Lee, CAS/BA ’73, WCL/JD ’76

I learned that if you wanted to go to college, you had to take a test called the SAT and you had to have your high school counselor write a letter of recommendation. So I walked down to the counselor’s office and [said]: “Miss Avery, I decided I want to go to college. I want to go to American University.” Miss Avery leaned over her glasses and looked at me, she said, “Gerald, you are not college material.” I said, “Well, Miss Avery, I go to college now [through the Pride AU Project] and I have a B average.” She’s like—“Oh.” 

And when I talk to kids about that, I say, “You know, Miss Avery made a judgment about me just by the way I look—and maybe the way I carried myself,” because I still walked with a bit of a swagger. “Suppose I’d not already been to college. What would that have done to me?” I say, “But you know? Miss Avery really was right: I was not college material—I was law school material.”  

Most of us were first generation to go to college. The OASATAU leadership—they were compelling, smart, courageous black men and women who guided us, and who spoke truth to power. And I don’t mean that as a cliché. It was an experience to see the power that you could have if you could stand up and speak for yourself. Let me say this: We didn’t have Malcolm X on campus, but we had people like that. We didn’t have Coretta Scott King on campus, but we had people like that.

The black student union started a newspaper in 1971, and I became the first editor. It was called UHURU. (“Uhuru” in Swahili means “freedom.”) The Eagle [student newspaper] was basically campus focused. We were concerned with what was happening in Washington, DC. And what was happening in high schools. And what was happening with black kids. We talked about issues like financial aid and whether or not we were getting our fair share. We talked about how student activity funds were being spent by the student government. We had a different focus than the Eagle and the student government. 

 [OASATAU] decided to branch out into broadcast communications because so many of us were in [that field]. We looked at WAMU-FM, which was the university’s radio station, and they had no black programming. So Russell Williams [producer and AU professor of film and media arts] and I were tasked with going [over there] and trying to get some programming time. Russell knew music better than I did, we both enjoyed radio—but we’d never been around a radio station before. 

We set up a meeting with the station manager and the program manager, and we were going to talk to them about, “You are in DC, you are in a black city—you have a radio station and don’t have any black programming.” 

So we walked in, and we started to make our spiel—and they said, “Okay. When would you like to do it?” And we both were like, “Did they say okay?”  We didn’t expect that kind of reception. They said, “What do you know about radio?” “We know how to turn it on.” “Well, tell you what—if you get some training, and get your FCC license, then you can go on the air.” We said okay.

So they had this chief engineer—old crusty guy, maybe an ex-marine or something like that. We went down to meet with him. He was nice as he could be, and he taught us how to turn on the transmitter, helped us get the book to study for the FCC third-class license, and we both passed the test. 

And don’t you know that on Saturday mornings in November 1971, we started a program we called Spirits Known and Unknown Urban Communications Workshop. We had music, we had news, poetry, interviews—and we trained other students. Our motto was “Each one teach one.”

Joy Moore was our first newscaster. She’d take the Washington Post and the UPI feed and she would write news. We’d have her break in with “Joy Moore with the news.” We had another guy who did sports. I mean we just became like our own little black radio station inside of WAMU-FM. 

The station gave us from 10 until noon, and then things took off and we went from 10 to maybe 2. Later our time got moved to 11 to 3 or 4. It was a 360-degree program—that’s what we called it. Some of it was African-centric, but we tried to focus on stories that affected our community, whether it was something involving voter rights and suppression, police brutality, educational opportunity, things happening with civil rights and the Congress or Supreme Court.

It went on from ’71 until maybe 1990, ’91, when it finally ended. There might be 35 or 40 people who became engineers and producers because they went through that training. 

I enjoyed communications. But it occurred to me that things that have changed in our society, particularly the integration of schools and voting rights, all revolved around the law. I thought that if you’re a lawyer, you’d be able to make a difference for every person that you take. So that motivated me to choose law. 

I was a general practitioner. I did work in federal courts representing individuals. I built a reputation as a first-rate lawyer, and I was involved in things that mixed it up. And that let me get involved in politics. 

I was elected on my third try for the Fairfax Circuit Court of Fairfax, Virginia in 1992. And then in 1998, I was recommended for nomination by Senator John Warner, a Republican, and Senator Chuck Robb, a Democrat, to become a United States district judge on the federal court. President Clinton sent my nomination forward, and I was confirmed in 1998. I was the second black district judge—which is good. I’m so tired of hearing about the first: let’s talk about the second or the third or fourth.

And I’ll show you how the world works: In January this year, I was on the steps of the Virginia capitol, and I administered the oath to Justin Fairfax. A 38-year-old African American became the second black lieutenant governor of Virginia—one of my interns. How about that? I take no credit for what he did, but I’m saying that I was there.

Gerald Lee served as a judge on the US District Court in Alexandria for the Eastern District of Virginia. 

 

Larry Stone, SPA/BA ’72, WCL/JD ’75

I grew up in Southeast DC. I had seen the church bombings in Birmingham. I had seen Medgar Evers get shot. I had seen us get killed, one by one. It was just one thing after another. 

Keep in mind—at that time, James Brown hadn’t come out with “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” We were leery of one another, leery of the majority population, dominated by police, and the National Guard controlled our streets. The political consciousness was a growing concept. We learned to relate and protect one another as black people—it was not a natural instinct that later generations would have. And for some of us, it was more innate than it was for others.

I came to AU in August of ’68 on an academic [Frederick Douglass] scholarship and an athletic scholarship for track and field, so I had a full ride both ways. I ran cross-country indoor track and outdoor track, so at 6:30 in the morning I’m out on the track training, and then 3:30 in the afternoon I’m training. On a Friday or Saturday, I’m away at a competition somewhere. So you were in an environment with athletes [much of the time]—and athletes are a mixed breed of people. The guys I ran with, except for [one], they were all white. On the whole, we got along ok.

When I got on campus, I met people who looked like me from different parts of the country. Just being able to meet some other brothers and sisters and be able to have a community, it felt so great. 

Those were exciting times we were living in. We had Mohammed Ali, we had Resurrection City, we had a lot of stuff going on in DC. And there was a significant number of us from DC that came in with my class, so we brought others into the city. We’d have people come by [my family’s house]. Tyrone’s mom cooked up one heck of a Thanksgiving dinner one year, and we all went there. My folks threw a birthday party for me one December and all my classmates were there. 

