Protests of a Different Color: HBCUs and the Student Protest Movements Against the War in the Middle East

by Al-Tony Gilmore

The 2023-24 college academic year was one which witnessed the most widespread social and political student protest movements of the twenty-first century, and one – following the summer hiatus – which may extend into the 2024-25 academic year. No campus could have predicted the unrest and none were prepared for it. It had been more than a generation since any similar protests have occurred.

Within days of the devastating October 7, Hamas-led massacre in Israel and the incessant retaliation of airstrikes in Gaza by Israel, students at many universities began to organize protests over the Israel-Gaza war, and subsequently the disproportionate casualties of Palestinians and the larger issue of the conditions of Palestinian existence in Israel during the 75-year old Middle East conflict. College campuses, largely predominately White institutions (PWI) became divided with students engaging in fierce arguments over whether the Hamas militants’ slaughtering of Israeli people could have been avoided; whether Israel’s unrelenting response was justifiable; how Israel has treated Palestinians; the continuing unconditional U.S. support for Israel; and whether condemnation of the Israeli government is a slight against all Jewish people, among other collateral issues.

The protests continued to escalate at hundreds of schools with protesters camped in tents on campuses, disrupting classes and school activities, risking suspension, expulsion, provoking arrests, and demanding a cease fire and an end to continued airstrikes in Gaza. The anti-war and pro-Palestinian protesters demanded that their schools divest in companies they claim are complicit in the war in Gaza. For example, students at the University of California, Berkeley and New York University called for divestment in Israel across the board, while student groups at Yale and Cornell insisted that administrators discontinue investments in manufacturers of weapons. Others called for an end to U.S aid to Israel.

These actions prompted college officials to craft statements against the war, though those carefully worded statements skillfully avoided siding with either Israel or the Palestinians, and were more centered on the restoration of peace while avoiding comment on any action or process of divestiture. Because of the cautious balancing act inherent in most of the statements, many were and continue to be criticized by student groups. None were or have been sufficient enough to stem the rising tide of the protest movement. PWIs struggled with decisions on allowing some of the protest demonstrations, particularly those in which there were strong and explicit expressions of anti-Semitism and gestures of intimidation.

The media centered its coverage around the student movements at elite and selective PWIs, especially Columbia, Yale, and Harvard, and other such schools where some Jewish students had been terrorized and made to feel insecure and unsafe by physical assaults, anti-Semitic placards, posters, bulletin boards, and threatening verbal outbursts. Undoubtedly, the prestige of those schools, their illustrious and influential “who’s who” alumni, and huge endowments are also factors why these protest movements and those of similarly situated schools commanded center stage. Those schools – at this point – have not been suitably pressured or inclined towards divestiture, but if it emerges on the table at one, it will doubtlessly spread to others. Protesters and administrators at Northwestern and Brown reached an accord to dismantle the campus encampments. The agreements include appointing Palestinian faculty positions and funding scholarships for Palestinian students, and disclosure of school investments to students who request such information at Northwestern but there was no commitment on divestiture. Leaders at Brown, however, said they would discuss and ultimately vote on divesting funds from companies connected to the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, an unfolding situation which will be closely monitored. It is important to note that students actively involved in the protests at these elite PWIs and elsewhere are racially and ethnically diverse, including significant numbers of African-Americans.

Though not near the vortex of the protest movements in terms of publicity, HBCU students have not been on the protest sidelines at any stage of the conflict, and it is perplexing that they have not received the attention and scrutiny their protests warranted. Much of this may have to do with the smaller numbers of Jewish, Middle East, and Palestinian students enrolled at those institutions, and their appreciably smaller endowments. Or, there may be an unfounded assumption that the protest energies of HBCU students are exclusive to domestic social justice and civil rights issues than with international affairs and foreign policy – as if those energies cannot co-exist. HBCU students have a long history of protests beginning in the 1920’s when the “New Negro” movement on several campuses successfully made the case for curriculum changes for more liberal arts rather than industrial training, and for the hiring of African American presidents to replace White presidents to lead those institutions. HBCU students, while best known for anchoring the civil rights movement during the late 1950s and 1960s, also staged campus protests which helped swing public sentiment against the Italian-Ethiopian War in the 1930s, the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s, and the Gulf War and apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

The student protests at HBCUs on the Israeli-Gaza war to this point, have been in many ways identical to those at PWIs, but at the same time are not carbon copies and, more importantly, have evolved from a dissimilar historical context than those at the elite and selective PWIs. That alone makes those protests worth examining. The division and conflict among students at some PWIs, is not the same at HBCUs where all of the protests have been decidedly pro-Palestinian. And, unlike the campuses of many PWIs, there were no counterprotest movements, or antagonistic climates of students versus students confrontations or altercations. There were also no encampments, arrests, police interventions, student disciplinary procedures, or plans to alter or suspend graduation exercises.

