The History of Student Activism at HBCUs

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Student activists at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have helped to change the course of history in the United States.

Many young people who attend these institutions bloom into activists who dedicate their lives to supporting their communities. Not only do they support their communities directly, but they also make change by influencing laws through their activism.

HBCU attendees have had an immense impact on racial justice, seeking racial equality in the U.S.

The Legacy of Student Activism

Student activism and HBCUs have a near-synonymous connotation. The institutions themselves are products of racial justice efforts. And student activism is ingrained within the fabric of HBCUs.

Many notable figures who have attended HBCUs have gone on to create and inspire significant change. A few of these luminaries include civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, writer Alice Walker, poet Langston Hughes, children's rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman, U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush, and many other influential Black figures.

As people who are galvanized by knowledge and have the passion to dedicate themselves to social justice, students have taken movements and put them on their shoulders.

"As Black students, politics and social issues touch every facet of our lives, so everyone is involved in organizing at one point or another," said Amaya Rearden, a senior at Alabama A&M University.

Much of the momentum in national social movements has come from students organizing and demanding change by participating in demonstrations and protests on college campuses.

The history of HBCU student activism has affected the way almost all student activists operate — not just those at historically Black institutions. Their efforts have dictated the level of involvement, frequency, and types of protests that activists engage in today.

For example, the Montgomery bus boycott and Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins transformed the way students demonstrate. Similar protests erupted soon after, like "die-in" demonstrations, which have been used for a variety of causes from AIDS awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Impact Activism Has On HBCUs

HBCUs, again, are products of activism. Both their formation and their continuation have been dependent on racial justice campaigns. The organizing that mainly occurred after the Civil War and liberation of millions of enslaved people led to the creation of HBCUs nationwide.

The Second Morrill Act of 1890 came out of demands for the enfranchisement of Black people. It provided funds to designate land for and establish colleges specifically for Black people in segregated states.

Today, activism continues to power HBCUs.

"HBCU students are often the whistleblowers when something is amiss in the larger society or our school ecosystems," Rearden said. "In the wake of George Floyd's murder, HBCU students organized our peers and classmates to protest and vote in record numbers. Post-election, we continue to push forward and organize for upcoming elections and around redistricting and anti-voting-rights legislation."

Additionally, activist contributions have culminated in boosting the financial viability of HBCUs. Philanthropic efforts to support the Black community often raise funds for historically Black institutions. The goal being to both support the universities and raise awareness of their histories and mission. HBCUs aim to support the Black community through education. And activist efforts highlight that objective.

Social justice organizations, the federal government, and celebrities have all contributed philanthropically to HBCUs. The United Negro College Fund specifically serves the financial needs of Black students and historically Black institutions. Celebrities, from Beyonce to Bill Gates, make donations to HBCUs each year. Students have access to additional grant funding under federal student aid programs.

The support for HBCUs is made possible in large part by racial justice movements that focus on the education and well-being of the Black community.

Important Issues Facing HBCU Students

HBCUs have played an essential role in the development of the Black community. However, there are still issues that students at these institutions face.

Black students often face educational discrimination throughout their primary and secondary education, which can make it difficult to prepare for college. Though this is an issue that can impact students at all institutions, the number of Black students affected is reflected in data trends at primarily Black colleges and universities. Prior educational challenges and disadvantages are primary reasons for lower retention and graduation rates at HBCUs.

Though these institutions receive generous donations, they remain underfunded. There is still a high need for financial support. HBCUs are not seen as worthy of investment by some. Because of this, there are limited resources to help students financially, and graduates often carry substantial student loan debt. However, some institutions are using funding from the CARES Act and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to clear the debt balances of students.

HBCU attendees also face the stigma of their institutions being considered second-class colleges. Many people believe these schools offer a subpar education. The source of this myth is the belief that other colleges and universities offer more rigorous coursework. Graduates often face people who believe that their education is less valuable than an education from a non-historically Black college or university. However, the belief that these institutions are intrinsically inferior is baseless.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected HBCU students by contributing to their stress levels. Many students who attend HBCUs are first-generation college students. The lack of support and knowledge about college that first-generation students often face — coupled with the isolation and obstacles to education that the pandemic continues to present — has caused additional barriers for many HBCU students.

"A facet of supporting student efforts is to guarantee that students have comfortable and clean housing, can express their voice and opinions without fear of repercussions, and are paid living wages when they work with a school or organization," Rearden said. "If students do not have their basic needs met, they cannot effectively pursue justice."

What Role Can HBCU Students Play in Today's Society?

Even with the challenges they face, HBCU attendees bring tremendous value to society. These are students who understand the importance of education for the Black community. They come from a legacy of community organizing. They understand the issues that block the Black community's access to education and knowledge.

Student activists can use their position to spread awareness about the issues they face on their campuses. Their experiences as social activists help prepare them to combat issues at their institutions and colleges nationwide.

Graduates can create strong networks between fellow Black business owners, artists, professionals, and other cohort members. They can pave the way for other Black graduates to find success in society. With all of their efforts, they work to strengthen both the Black community and society as a whole.

Most importantly, HBCU graduates can continue the legacy of their colleges and historically Black traditions. They contribute to society with the culture they create and spread during their college years. These students — and especially student activists — have unique perspectives on social justice, community, education, and culture, which can be used to help create a more diverse and just society.

HBCUs have galvanized social justice movements throughout U.S. history. The initiatives that student activists have championed have changed the course of history. It's important to recognize this fact.

One of the best ways to honor these student activists is to support their efforts. Engage in their demonstrations. Help combat their fights on and off campus. Advocate for them as both students and individuals.

With all of the work they've done, HBCU student activists deserve much more encouragement and appreciation than they get.

Meet the Student

Portrait of Amaya Rearden

Amaya Rearden

Amaya Rearden is a senior communications media major at Alabama A&M University with a concentration in film and production and a minor in political science. She is president of the university's College Democrats, ambassador for the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a member of the honors program, and a member of the university's civic engagement team. Her passion for civic engagement was elevated with the 2020 election as she worked on "Get Out the Vote" campaigns to register hundreds of other students to vote — and cast her first vote for a presidential election. LinkedIn:

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