And then new music was out—Sly and the Family Stone came on campus, Curtis Mayfield came on campus. So it was people trying to get together. We were accepting who we were in the times that we were in.

AU had some very liberal-minded professors and staff that were trying to help us. They meant very well—it’s just that you try to stand on your own as often as you can. Some professors treated us like we weren’t too smart. All of us would get the same grade in any given class, on any given test, as though we all had one collective thought and it wasn’t good enough to go past a C. [That changed] because they got to know us, and we weren’t taking a bunch of nonsense.

They had a few black people there in administrative positions, so in that sense there was an ear to hear you. Were the [administrators] cooperative as a whole? I think that everybody had to be persuaded to do what they were supposed to do a lot of the time—but right prevails ultimately. 

I think, number one, we were focused on survival as students. There were protests at Ward Circle against the [Vietnam] war and teargas was lobbed onto the campus, so the black student union left campus, as a group, and tried to avoid problem areas like that. We were aware that our scholarships were on the line if something went wrong—our educational futures were on the line all the time, because that’s the way it was if you’re black: minor infraction, major exit.  

No matter what black people do, the so-called dominant population seeks to undo it. You know, James Brown sang “I’m black and I’m proud?” We’re still black and we’re proud, but that’s not moving us ahead too much. We’ve got black lawyers, we’re getting some justice, society is moving forward—and they’re still shooting us in the back like we’re rabid animals. So what can you do?

In 1954 my family moved into the Benning Heights area of Washington, DC. At that time we were the first black family there. It didn’t take long before the whole area was black and services were gutted, and trash collection was reduced, and they started knocking down woods and building projects. And after they shot King, they tried to get some peace back into the city, rebuild some of the riot-torn areas while they tear down others to move black people out. It’s been an ongoing thing in America.

And that’s the time I found myself at AU. So, you know, you gotta focus on your studies. You need that education so that you can lift up somebody else. I began practicing criminal law and representing those who had no voice. I was in Pennsylvania—I was the only black criminal lawyer between Reading and Philadelphia. 

One of the problems is that we don’t go forward based on our hindsight. What we do is, we chip away at a wall that doesn’t want to fall down, so we chip away, and we chip away. We chip away at the barriers, and we encourage the next generation to continue. 

I’m very hopeful. I have a son who is 14 and he wants to be a lawyer. I work with [middle school and high school] kids at the American International School [in Bratislava, Slovakia]. The kids I work with are not just Slovak—they’re Czech, they’re Polish, they’re Korean, they’re Chinese, they’re Indian, and in an international environment you’re able to have a big influence. A lot of them had never seen a black male before, except in a magazine. It takes your perspective in a different direction. 

You grow up in America—black in an almost white world, trying to fit in and establish yourself—and then you find yourself in a larger world, where white Americans are a little bit different overseas than they are back in the US of A, they’re more open to new experiences. I intend to return to the not-yet-United States of America in the next year or so and continue to make that positive influence. 

Larry Stone is an international consultant legal specialist based in Bratislava, Slovakia, and former Pennsylvania assistant attorney general.

 

Pamela Harris, CAS/BA ’72, CAS/MEd ’73

My father ran a community center in Harlem and he was working to keep kids off the street. When I turned 13, he got me a ticket to the Apollo Theater. He dropped me off—it was a matinee show—he said, “Honey, I’ll be back to pick you up. This is going to be a very good experience for you. When you come out, you’ll never be the same.” It was James Brown—and [I sat] in the third row. Now I am already really into music. I’m also into dance, and also understanding the cultural strength that comes through musical expression. So it was definitely what my father said: it was a life transformation. It showed me how you can be to the core black and be able to understand the realities—of life, the music—that others may not. I was really able to absorb the significance and take him in. 

After that, my mother and father had the conversation with me that many black boys have now [with their parents]: “If you get stopped by the police, here’s what you need to do.” They said to me, “You have had the benefit of a pretty good life here in Teaneck [New Jersey]. However, we need to talk about the realities of life in different parts of the city, the country.” That’s the NAACP card—that was part of my 13th birthday present. “You’re going to have to learn how to navigate different environments. You can’t be protected from the fact that you are ‘Negro’—and Negro in this country means things like inferiority. You gotta be twice as good.” 

I didn’t know this word at the time—but the reality of privilege was something that could not be ignored. I [understood] that you don’t have to hate in order to be grounded in the contradictory realities of race relations. That was a very important lesson for me, because on one hand you’re feeling like, well, if I don’t hate everybody, then I must not be true to what I am. But by being involved with [others], you get a chance to find where you are in the continuum, and that does not have to be divisive.

I had that awareness that, depending upon where you grew up, what your circumstances were, we were kind of defined by whatever majority situation we found ourselves in. I know I felt that way—that basically I was a token Negro in Teaneck, New Jersey. I didn’t threaten anybody, everybody could be proud to say, “Well, some of my best friends are Negro.” But the reality was, Would you really like me so much if there were 25, 30, of me? Do you just like me because I’m the only one and I can kind of be like you because there’s nobody else there for me to relate to but you? 

The summers of my seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, I was coming to Washington, DC, to visit my cousins. My cousin went to McKinley Tech, a predominantly African American high school. She was in the class right before me, and I’m looking at these black students who are, I mean, ‘I want to be like them when I grow up’-type people. I grew up in a situation that said you have to be in a white environment in order to cultivate that caliber of human beings. When I saw that you can be in a predominantly African American environment and be like that, I said, okay, I want to go to college in DC.

In April of 1968, I was in northern Italy [for my senior year of high school]. I was living with an Italian family, and I have a vague memory of a Western Union [telegram] or something like that. Getting the word from my mother and father [about King’s assassination]—it was a kick in the gut. Here I am in Europe—away from my family, away from my community. 

I was in a Catholic school that year—I’m not Catholic, I grew up Presbyterian. By April, I was pretty fluent [in Italian]. The nuns and the students in my class had interfaced with me enough to come to me and say, “What can we do to help you grieve? You’re here by yourself—what can we do?” 


It makes me cry, to tell you the truth, because in recent years I have been entrenched in equity, diversity, and inclusion work as it applies to public education. And when I think about how they stepped up to really be authentic and not just be patronizing . . . 