If Columbia is the epicenter of the PWI student protests, then Howard, with the largest endowment of HBCUs at $865.3 million, is the epicenter of the HBCU protests. Shortly after the massacre and the counter offensive which began the current Israel-Hamas war, hundreds of Howard University students assembled in the heart of the campus, and one student, Aaron McIntyre speaking through a bullhorn urged hundreds of students within the range of his voice not to ignore the international conflict. “If we stand up for Palestine,” he admonished the crowd, “we stand up for oppressed people everywhere.” The rally which was billed as a “walkout” to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, was held on the same day the students at Columbia first staged their own rallies. After a short delay, the Howard administration responded to the protest affirming its policy of the right of “peaceful and constructive forms of student protest as fundamental aspects of free speech and expressions,” said Dr. Cynthia Evers, vice president of student affairs. That was followed by a carefully worded and morally centered official Howard statement calling for an end to the “personal suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian people because violence and hatred must never be tolerated.”

The university went on to lament the “innocent children and adult victims of targeted hate” that have been the result of the conflict. What was unspoken in the statement was Howard’s position on divesting, an issue that was first raised by some Howard faculty in 2007, when a resolution was proposed for the school to divest from companies offering “material support to Israeli occupation.” At that time the proposal was rejected by the president, Patrick Swygert, saying it did not represent the position of Howard, and he promptly wrote a letter to the American Jewish Committee (AJC) indicating his “complete and unqualified rejection” of the resolution which he hoped would reaffirm Howard’s relationship with that organization and others “who are promoting peace and reconciliation.”

Thus, the more recent Howard statement is an indicator that Howard’s position is basically unchanged. It has received mixed reviews from the students and faculty, some more lenient than others feeling that a position leaning towards the Palestinians may not have been in the best interests of the school’s relationship with philantrophy, the wider financial community, and especially with the federal government which provides an annual appropriation for Howard’s basic operating expenses. Others expressed disappointment that the statement missed an opportunity for Howard to have taken a more forceful institutional stance on the geopolitical injustices endured by the Palestinians – an opinion more aligned with the increasing majority of current African American thought.

Other Howard students, such as Bri Robertson, a freshman international affairs major, who has been active in pro-Palestinian protests, were hoping that the administration would have shown more support for the Palestinian cause. Howard’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter demanded a boycott of companies who are “profiting from Israel’s war on Gaza” primarily from the U.S. State and Defense Departments which provide $3.3 billion annually for weapons used in what it charges as “the lethal and unlawful targeting of Palestinian civilians.”

The students also unsuccessfully sought to block those companies and the U. S. State Department from attending a campus career fair. In coalition with dozens of other D.C. students, Howard students did not build an encampment on its own campus, but joined a pro-Palestinian encampment on the George Washington University campus as part of a nationwide effort by SJP calling on higher education institutions to divest from Israel amid the ongoing war.

Howard professor Greg Carr has perhaps best assessed the difficulty of Howard adequately responding to the demands of the protesters. HBCUs “are not financially autonomous or independent or self determining. So what you see is this perpetual attempt by HBCU administrators to shield the institution from this precarious position,” Carr said. “At the same time,” he says, it can be less than satisfying to many constituents when it may be more prudent ” to assert some statement of our values.”

Hampton University students staged a protest by walking out of college buildings after the continued Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, demanding an end to U.S. aid to Israel. “With us being on a HBCU campus,” says Manual Antonia Rodriguez, a leader of the protest, “the Palestinian conflict and the struggle they experience to this day has been coexisting and integral to a lot of the Black struggle.” Rodriguez is a member of the campus chapter of the Dissenters, a national organization of antiwar activists. One of the goals of the protest, said Dante Belcher, another member of Hampton’s Dissenters chapter, “is to demand divestment from defense companies who have supplied the Israeli military with money and weapons for decades.”

