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The front-page article in the Washington City Paper of Feb. 19 titled “Return of the Mecca?” addresses a historic aspect of Howard University—activism by its students. The subtitle given to the eight-page article was: “Howard University students once hoped to change the world. Now they just want a piece of the pie.” This is, of course, offensive to those who are committed to changing the world.

For the most part, Howard student Ta-Nehisi Coates has told, passionately and well, the truth about the current reality he has observed. (Ethics demand that I acknowledge that I know and admire both the author and his father, who is mentioned in the article.) It is obvious in countless ways that the university is on a major rebound from some hard times earlier in the ’90s. It’s also clear that the author is deeply disappointed by what he sees as a lack of activism among current students. As a Howard alum, class of ’66, and a staff member since 1972, my perspective is, quite naturally, different.

Coates gives only passing mention, when writing about Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael, class of ’64), of Howard students’ involvement in the civil rights movement in the ’60s, while chastising current students for not being more active. Truth is that only a small number of Howard students made the movement their major, as did Ture, Cleve Sellers, Michael Thelwell, and others not as well-known. Thelwell, who is editing the forthcoming Ture autobiography, said recently that at its height there were 75 hard-core activists on the campus in the early ’60s, when enrollment was about 5,000 students. Consider the number of people around the country involved in the civil rights and, later, Black Power movements, and the massive media attention that contributed to defining that era. Then compare that to the lower level of involvement and media coverage given now to the issues (welfare reform, war on drugs, Mumia Abu Jamal) that Coates suggests students could be acting on. It’s not surprising that there is relatively less activism.

However, there is plenty of activity by students—tutoring, mentoring, political and campaign involvement, and volunteering in the community, in addition to their part-time jobs. Furthermore, many, many students are concerned about, learning about, and working on issues of social and economic justice.

My point here is threefold. One: Coates has a rose-tinted lens in his activist spectacles when he looks at the past. Two: A relatively small number, manifesting the hopes and longings of large numbers, can, with the support of the larger population, bring about amazing change. And three: Coates’ own very admirable activist orientation causes him to be disappointed at the present level of activism he observes through the other lens.

Nonetheless, it would have painted a more complete picture, for example, to include some other facts in recounting campus reaction to the death of Ture. There were, in fact, two vigils on the main campus, not only the one Coates describes, held on campus the week after Ture’s death, sponsored spontaneously by different groups. The Student Association also chartered a bus to the national memorial program in New York City, held the same day as the funeral in Guinea, West Africa. Later, there was a large memorial program, which suffered from minimal publicity, attended by about 700 people in the University Center, including several hundred students.

But, perhaps more important, there was a standing-room-only, give-the-roses-when-he-can-still-smell-them, overflow crowd in the Rankin Chapel for Ture’s last appearance at Howard, on Feb. 17, 1998. In addition, back in May, several students were in the large crowd at a fundraising testimonial dinner held at a major hotel in D.C. It is a further tribute to the consciousness of today’s students that a delegation of student leaders traveled to New York to visit at the bedside of an ailing Ture just before he returned to Guinea.

Although Coates could not have known at the time the article was printed, final preparations were being made for a full-day miniconference on the political thought of Ture, sponsored by the Graduate Political Science Society, a student group, and its department on Feb. 25, 1999. Finally, the Hilltop student newspaper reported on Feb. 26 that the two student members of the university’s board of trustees have officially proposed that Ture and another civil rights veteran, James Farmer, be awarded honorary degrees.

Coates asserts that there is a diminution of intellectual capital at Howard but offers evidence contrary to that assertion, such as the impressive academic credentials of recent entering classes and the significant awards won by students. You could add to the Rhodes scholar distinction and the large number of National Achievement scholars he mentions the national championship (not the black championship) won by the University’s Mock Trial Debate Team. Although it is true that Howard must compete with 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. and others around the world to attract and retain an excellent faculty, the university has more than held its own. And, unlike at many other major universities, students at Howard are taught

by the scholars, not just by their graduate assistants.

The tradition of black higher education goes back 6,000 years to the Nile Valley. There, the Mystery System of Kemet (Egypt) was the first in the world to offer knowledge in the sciences, arts, law, religion, medicine, physiology, statistics, literature, and the “virtues” (see Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James). That African tradition of inquiry and development of knowledge, often mistakenly ascribed to the ancient Greeks, is alive and well in the “bosom of Howard,” as one of our songs puts it.

Finally, generations of Howard alumni for more than 130 years have helped to make it possible for current students to seek a more equitable piece of the pie. However, this generation will have to continue to contend in the courts, in the suites, and in the streets to taste it. After all, the American pie, for African people in this country, has been bittersweet at best.

And changing the world is still the main course before dessert.

Lanham, Md.

via the Internet