Two things that they did: Sister Maria talked to my Italian father, and one of the [things] that came up was the fact that I used to play piano. So she took the initiative to find a book of Negro spirituals—in Italian, I still have the book—and she shared it with me. She said, “I would like to know if you would be willing to teach the class a Negro spiritual in Italian and in English?” And I lose my mind because music was major for me. I chose “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Deep River.” I got to the piano and I just learned how to play them, and I taught the class those two spirituals.

The second thing is, they organized a candlelight vigil in the village square. What was that trio—Peter, Paul, and Mary? It was that kind of a setting, you know, it had a Eurocentric but liberal, if I may say it that way, feel to it. That’s not something that I’m used to, you know, but I’m telling you, it was really authentic. They had people come, they had the candlelight, we’re in the village square—and I taught them “We Shall Overcome” in Italian and English.

I came back to the United States that summer [of ’68], and I had been accepted to American University.

It was like a black Camelot—and that doesn’t mean everything was perfect. But we look at one another today, just like then, and say, “Man, I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have had the benefit of growing up with you—at that point in our lives, at that university, in that experience with OASATAU.”

The solidarity, the fact that over these 50 years, we still [are] grounded in that experience—I’m not just talking about solidarity as in ‘Kumbaya, we all get along.’ It’s that informed, intracultural, intercultural understanding of the issues that nobody would be able to understand unless you live it. Having that in common, and then the ways that we have forged through—notwithstanding the obstacles, the adversities, the institutional crap that is always present to reinforce inequitable access and support—being among people that have learned together how to navigate that, to me that is a legacy. 

Pamela Harris is an educator, alumni activist, and founding partner of Wellington, Higgins and Harris LLC, a new consulting firm specializing in diversity, inclusion, social justice, and youth development.

 

Tyrone Harris, CAS/BA ’72, WCL/JD ’75

OASATAU leaders face Student Senate in eight-hour budget hearing, May 1971. From left: Ron Burley, Ty Harris, Joe Barnes, Gerald Lee (UHURU)

I’m a Washingtonian. I was born in 1950, which means I’ll be 68 in July. And if you were to ask me about the critical milestones in my life, especially as they relate to current events, the first one would be the Kennedy assassination. The second would be the assassination of Dr. King and the riot aftermath.


Photo: OASATAU leaders face Student Senate in eight-hour budget hearing, May 1971. From left: Ron Burley, Ty Harris, Joe Barnes, Gerald Lee, John Ferrell (UHURU)


It made me take a more detailed look at the Civil Rights Movement. [It] was something that I’d seen on television, in terms of the firehoses and the dogs and the Freedom Riders, the assassination in Mississippi of the three civil rights workers. My exposure to those things had basically been through television, and they were not easy to process. There had been riots in Newark and Los Angeles, but it was hard to imagine it happening in Washington, DC.

Washington was a pretty unique city. There was definitely segregation, but the segregation was not as blatant as it was in other parts of the country. The way Washington is set up—they used to talk about east of [Rock Creek Park] and west of the park. On the west side you had the more affluent neighborhoods, which is where American University is located. East of the park is where you have the less affluent neighborhoods. So that translates to a de facto form of segregation: east of the park is basically black; west of the park is basically white.

My brother [Joe] was a sophomore at AU. He came home that night [King was assassinated] and got into a really big argument with my dad. And my dad, he’s old school—he grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina, migrated to DC in the ’40s, had a high school education, worked for the federal government. So [Joe] wanted to write “Soul Brother” on our family vehicle. What was happening was, people were writing “Soul Brother” on their car [so] that whoever was rioting would see that this vehicle or this piece of property belonged to somebody who, at the time, we would characterize as a “Negro”—and then they would not be subjected to the things that were going on [during] the riot. And my dad said, “Absolutely, positively not. You will not write that on our car.” And they had a big blowup about it.

He and I talked [afterwards]. He said that he had been on Howard University’s campus and that Stokely Carmichael was [there], and he had a gun. And this was something that my brother found to be very significant. His perspective was very different from mine. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But I guess looking back on it, it had more to do with the notion of revolution and people arming themselves—and this being the moment.

I had come up to AU once or twice with my brother. I didn’t feel real comfortable—I was still learning how to be comfortable in my own skin. I remember that AU had James Brown at Woods-Brown [Amphitheater], and I declined the invitation to see James Brown. This was a man with a [conk hairstyle] and tight pants—I would call him the anti-Smokey Robinson. I was a Motown guy, he wasn’t working for me. I considered James Brown to be a “‘Bama”—as in Alabama. What that meant was that he was country, he was uncool, he was not very sophisticated. He was a lot of things that us more sophisticated city folk had a difficult time relating to. Within a year of that, I was singing “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”

So then what happens at AU is, I’m confronted with African American [student] leaders who feel like black people have historically been disenfranchised by the white majority and they’re angry, they’re isolationist. In a lot of ways they’re very adversarial where white people are concerned.

My brain tends to operate in the middle ground. I knew there was no way that every white person was prejudiced or racist. But the [OASATAU] leadership at the time—they were saying, “Look, we gotta stay together. The reason we gotta stay together is because these white folks have been persecuting us for 400 years, and [we] see no indication that they are about to stop.” That was what I walked into.

They basically decided, We are bright enough to figure out what is best for us, we don’t need you for that. And this, of course, created a certain amount of tension, because this was a new and a different attitude to the white community. And to be honest with you, they were fearful of it. On some levels, I was fearful of it.

[They were] the first generation—I was part of the second generation, and I became the next generation of the OASATAU steering committee. I was drafted. Trust me, I did not want to be. There was a leadership vacuum—my brother [Joe] was graduating, Moussa was graduating, [Atiba] was graduating—and they saw me as an individual who could step into one of those roles. The last thing I wanted to do—and it’s one of the best things I have ever done in my entire life.

Before Black Lives Matter, [I] thought, man, these kids are brain dead. Frankly, I hold my generation responsible for that. The idea was, We’re gonna go through this so you don’t have to. And so then, what you don’t have to go through—you get a false sense of the racial, political, and cultural dynamics that are at play in the country. “Huh? Well, nobody ever called me a n--. Racism? I never experienced racism.” The Black Lives Matter [movement] really woke them up.

I thought that aliens would have landed before we got an African American president, and that is in large part because we never had an African American president. If you can’t see yourself as [something], it becomes much more difficult for you to be that thing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have an ass-kickin’ coming—because you do. It comes with the territory. And if you are not [willing] to navigate both [white and black] realities, then you’re not gonna run with the big dogs—you might as well stay up on the porch.