The demands of the Hampton protesters echoed those of student protesters at other HBCUs such as Morgan State University in Baltimore, where the students clothed in black and with covered faces staged a protest during a career fair at the school’s Student Center, holding up signs saying “Free Palestine,” “Stop Funding Genocide,” and “Unite HBCUs against Zionism.” The Morgan campus security detail peacefully escorted the group out of the building. The students said the reason for obscuring their faces was to remain anonymous to avoid retribution from the university’s administration. There is no indication that Morgan which supports peaceful student protests has any plans for a student penalty for the protests.

Rokiyah Darbo, a sophomore student at Spelman College in Atlanta, learned there was an institutional infrastruture in its Women’s Research and Resource Center which initiated one of the first Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at an HBCU. It was launched in 2014 over the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when Spelman students and scholars conceptualized a link between the policing of Americans of color and the Palestinians, contending that there is a commonality to the racial, gender, and economic injustices faced by both.

In October of 2023, Darbo organized activists such as the Black Alliance for Peace, SJP, the Muslim Student Association of Kennesaw State University, along with fellow students from Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, Morehouse College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine, and citizens from the Atlanta community, numbering several thousand in a protest march through downtown Atlanta calling for a ceasefire.

On October 25, at North Carolina A&T State University, students led by Ziora Ajeroh, who started the campus’ first chapter of Dissenters, participated in a national college student walk-out, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. The walkout was conducted at other HBCUs with Dissenter chapters including Xavier University in New Orleans and LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. More than 50 A&T students also gathered around the campus Reflection Pool, a location commemorating the 1969 Greensboro uprising where a student was shot and killed, and had discussions about the conditions of life in Palestine and the struggles of colonized people. One Palestinian student enrolled at A&T was encouraged to “speak on her experiences as a member of the Palestinian diaspora and what that means to her” said Ajeroh.

Beyond Howard, a number of HBCU presidents have written statements calling for peace in the Middle East. Rochelle Ford, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, which is home to the National Center of Black Jewish Relations, was more specific in her statement which called the Hamas attacks in Israel “unadulterated evil being unleashed on the world.” She also shared her thoughts about Palestinians in Gaza being unfairly blamed and punished” for the terrorist acts by the Hamas extremists, who also oppress Palestinians in Gaza, doing more harm to the struggle for freedom and autonomy.”

President Ford has received criticism from students and alumni for appearing to be more partial to Israel than Palestine and for a letter she drafted with Ari Berman, the president of Yeshiva University titled “We Stand Together With Israel Against Hamas.” It was a courageous position taken by President Ford, who stressed a shared humanity that must not be violated by either Israel or Palestine, and insists on separating the violence of Hamas from peaceful Palestinians. Still, the optics of her alignment with Israel – during what has become a one-sided war – has been troubling on her campus. So disappointed were some students that they were moved to lead a silent walkout in protest of both her middle-ground position and Israel’s polices towards the Palestinians, and the war which they noted has left over one million innocent Palestinians, including children, vulnerable to hunger, disease and death.

Of all the student protests on PWI and HBCU campuses, perhaps the most significant and certainly the most anticipated occurred at Morehouse College in Atlanta. When Morehouse College officials announced that President Joe Biden would be this year’s commencement speaker, the response was anything but celebration. The next day a group called Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine issued a statement urging that the invitation be rescinded. “As faculty members at academic institutions in and around Atlanta – including Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta – we did not see this coming,” the statement read. “This is not the Morehouse College that history has known and that we have come to treasure.” It went on to say President Biden has been insensitive to the “wrongs, sufferings and injustices” inflicted on the Palestinians. Some alumni released a letter encouraging members of the campus to “make your dissent known” while students expressed their displeasure at a town hall the day the announcement was made.

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas said that the invitation was extended to President Biden before the start of the Israel-Gaza war and that the administration would not reverse course. He went on to emphasize the prestige it brings to Morehouse and that Biden’s visit reflects and enhances the “stature and importance” of the institution.

