African-American Protests, Spring 1969 (Part 1)

A rally supporting NC State facilities employees, 28 Feb. 1969.  Society of Afro-American Culture President Eric Moore holds the loudspeaker.  Agromeck 1969 photo.

A rally supporting NC State facilities employees, 28 Feb. 1969. Society of Afro-American Culture President Eric Moore holds the loudspeaker. Agromeck 1969 photo.

Fifty years ago during the spring of 1969, African-American employees and students began a long-term protest of conditions they witnessed on campus.  Tensions began to rise on campus after African American foodworkers at UNC-Chapel Hill staged a strike and African-American students at Duke University tookover a building there.  On February 21 at the Third Annual International Fair (held in what is now the Erdahl-Cloyd Wing of the D.H. Hill Jr. Library), an NC State student group called the Society of Afro-American Culture (SAAC) displayed an “anti-South Africa” exhibit with “ . . . four large posters in the Union lobby pointing out the racial policies of South Africa."  Students protested the racist apartheid policy in the African country.

NC State's Society of Afro-American Culture protested a display about South Africa on 21 Feb. 1969.
On 21 Feb. 1969, NC State's Society of Afro-American Culture displayed this sign protesting racist policies in South Africa.  Photo by Ed Caram.
NC State students with a sign protesting apartheid in South African, 21 Feb. 1969.
NC State students protesting apartheid in South Africa, 21 Feb. 1969.  Photo by Ed Caram.

 

On February 25, an NC State African American “non-academic employee” lodged a complaint about a work re-assignment.  Eddie Davis, formerly assistant area foreman of the Sullivan Hall janitorial service, was transferred to the window-washing crew.  “He interprets the new post as a demotion," stated the Technician student newspaper, perhaps because "he has been active in organizing the Physical Plant workers [into a labor union] and seeking improved janitorial service."  Davis had also taken a survey of janitorial needs in Sullivan Hall and criticized the seniority system in the university's physical plant.

On February 28, SAAC and “The Group” (an “offshoot” of Students for Democratic Action, according to the Technician) organized a rally at the Morris Building (where SAS Hall is today) to support better wages and working conditions for NC State’s non-academic workers.   The Technician described it as “the first major activist demonstration on campus” and remarked that "the only other major black and white student demonstration was the Martin Luther King Memorial March last April [1968]."

NC State students at a rally supporting physical plant workers, 28 Feb. 1969.  Photo by Ed Caram.
NC State students supporting facilities workers, 28 Feb. 1969.  Photo by Ed Caram.

 

The rally organizers included SAAC President Eric Moore and Jim Lee, who formerly belonged to the student group Direct Action for Racial Equality (DARE).  The Technician quoted Moore as saying that cooperation between SAAC and "The Group" occurred “almost spontaneously” as there had been no prior meeting of the two organizations.  Over 100 (and perhaps as many as 200) students, faculty members, and physical plant employees attended.  Moore and Lee led chants (that included “Oink, Oink!”), students carried signs, and participants formed a circle and marched across Yarbrough Drive.  According to the Technician, “the demonstration concluded without incident after an hour."

A rally in support of physical plant workers on the NC State campus, 28 Feb. 1969.
A rally supporting Eddie Davis and other physical plant workers on the NC State campus, 28 Feb. 1969.  Photo by Ed Caram.
Protestors at Stinson Dr. and Yarbrough Dr., 28 Feb. 1969.
Protestors at Stinson Drive and Yarbrough Drive, 28 Feb. 1969.  Photo by Ed Caram.

 

Just prior to the demonstration Chancellor John Caldwell had issued a statement “endorsing the right to dissent and explaining limits on the administration's salary policies."  He added that university administration did not oppose an employee organization but “that it is illegal for any state body [including NC State] to contract or bargain collectively with any such organization."

The following day, Eddie Davis met with the Good Neighbor Council, which wanted “ . . . to gain the facts relating to an incident that resulted in a peaceful demonstration at the Morris Building at noon on last Friday."  As reported by the Technician, the council “ . . . serve[d] the University Community and its immediate environment in maintaining our official position against racial, religious and other forms of discrimination against persons who are students or employees of the University.”

Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, escalation of the foodworkers strike resulted in closure of a dining hall and deployment of the National Guard.  At NC State, Chancellor John Caldwell cancelled classes on March 5 and called a convocation for Reynolds Coliseum.  This was the first meeting of the entire student body and faculty since Caldwell had taken office in 1959.  The Technician reported that 7,000 people attended and the chancellor addressed the university for 40 minutes. 

Chancellor John Caldwell at the Convocation.  Agromeck 1969 photo, p. 365.
Chancellor John Caldwell at the Convocation.  Agromeck 1969 photo.

 

The following quotes from Chancellor Caldwell's speech are taken from the Technician:

"I have never thought for a moment this campus possessed a charmed immunity from disruption.  Now, in the last few days we have all observed, heard or read sounds of the new activism or militancy asserting itself on this campus.  I have joined many of you in asking, what next?  But just to ask is not enough.  We have now been alerted to the fact that this rugged, practical campus is, after all, not immune from the tensions and thrusts that so conspicuously and sometimes crudely have erupted across the Nation."

Nonetheless, he wanted to address "the new imperatives of our socity[sic] as they affect the status, dignity and opportunities of the Black man in the American society; the status, dignity and opportunities of the students of all races who come here to learn; and the status, dignity, freedom and opportunity of the scholars who labor as teachers and researchers in this University."

He then took a stern stance, addressing particular members of the university community:

"[To campus militants] Stop being so disgustingly self-righteous.  Self-righteousness is the most unbecoming, unproductive and unenjoyable of all the sins in the catalogue!"

"[To African American students] I don't claim to understand all that you have suffered.  No white man can.  He can only imagine a little of it.  But I cherish the deserving of your trust.  I cannot believe you want me either to fear you or hate you . . . . Let us [sic] continue to work together.  You are not required to like any White man.  But would it not help you both to walk together toward a better day?  Would you really be happier?"

“[To all students] The law will be enforced on this campus promptly.  Violators will not be subject to arrest by the civil authorities but will be subject to University discipline under due process."

“[To faculty] I wish to be clearly understood.  No member of this faculty in any rank, whether holding tenure appointment or not, has any right to violate the statutes of North Carolina in the occupying or obstructing the use of any building, passageway, or other facility on this campus.  No member of this faculty of any rank has the right to advise or counsel with students or employees of the University in such fashion as to be in direct cause of their violating the statute or disrupting the normal work of the campus.  If convincing evidence of such unlawful or improper conduct is presented, I shall regard it as rendering that person unfit to continue as a member of our faculty."

The Technician reported that the chancellor received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.  Through informal polling afterwards, the newspaper determined that the conscensus among students and faculty was that the "chancellor's speech [was] A-OK," but that opinion was not unanimous.  Eric Moore was quoted as saying "I thought he covered every subject.  That's all I'm going to say."

In a few weeks Special Collections News will continue its look back at the events of 1969, such as Eric Moore winning election as the first African-American Student Senate President.   Technician issues from 1969 are available on the Libraries’ Rare & Unique Digital Collections website.  The 1969 Agromeck yearbook also covered the events of early 1969 and includes photos of the 28 Feb. 1969 protest.  To explore archival collections on this topic, please contact the Special Collections Research Center.

(Part 2 of this series on African Americans at NC State in 1969 was posted on 23 April 2019.

Part 3 was posted on 11 June 2019.)