Tyrone Harris is a lawyer, alumni activist, and founding partner of Wellington, Higgins and Harris LLC, a new consulting firm specializing in diversity, inclusion, social justice, and youth development.

 

Marita (Bernette) Golden, CAS/BA ’72

Man walks through devastated neighborhood after the 1968 riots

Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, and by the time I entered AU [in fall 1968], a lot of my idealism about America and the American dream had been changed. Like a lot of black people in my generation, I believed that America was a violent country, a hypocritical country. There was a lot going on in terms of changing the way we felt about ourselves as black people. So I was beginning that process.


Photo: Northwest DC neighborhood devastated after King's assassination (DC Public Library/Historical Society of WDC)


I’ve written about this in my first book, Migrations of the Heart, which really captures what it was like to grow up as a black girl against the backdrop of everything that was happening [during that time].

And then when I got to campus and saw the black student union, OASATAU, I immediately became very involved. It was really wonderful that there were so many of us—and we all came from DC [through the Frederick Douglass Scholarship Program]. We were the first large group of black students.

It was sort of culture shock. I remember, like a lot of white kids had never been around black kids—a lot of us had never been around white kids. Now I’d been around white kids because Western [High School] was an integrated school—but there’s a difference. For example, I remember when I took gym class—and I’d never seen a white girl naked. And it was just absolutely astonishing to know that there was nothing special about their bodies. I mean there was a lot of demystification around white people.

This was a time when there was a lot of separatism. We were going through the Black Power phase and “black is beautiful.” But there were two dynamics: I had these white professors who were absolutely excellent, they were liberal and right in tune with the times, so I really loved the classes.

The black kids, we mostly hung together. The attitude about separatism was something we had to go through. We had to find ourselves, find our identity. But when I look back on those days, and particularly when I see the fraught racial atmosphere on so many campuses today, I wish there would have been a way for us, white kids and black kids, to get together more often. We actually didn’t socialize very much.

The biggest issue there for black women in my group—and I’ll be very honest with this—was competition from white girls for black men. A lot of the young black guys would come up, the 18-19-year-olds, and some of them had never been around white girls before. And they were entranced by white girls. So there was this tension that many of the young black girls on campus felt, that the black guys would talk one way—“Black Power,” “black people”—and then the only people they dated were white girls. Black women had a feeling that that was almost race betrayal to do that. Occasionally, you would see a black girl who was dating a white guy, and she would be judged very harshly—actually more harshly than the black guy. Nowadays it’s not unusual, but back then it was mostly black men and white women that were dating.

I started out as a reporter for the school newspaper, the Eagle. I was writing about music and culture and stuff, and then they gave me a column, which I had for about a year. I remember the editor of the paper, he said, “Write what you want.” I got pretty much free rein. So I wanted to provide what I call a “militant” perspective. I wanted to propose a radically different way of looking at the black experience in America—the black female experience. I wanted change—and I was militant about that.

I remember the Black Panthers came onto the campus, and I wrote an article criticizing Eldridge Cleaver for being a sexist. [The Panthers] started coming up to campus looking for me to kind of intimidate me, but the black students—they would go over to the “soul corner,” which is where we would always sit [in Mary Graydon], and they pretended that they didn’t know who [the Panthers] were looking for.

It’s a [50-year] milestone that I feel kind of bittersweet about, because on the one hand, when you think about where we were in ’68, there’s definitely been progress. But to some extent many of the patterns of segregation and patterns of income and equality, and the patterns of activism and social justice, have evolved in new ways.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that 50 years later, the black kids and the white kids on that campus would come from environments that had been as rigidly segregated as they were 50 years ago. The buildings may look different, the language may be different, but in many ways we’re really in the same place.

Everywhere in the world, you see cities are being gentrified [and] working class people are being marginalized. There’s a sense of erasure. It’s almost like the rebellions [of the 1960s] were a manifestation of enormous anger and a sense of injustice and marginalization—people who felt they had no recourse but violence. The communities were rebuilt—but not rebuilt really for those people.

I think that young African Americans who are activists today are doing what each generation of African Americans has had to do—and that is, Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!, as Frederick Douglass said.


Marita Golden is an award-winning author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, a teacher of writing, and a speaker.

 

Joy Thomas Moore, CAS/BA ’72, CAS/MA ’73

Joy Thomas Moore with daughter Nikki, 1972

I grew up in New York—the Bronx. I’m originally from Jamaica. My dad was a minister and we moved here when I was three years old. I grew up, first, in the South Bronx, and then in the East Bronx. At the time, the South Bronx was transitioning. My dad was the first African American minister in the Dutch Reform Church. And then I went to the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan.


Photo: Joy Thomas Moore as a CAS graduate student, with daughter Nikki, 1972


I was in high school when King was shot. That summer I worked for the National Council of Churches. There was an information bank, and my job was to disseminate all of the reports from the cities from the night before, with the various disturbances going on around the country, so I was right in the thick of it. Every morning I would come in and I saw things coming in [on the telex machines] from Detroit, and LA, and DC, and Baltimore, all of these cities.

I came to AU in the fall of 1968. There was no school of journalism. I did what was an interdisciplinary degree—I don’t know what it was officially called, but it was recognized as urban journalism. I’ve done radio, I’ve done television. I was sort of the media maven in terms of grants to public television and public radio and that kind of thing. That was my specialty.

There was obviously racism. I quite frankly felt more comfortable talking to some of the administrators as opposed to some of the kids. I think, you know, the kids were from all over the country, and they came in with their own biases and prejudices and privilege. I’m sure many of them thought that we were there because of affirmative action and things like that.

So yeah, we coalesced. We would always meet over at Mary Graydon Center. You’d always find us somewhere in the back, holed up with several tables—maybe playing cards, maybe studying.

And we were making demands, monetary demands as well. We wanted more teachers, more classes—more opportunities for the workers on campus, many of whom did not have high school diplomas, so we even started tutoring them, with the hope that maybe one day they could be sitting up there taking classes as well.

Four of us started a breakfast program in Northeast Washington. Every Saturday we would go down to teach kids how to cook and also to give them breakfast. That was our way of saying, We realize that we’re in an ivory tower up here on Mass. Avenue, and we have to get into the community. Other people were doing things in other parts of Washington. We did not want to feel isolated from “real” people.