The political implications of the commencement months away from the presidential election fueled the controversy. President Biden has been deliberate in his efforts to reach and solidify himself with young Black voters, many of whom have become frustrated and disillusioned with his continued aid to Israel in light of the unabating Israeli decimation of Gaza. The Morehouse faculty had differing opinions on the invitation. Andrew Douglass, a professor, said some told him that “under no way are they going to sit on a stage with Joe Biden,” while professor Stephen Dunn , who supports campus dissent, believed this to be “an incredible opportunity” for Biden to explain his policy of continuing aid to Israel, and to make his case as to why he is deserving of their vote. Passionate arguments were made throughout the Morehouse alumni community, some insisting on the need for the graduation exercises to maintain the dignity of Morehouse and respect for the President, and others strong in their belief that Biden’s policies with Israel were indifferent to the extreme conditions faced by Palestinians, highlighted by the disproportionate Israeli military campaign and the destruction and disruption it has waged on non-combatant Palestinians, including children.

On Sunday, May 19, the day of the commencement, all of the major media descended on the Morehouse campus. The tensions and stakes were high, and President Thomas admitted he was restless on the night before and did not sleep at all. He fully comprehended the complexities of the moment and did not want the unrest over the war to negatively affect donations, applications, faculty hiring, or resignations. Thomas, like other HBCU presidents, could not afford to ignore the existential component of the protests for the well-being of his school. He knew that Morehouse was embroiled in one of the most tumultuous periods in school history, and that there were deep divisions on the campus and with alumni over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. What he hoped and had requested was for a calm environment for the occasion, one characterized by civility, dignity, and respect for President Biden, the graduates, and their families .

As he introduced the President, aides brought him water to the podium, “a sign of the stress that until then, I had not recognized,” he later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A few students quietly sat with their backs to the podium or carried Palestinian flags and keffiyehs draped around their shoulders – a headdress worn by men in the Middle East – with them on stage when receiving their degrees. One faculty member stood with her fist raised and her back turned to the stage. When Biden spoke, some faculty held up the Democratic Republic of Congo’s flag behind him, a reminder to the audience and the media of that country’s own humanitarian crisis and the unprecedented violence, which has not received a fraction of the global attention given the Israeli-Gaza war. Both the class valedictorian and Biden called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. Interestingly, the alumni sitting traditionally to the left of the graduates gave Biden standing ovations before, during, and after his speech, while the Class of 2024 remained seated throughout. Otherwise, the graduation exercises, except for Biden’s appearance, was normal and unexceptional. As Morehouse moves forward, Thomas knows the divisions remain within his campus and with alumni, and said the school must be more deliberate about discussing local, national, and global tensions. He recalled that prior to the announcement of Biden as commencement speaker there had been no official discussions at Morehouse about the war.

The support and identification of HBCU students and faculty for the Palestinians is not as new as the more recent student protests might imply. In fact, it can be traced back decades to when African American civil rights advocates, student activists and revolutionary organizations identified with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. “People like the Black Panther Party, Stokely Carmichael (Howard University) and SNCC embraced the Palestinian cause,” writes historian Michael Fischbach, in his book Black Power in Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford University Press, 2018), “not out of abstract revolutionary solidarity, but because they saw themselves as a kindred people of color fighting a global system of oppression that was backed by the United States.” Saeed Mohammed, a Howard student from South Africa, remembers wearing “Free Palestine” hoodies from as early as elementary school.

Increasing support for the Palestinians by both HBCU students and faculty is well documented and extensive. It is reflective of the current national African American mood. While 38 percent of Whites side mostly or entirely with Israel in the war in Gaza, just 13 percent of Blacks do, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. This represents a shift in the views of some Blacks who earlier on saw a correlation of their struggle with a Jewish diaspora still trying to brace itself from the horrors of the Holocaust by buiding a new nation.

Others at the same time were troubled with the distribution of authority in the building of Israel to the detriment of those they saw and continue to see as “people of color.” The shift continued, especially when Black activists forged solidarity with Palestinians during the Black Lives Matter movement. HBCU administrators, however, have to weigh institutional expressions of those reshaped feelings against what they perceive as the best interests of their schools, as well as the long history of productive alliances the Jewish community has had with HBCUs and the Black community going back to those who were among the founders of the NAACP, such as Julius Rosenwald – executive at Sears and scion to the founder – who in 1912 collaborated with Booker T. Washington to establish Rosenwald schools in the rural South for Blacks. By 1932, 5,000 schools were constructed across 15 Southern states, educating one-third of rural Black children in the South. One of the founders and first chairmen of the National Urban League was the prominent Jewish American economist Edwin R.A. Seligman.

