More than 150 people marched silently across the Oregon State University campus Tuesday afternoon, re-creating a historic walkout by black students 50 years ago in an event that symbolized both how much has changed and how much remains the same for students of color at OSU.
On March 5, 1969, 47 African American students – virtually the school’s entire black student body – marched from the Memorial Union through the east entrance of campus to Avery Lodge on Southwest Madison Avenue.
The Black Student Union organized the walkout to protest football coach Dee Andros’ threat to kick black linebacker Fred Milton off the team for refusing to shave his goatee, which violated a team rule against facial hair.
In an era of turbulent race relations punctuated by the assassination of Martin Luther King, the rise of the Black Panther Party and an awakening black political consciousness, Andros’ ultimatum sparked a series of protest actions that culminated in the walkout and led a number of African American students – including Milton – to transfer to other schools.
“It would have dramatic effects on campus,” sociology professor Dwaine Plaza told a roomful of people gathered at OSU’s Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center before Tuesday’s re-enactment.
“It set a tone that suggested black students were not welcome here.”
The protest also led to some positive developments, including the establishment that same year of the Educational Opportunities Program, which provides support services for students of color at OSU. In 1975, the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center became the first of what are now seven cultural resource centers on campus.
But racial tensions have resurfaced from time to time at OSU and have persisted into recent years, leading to the creation of the Office of Institutional Diversity in 2015 and the hiring of the university’s first chief diversity officer in 2016.
“There’s definitely a storm of things, great things that happened on campus in response to some very negative events,” said Janet Nishihara, the current director of the Educational Opportunities Program.
“This is not to say that things are fixed now,” she added. “Clearly, we still have work to do.”
Angel McNabb-Lyons, the incoming president of the Black Student Union, said she was unprepared for the atmosphere she encountered when she arrived on campus, an atmosphere she said discouraged her from speaking out on racial issues.
She said she found a supportive community in the Black Cultural Center and the Black Student Union, but she also said she had found a way to bridge racial divides on campus by engaging with as many different kinds of people as possible.
“That’s a step to change, and it’s a change we need today in this country and in this time and era,” she said.
Terrance Harris, assistant director of the Black Cultural Center, set the stage for the re-enactment by asking participants to walk in silence, as the original protesters did. He also asked participants to ask themselves two questions as they walked: What has changed and what remains the same for black students at Oregon State since the 1969 walkout? And what is one thing you can do to support black students at OSU?
An eerily quiet march across campus followed, with about four dozen black students, faculty and community members in the vanguard. Harris was in the front row, along with Larry Griggs, a former director of the Educational Opportunities Program, and Dorian Smith, a former OSU football player who is now coordinator of black student access and success at the university.
Following in their wake was a long line of supporters of all races, including OSU President Ed Ray and a number of other high-ranking administrators.
The group went first to the Memorial Union, then retraced the route of the 1969 protest through the lower campus to what used to be Avery Lodge and is now known as Champenifu Lodge. As Harris pointed out, it was one of several campus buildings renamed last year after because their original namesakes were determined to have racist backgrounds.
Ray said he thought the re-enactment was one way to try to move beyond the legacy of racism on the OSU campus.
“Part of what we need to do to reconcile to our past is we need to see it for what it was,” he said.
“People keep making excuses for the sins of the past,” he added. “But in every era, there are always people who know what the right thing to do is.”
Smith, one of the re-enactment’s organizers, said he was encouraged by the participation of Ray and other OSU leaders.
“It says the university supports what we do,” Smith said. “It supports students of color, it supports faculty of color.”
Even more encouraging, he added, was the participation of black students.
“At the end of the day, we have work to do,” Smith said, “and it’s up to the students who marched today to tell us what work we still have to do.”