But at the same time, we were working with the administration to maintain peace on campus. I thought that was a very interesting position for an organization to be in—an organization of kids, really, then. All we were saying is that we just wanted the opportunity to give people a break. They can do the work if they only have the opportunity to do so, so level the playing field.

I always felt that there was an underlying respect [from the administration] for what the black students could do on campus. We were able to talk to them about having a black cultural floor, for example. They appreciated the need for us to gather. Maybe it was because they figured, if they’re part of it as opposed to it being done in a rogue kind of way, that they’d have greater control over it. I don’t know.

The black cultural floor was in Letts—the fifth floor of Letts, that’s where students lived. I remember one time in particular, Curtis Mayfield performed on campus, and the women on the black cultural floor cooked dinner for him—he was hanging out there with us! I was living off campus so I didn’t live on the floor, but I was always up there with friends.

We all took classes together, we all did our assignments together. After a few years, we had a program on WAMU-FM, Spirits Known and Unknown. They literally gave us the whole Saturday morning time block for music and news and that. I was the news director.

And OASATAU started the newspaper, UHURU. It was Swahili—it means “freedom.” It was for our news. We talked about what was going on in DC, we talked about the elections. I was editor for a short time.

I knew I wanted to be part of the solution—of changing the imagery of who we were as a people. If my area was around communication and journalism, I wanted to make sure that there were truthful images, that people had access to things by knowing about them.

Coming into an environment where you are learning things that are helpful in terms of making change—I think that’s why I made things harder for myself. Because if I’m saying that journalists, for example, don’t know enough about the sociology of urban communities—and about the educational needs, and the psychological needs, and the economic needs, all those things—I [needed to] double up on all of these courses to make sure that I could better report on our communities than people who had no idea what was going on. I made a conscious effort to make it harder for myself to get out of AU. And because of that, I think I grew intellectually in ways that I never imagined that I would.

I won a Peabody on a piece about sexually abused kids. It wasn’t a racial thing—it was, I’m going to find out about this thing that no one is talking about right now, looking out for people who don’t have a voice. And that, I think, is what I gained from being at AU.

I think what may be remarkable about this 50-year mark is that there is an awakening of young people that was evident in the ’60s. If every 50 years we can have real change—I mean, wouldn’t it be something if kids can finally say, “We are a voice to be reckoned with, and we can change an election, and you have to listen to us.” That’s what was happening in ’68 with the Vietnam War, with civil rights.  I think the same kind of thing can happen now, so that is very encouraging.


Joy Thomas Moore is an award-winning writer and producer, consultant, and president and CEO of JWS Media Consulting.

 

Norman Early, SPA/BA ’67

Norman Early

I kind of grew up all over DC. When I graduated from high school, Calvin Coolidge, I went to my stepfather and said, “Well, I would like to go off to college.” He said, “Do you have your money?” The answer to that is no. That very same day, I was feeling pretty despondent, a guy named Kent Amos—he’s a very forward-thinking African American businessman in the city, we were in track together at Coolidge—called me up out of the blue and said, “Hey Norm, have you decided where you’re going to college yet?” I said no. He said, “Well, you know, Coach [Jack] Linden over at American University would be interested in having you come over here and run some track.” It was amazing. We talked about it and they were happy with me, I was happy with them—and off I went to AU in the fall of ’63. 


Photo: Norman Early, student government president 1966–1967 (Talon yearbook)


I [had a job] working on the buildings and grounds crew—we rode around in trucks. We moved furniture during the summertime, we cleaned desks, you know, the whole bit. We worked alongside other athletes, most of whom were not African American, and we actually formed quite a bond. There were a number of individuals who were great—and then there were others who were what you would expect when you’re an African American and you’re breaking into that kind of setup. I knew what prejudice was all about before I got to AU. 

And then, yeah, we had a pretty diverse track team. We went down to Virginia one time, and Butch Bell was out on the track, he was moving, boy—and somebody yelled out of the stands, they yelled, “Slow down, n-----!” Our coach Jack Linden said, “You know what? We’re going home, let’s go.” He got all of us together and we left. 

Most of the guys on the trucks were in a fraternity. A lot of them were in [Alpha Tau Omega]. I indicated to them one day that I thought I would pledge ATO. They kind of looked at each other, and one of the guys said, “Nope, you won’t be pledging ATO.” I asked why not, and they told me that it was segregated. I said, Oh—welcome to the 1960s, and I said okay. 

So I knew I wanted fraternity life as a part of my college experience. I’d met a lot of wonderful guys who were in [Zeta Beta Tau], which is a primarily Jewish fraternity. And I still am a ZBT. As a matter of fact, I go to events almost every year. 

I always had the feeling that I could do something as well as or better than the next person. Even when I was at American University, before I ran for student government president, I was running for various other offices, like sophomore class president, just because I enjoyed doing my best with and for other people. I was vice president during my junior year, then I was president in the senior year. 

One of the things I thought was good was that, by having an African American in that position [for the first time], things that I thought were detrimental to student life were starting to be changed—I’m talking mostly about interpersonal relationships. I can’t say that there was a lot of activism going on while I was there. I think that we were trying to walk before we could run—that was pretty critical for us at that time. But we had a lot of friends at the other schools. 

One of the things that we developed was a scholarship fund where four or five schools in the [DC] metro area put at least one act into a variety hour-type thing. As time went on, those schools formed relationships with one another. It got to the point where the student government officials were hanging with student government officials from other schools. A lot of it, believe it or not, went on between Howard and American University—which are very dichotomous, those two schools. 

Martin Luther King’s influence was something that we all came under because he was such an amazing person. I think everybody would go to sleep at night hoping that nothing ever happened to him, and then one day it happened. 

Yeah, we had [John F.] Kennedy, we had King, and we had Bobby [Kennedy]. That was a lot to absorb in a fairly short period of time, and it was not something that I wanted to become accustomed to, that’s for damn sure. Those three people all had tremendous values and all had tremendous heart. That was just something that you had to take in.

I was going to law school so that I could work for poor people and for minorities through the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship [Reggie] Program. It was a program, at least as I see it, for young activist lawyers to get involved [in legal aid programs], and I got assigned to Denver. That was the reason I came to Denver—because Denver had black folks who had never heard of discrimination. They didn’t really feel that this was something that touched them. When you come from DC, you know it touches you. 

The Reggies—we had gone to Howard University the summer before we started law school, and we were trained to kind of be super legal-aid lawyers. I can’t speak for everybody else, but we had a mind that we were going to expose minorities, poor people, to things that they had never been exposed to. 

I wasn’t a H. Rap Brown kind of militant, but I considered myself to be more militant than folks who had not had the Reggie training. I considered myself to be more militant, period, after the training. It was philosophical, but it was also practical. We were doing things that had not been done before, like I handled a lot of the police misconduct stuff for the black community. We started to change that—and we did change that, to the point that when I [became] the district attorney here in Denver, the cops said, “Wait a minute, this dude is on the other side.” 

You look back—and one of the things that happened before King got shot is, you would think about the state of almost unrest, and before you know it the man is shot. You see a lot of that happening now—the unrest as a result of rhetoric and the fact that I think a lot of people were looking for an opportunity to express what they are expressing now. We’re a divided country right now, and I am not very hopeful. 


Norman Early was the first African American district attorney of Denver—and AU’s first black student government president.

 

Leslie Epps, Kogod/BS ’69

Student looks out window of a campus building at flag at half-mast after King's assassination

Where I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, the schools were totally integrated. I was playing football in high school, and my thoughts were to go to Syracuse to play football and be the next Art Monk or somebody like that. But I got injured my junior year and the doctor told me my football career was over. So American was a particular choice because they did not have a football team: that way I wouldn’t miss it!


Photo: Flag at half-mast honors King outside deserted campus building (Eagle)


I think I was the only black male admitted into the [Kogod] School of Business my freshman year. My first set of roommates were white. Atiba Coppock and Moussa Foster were my roommates after my first year. The fourth person in the quad suite was a white kid that was an upperclassman, and he stayed off campus with his girlfriend somewhere, so we basically had the suite to ourselves. 

I got activated [politically] when I came to campus. We had a black student government president, Norm Early, he was a student athlete. His involvement in the campus politics kind of made us aware. And just being in DC—we kept our ears and eyes open to the news and what was happening during those times, with Vietnam and everything. People were thinking, Am I going to get drafted? Am I going to Vietnam? Things like that. 

I think the first time that I was ever conscious of being discriminated against was after my freshman year. I was working for a marine supply company up in Baltimore. We did piecework making cargo nets and rope ladders and things like that. Everybody got their check the same day, and there was a place where you could go cash your check where this restaurant was that had a carryout [section]. Blacks could cash their checks—but they couldn’t order food at the carryout.

I didn’t want to fight [about it]—I wanted to figure out a solution. And my devious mind said, Well, okay, you can’t serve me here at the carryout—let me walk around to the restaurant. I walked around to the front of the restaurant and sat down, and ordered, and ate. My coworkers came back afterward and asked me, “Where did you go to eat?” I said, “I went to that restaurant.” They said, “Well, didn’t they stop you?” I said, “No.” I wasn’t going to be deterred by my first bout of outward racism in a society that I thought was equal. 

I’ve been basically living my life in increments of 10 years since I came out of AU. There were a lot of low points in my life during the course of [the past] 50 years, but because of my awareness of who I am and the people around me that wouldn’t let me fall off the map, I’ve been able to survive and thrive.

I am married, with grandchildren getting ready to graduate from high school. I’m trying to make them aware of what’s happening in the world today so that they can understand what I went through, what my classmates went through. They don’t necessarily see the struggles because of the foundations that have been laid and the paths that have been opened for them. The most important thing I try to preach to the kids is, you have to know who you are and what you want to accomplish. Without those goals, you’re just treading water every day. Hopefully I’ve gotten through to a few of them.  

Most of the kids where I live here in Bladensburg [Maryland] I’ve known since they were in kindergarten. I’ve been involved with the community on a high school level and with senior groups here. I don’t think they push in the high schools what has transpired over the past 50 years—since those riots happened. They might see a film [clip] on the news or something, but I don’t think that they’re sitting in the classrooms getting a history of what actually happened here in the nation’s capital. 

We were the generation that became aware of what the struggle was going to be about—because prior to King getting killed, I don’t think America wanted to know anything about what the struggle was about. I think they viewed it as, you know, it’s just a bunch of nonviolent religious activists—until the marches started, it was Johnson’s administration. That’s when the media really started covering the events and the country became aware of what’s going on. And then when King got killed, I think it socially awoke a mass population that had been coddled by the government into thinking everything was fine.
 
I feel extremely proud of what we did, and I know most of my peers do too. I don’t know if there’s anything we could have done differently, except maybe change a lot more minds a lot more quickly about the state of this country.

I think we were able to establish something that the classes behind us wanted to continue: They wanted to have their voices heard. They wanted to have an influence in their communities and the lives of students at American University. We were very fortunate to have that connection [with each other]. It was us against the world at one point—and then it got to be we’re preparing and educating the next generation. 

If this generation is able to speak up and generate activism within the political system that we have to deal with in this country, then that’s what they’ve got to do. And we’ve got to be able to back them. We’re a community, and we will continue to be a large family community. We want that to keep going on. 


Leslie Epps worked as an accountant, most recently at the international law firm of Hogan Lovells in Washington, DC.

 

Moussa Foster, SPA/BA ’70 

Moussa Foster (right) and OASATAU members in AU provost Harold Hutson’s office to lobby for black studies  and faculty

When I came to American University, my nickname was “Moose.” I had a close African friend who didn’t know what that animal was. So I showed him the Great North Woods mural in Mary Graydon, and he said, “Oh my God, brother, this is a conspiracy of the white man to shame our race. That is the ugliest animal I’ve seen in my life.” He said, “I’m going to give you the name ‘Musa.’ It’s the name we give to people of which we expect great things.” And so I took the name Musa. Then when I came to Minnesota, people were [mispronouncing] it, so a francophone African teacher of history from Guinea said, “This is the way we spell it: Moussa.” And so that’s what I [adopted].


Photo: Moussa Foster (right) and OASATAU members lobby for a black studies program and faculty in the office of AU provost Harold Hutson (Washington Post, May 9, 1968)


I grew up in a poor working-class community in East Baltimore. I am the son of a black preacher and a community worker who worked for the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Catholic agency for seniors. They were fundamental Pentecostal believers and they were pacifists. My personal position was not pacifist at all, and my father and I would have very long, protracted discussions about this, to the point where he was really worried that I was at risk in a racist society. 

Things caught fire for me once I got to AU and was out of my parents’ household and mingling with people who were willing to debate things on a broader plane. The idea of whether or not African Americans and other people of color could actually be incorporated into an American democracy was one of the things that I was most interested in talking about and studying and testing.

Atiba Coppock, Joe Harris, and I—we were friends since the freshman class. I was probably the most outspoken. Without a doubt, I was among the more militant. That’s the reputation that I gained—and that I enjoyed, to be candid. I felt that militant meant a person who was committed to principles with less room for compromise, at least in theory. It seemed to me that the country was at a turning point, and I didn’t mind being involved in pushing to turn the wheel.

We took a chance [in organizing a black student union at AU]. There were a lot of [black] students who felt, “Oh no, we’re here as products of integration. We don’t want to give the image that we are segregating ourselves.” We didn’t ask for a black dormitory or for courses to which only black students could be admitted; we were not trying to separate ourselves out from the student body. But we felt that we needed to have the experience of our own leadership, of our own structure, and of doing for ourselves what we had previously asked others to do. We didn’t have the language to talk about affinity then, but we knew it was something that we all felt. 

The racial membership issue [in OASATAU] was really touchy. In our first few meetings, white people showed up—and it totally changed the agenda, people weren’t speaking. It’s difficult to describe unless you’re a person of color and you know what happens when one white person walks into a room and literally they become the focus of the agenda. It put us in a difficult place, because we had white allies and people who supported our existence as an organization. 

Once we formed the BSU [black student union], Atiba and I tied for who would lead the organization—there was a vote among the students who showed up that day—and I won by a coin toss. The general feeling was that Atiba and I were not opposed ideologically, but that he would be an easier person to negotiate with than I would because I was so vociferous in my presentation. But that worked to our advantage, because we would go into a meeting with the administration and we’d have our agenda, and I would breathe fire and generally leave, and then Atiba would say, “Wow, that Moose Foster’s really something. Let’s talk about these demands.” People had no idea that we were the best of friends. 

After King was killed, I did not believe that the republic would last for another decade. I said it just can’t take these kinds of shocks, because we had riots in ’64, and then in ’67, and now in ’68, and I said, it’s gonna be outright martial law. I understood why it was happening. I didn’t appreciate it—but in the sense, yes, this is what must happen. I believed that with the lack of change, and especially with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., that that was the big trigger—that was the explosion. The rebellion seemed to be the cataclysmic event—this was going to stop things in its tracks. And it didn’t, you know? 

I felt that if there was any hope for liberalism, it was gonna come from Bobby Kennedy. And I was crushed when he was shot. I think for anybody that grew up in the Kennedy era, it was just one great sigh—of horror. It seemed to be coming from all angles—the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the police riot, it appeared to be so chaotic. Yeah, it was like a mule kick. 

That American University experience, it shaped my ideology. I came in as a militant integrationist—and I left as more of a cultural nationalist. I really did not believe that white America was ready to make peace. For years I investigated moving to Africa or the Caribbean or setting up communities here in this country in the South. That was sort of my passion, this idea of moving to a social space where the issue of competing with white people and incurring their wrath and their resistance would be off the table. I’d always resisted separatism. I said, I’m only a separatist to the extent that the [American] colonists were separatists, or that Gandhi was a separatist, or that Mandela was a separatist—we all want to be separated from injustice. 

I see 1968 as the year that molded me into the person I was to become. I’m still growing, I’m still learning. And I wish I had more to celebrate. I’m grateful for the changes that I’ve seen. But my deep and abiding sadness is that we keep moving historically in time—and yet we don’t really seem to progress. But I’m encouraged by the stridency of movements of young people. 


A retired educator, Foster’s career spanned secondary through graduate school. He taught history at the University of Minnesota.

 

Atiba (Bertram) Coppock, CAS/BA ’69, CAS/MEd ’70 

Rally on steps of Mary Graydon Center the morning after King's assassination

I wasn’t here on an athletic scholarship like some of the other black males, but I had the grades to get in and I was able to get loans. And because I had played basketball and a lot of different sports in high school, I wanted to continue that. I was a walk-on on the basketball team. The other thing I did—they had a chamber group and I played string bass my freshman year. 

That’s what [black kids] needed to do if you wanted to go to college—try to prove that, if you came from a city like Newark [New Jersey], that you weren’t from the “ghetto,” that you weren’t the first one in your family to go to college. And I wasn’t. 


Photo: Rally organized by OASATAU at Mary Graydon Center the morning after King's assassination (Eagle)


Coming to the South, I was given a talk [by my grandmother]: You had to be careful. There were things going on outside of DC that made you understand that things were different than in the North. We were all aware that to be black and male, you had to walk a certain kind of line. At that time, black people, primarily men, were being shot down in Prince George’s County [Maryland]. And if you went in the wrong direction off campus, you would be stopped. Black folks weren’t supposed to be in that area after a certain time, but if you stayed on the path, you know, at worst you’d be seen as hired help going home from your job. 

AU was very insular. You could go off the bubble and you’d be in the real world. For example, we would go off campus to get stuff to eat, because even though they had plenty of good food, it still wasn’t black food. So being part of the basketball team, we would go down to 14th and U Street—there was a place called Wings ’n Things, and we’d get chicken wings and bring it back to the dorm. 

It was a very vanilla campus—the music was, too. We were paying student fees, but none of the acts that were coming through were anything that we wanted to see. When I first got to AU, they had a local go-go band that was great, but after that it wasn’t rhythm and blues or funk. And that reflected the student body and it reflected the types of organizations that were there. The faculty and administration assumed that we wanted to be integrated into the larger society and that whatever cultural experiences were going on there were sufficient for us—and they weren’t. We initially saw OASATAU as a means to make the social arena culturally more comfortable, more expansive.

We were focused on the cultural and nationalist aspects of what being black was about—being African-centered and culturally what that meant. It helped us to be more aware of our heritage. [Adopting my name] was part of a cultural consciousness. Atiba is the name that was chosen by my wife for me, and Nsenga was the name I helped choose for her.

We thought that the education we were going to get [would be] very expansive, but it was very Eurocentric and very stifling. What we wanted was a black studies program that would have been degree granting, but that wasn’t going to happen because we didn’t have the competency to do that so we went for the next best thing—to leave a cultural mark so that it was easier for black students to succeed here and not have to give up their identity. We used OASATAU as an incubator for black leadership, male and female.

What AU taught us in terms of leadership was, if you could articulate your position, then there was a mechanism to get what you wanted. We weren’t about tearing anything down, we weren’t about being expelled from school for something stupid. We had had talks with other radical groups, white groups, and our position was simply this: When we went home, when we went off the campus, we were still seen as blacks and the majority of the world saw us as inferior. They could shave off their beards and blend into the society—and we couldn’t. So we understood that we would have to make the best of what we had here. 

Even with the influx of folks coming in from DC with the Frederick Douglass Program, the administration still didn’t have a good grasp on black folks. They still had certain attitudes about who we were and what black people were about—and that’s something that people are still dealing with, you know, the intersection between the privileged class, race, gender. I mean we were just “colored folks” to them. The fact is, we let [the administration] think what they wanted to think. That kind of racist attitude we didn’t take personally—as long as we got what we needed. We were able to push the boundaries because we were able to articulate our concerns. 

We helped people see that you didn’t have to be thuggish. You could use very clear, calculated strategies to get what you wanted. You had to model the kind of person our parents and grandparents had wanted us to be but couldn’t necessarily articulate it in a way that made sense to us at the time. So that’s what we represented: we represented a time and we opened up the door for people to succeed. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was that we were going to provide a platform for leadership to succeed us—and then we were going to get out of the way. 

I think that we gave as much to the university as they gave to us. In fact, I think we gave more—because we gave them an opportunity to understand how to nurture black students. We knew we weren’t going to be accepted into the white community just because we had a degree from American—or from any university. We knew we were the first generation knocking down certain barriers that would make it easier for the next generation.

I never stopped my militancy—I just found new ways to address those issues. The assault on black lives, the diminishment of black life, hasn’t stopped. The struggle continues. I feel that there will be change in the next 50 years, but it’s going to be slower than what I had hoped for. And you can’t rely on anybody else to do it for you. 


Coppock taught special-needs students at the elementary and college levels and was a government contractor in the area of substance abuse.

Joseph Harris, CAS/BS ’70 

African American student with arms raised at a rally

I started at American University in the fall of ’66. The conversation at that time was about black folks being on a white campus. It wasn’t a white campus—it was American University. There happened to be more white people there than black people. I think that gets overstated and I want to be careful with the words. Otherwise we’re saying we were privileged to be among these special people and that made us special in a way. That’s crazy.


Photo: Joe Harris, foreground, and Atiba Coppock, left, at a rally  (yearbook photo)


It was an entirely different era. I tell people, “Think of it this way: Imagine a time when almost no one had a colored television, it was black and white television—and the country [was] described racially in terms of black and white. No one ever talked about Native Americans, nobody ever talked about Latino populations or any of the groups of people that were from Asia. They were truly Ralph Ellison’s invisible men and women, even more than blacks were. [Everything] was black and white.

There were two things that were going on that were on parallel tracks and that should have had more of a relationship to each other. For black people, it was the Civil Rights Movement—or better still, we should call it a human rights movement, because if you’re getting burned alive and lynched and your house is getting bombed, that’s not civil rights: that’s domestic terror and your human rights are being attacked.

The antiwar movement was the big thing. And I hate to generalize, but it was what most white kids were relating to—[kids] who were becoming radicalized or better aware, and many of them were understanding that it wasn’t just about the war in Southeast Asia. It was also about the war here. The more enlightened parts of the antiwar movement were starting to appreciate that.

There were groups of people who shared this common concern that things were just not right in the country and they needed to be fixed—and we needed to be part of that fixing. The cliché was, “You’re part of the problem or part of the solution: push, pull, or get out of the way.”

Dr. King—he was evolving out of just human rights to understanding that not only were there issues with how the government treated people of color here—but that was closely linked to how this government was treating people of color in Southeast Asia. Suddenly he wasn’t the “polite Negro” requesting the right to vote in Alabama: now he was this radical attacking his government for its foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Even Martin Luther King got radicalized.

King had just been killed in Memphis, and we held a rally on the steps of Mary Graydon. This is the first time I spoke in public as a member of OASATAU. I laid it squarely on the feet of white racism in the United States. I just said, Look, if Dr. King, a man of nonviolence, is only stating the truth that secondhand citizenship is unacceptable, that you can’t expect people of color to lay their lives on the line for this country repeatedly and come home to be lynched and burned and treated like animals—that’s just not going to work. He wasn’t calling for armed insurrection. He wasn’t using the phrase “by any means necessary.” He was very clear about strategy and methodology, and he was very clear about goals. I said if that man is assassinated for speaking the truth and calling for a peaceful transition, then we’ve got a problem here and we’ve got to change our approach. It was a real transformational moment for me in terms of what was going on and how I needed to respond to it.

For me, it’s not about being militant. I mean you grow your hair long, you wear a dashiki. Do you spend all day talking bad about white people? Does that make you a militant? A true militant would be spending all of his or her time educating everyone, but specifically his or her own community about who they are and what they are. And more importantly—this is what keeps getting lost—helping them to learn how to be successful in this world. 

The Black Panthers started what the government took over as the school lunch programs—the Panthers started that. That’s what I mean by being a real militant and doing something important—feeding kids and educating kids. We bought books for some of the kids in the high schools in Washington. I think we went over to Wilson High School with several copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I think any anniversary is a time to reflect. It’s a very different world now than the world of ’68—and the world, I think, has gone in the wrong direction over the last 50 years. It may be that it wasn’t what we thought it was, and it’s just become more apparent that that’s the case. One of the beauties of that era was the intellectual stimulation. People were having honest conversations, and people were listening.

I think the legacy of OASATAU was the beginning of the change in the thought process about how we perceive this world and how we perceive ourselves—and how others should perceive us and perceive themselves. And it’s moved forward, it’s pushed back, it’s moved forward—and we’re in a very bad period now. In many ways, we are not trying as hard as we used to to get along. Everyone’s in their own silo, and they sort of peek out to see what’s going on.

I’m sure many well-intentioned people, many of whom happen to be white, feel like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Every effort they make is treated like some kind of patronizing, condescending effort. That’s the kind of stuff we need to get away from, this labeling and judging. Good-faith effort that comes from the heart should be seen as that.


Harris is an obstetrician-gynecologist with a subspecialty in maternal fetal medicine.