The Jewish-HBCU collaboration began during WWII when 53 exiled German Jews – 10 with the financial support of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars – joined the faculties at HBCUs including, Howard, North Carolina Central, Tougaloo, Talledega, Morgan and Hampton. The high water mark in the alliances came during the civil rights movement when the American Jewish Congress (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address legalized societal limits imposed on both minorities. That turbulent period witnessed Jewish college students traveling South, joining the 1964 Freedom Summer Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Michael Schwerner and James Goodman –two Jewish students — along with James Chaney, a Black activist, were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan because of their involvement. At Spelman College in Atlanta, Howard Zinn, a revered faculty member and eminent Jewish scholar, was summarily terminated because of his leadership role in the student protest movement. August Meier, another prominent Jewish scholar, taught and developed Black history courses at Tougaloo, Fisk, and Morgan from the mid-50s through the mid-60s.

In July 2023, only months before the Israeli-Gaza war, administrators from North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State, Morgan, Alabama State and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund traveled to Jeruselum for a meeting designed to “forge relationships with Israeli institutions of higher learning.” While it was never articulated or acknowledged, both sides sought to reaffirm the mutually beneficial Jewish-Black relationship which has been fraying over the years largely because of growing African-American resentment to the treatment of the Palestinians and the United States’ foreign policy with Israel. The Israeli-Gaza war which came soon after that trip resulted in turmoil on a number of HBCU and many PWI campuses throughout the 2023-24 academic year, and for which the leaders had been unprepared and could not have anticipated .

Moving forward, student enrollment and activities for the summer terms are considerably less on college campuses than the normal academic year, though all indications are that students will carry on with summer protests at many larger PWIs, and there no signs of a slowing down.

“It’s not going to stop over the summer” said a UCLA student. “We’re going to make sure the university knows we won’t stop until they divest.” At Columbia, some alumni erected new encampments in response to administrators’ ordering previous ones be dismantled, but those, too, were quickly taken down. Across the country, since Spring, police officers and school administrators have continued to clash and thousands have been arrested and detained on campuses. Summer rallies and marches have been held at dozens of PWI schools, and many students, some from HBCUs, marched on the White House on June 9, with others in protest of the war. The consensus remains that Israel has gone too far, and there is momentum with the demand the universities must unravel their financial ties to Israel.

HBCU campuses, on the other hand, with fewer summer students have been quiet, but in the fall this may prove to be a calm before another storm. No one knows for sure. What is certain is that the demand for a ceasefire is out of the control of college administrators, but when it occurs, it may not be enough to stop the protesters who are insisting there must be some measure of divestiture in Israel, and more recognition of Palestinian needs. But more importantly, it will be difficult to return to the pre-war status-quo in U. S. foreign policy with Israel and the Palestinians. It is a complicated conundrum and the student protests must be recognized as the continued beginning of the search for lasting solutions to a 75-year old problem, one which began with the creation of the State of Israel in land occupied by the Palestinians. It remains one of the more visible illustrations of the international problem of the color-line.

Al-Tony Gilmore is a Distinguished Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association, and has researched and published widely on HBCUs, and on the intersection of sports and society. He is the author of several books including the seminal Bad Nigger: The National Impact of Jack Johnson (Kennikat Press, 1975). His articles, commentaries and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, New Republic, Huffington Post, American Scholar, and Commentary among others, and in numerous scholarly journals and anthologies. He has served as a history professor at Howard University, the University of Maryland, and as a visiting scholar of history at George Washington University. Dr. Gilmore is an alumnus of North Carolina Central University, where the Al-Tony Gilmore Endowed Scholarship has been established, and the Conference Room in its esteemed history department has been named in his honor.

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  1. Comment to Dr. Gilmore’s article on 6/20/2024
    Comprehensive and inclusive presentation of a current globally divisive situation that has found its way to HBCU students, as well as, to students of PWI.

    This article goes a long way to present information from the past that is relative to HBCU student involvement in global issues including those that currently relate to the Middle East conflict.
    E. Lipscomb

    • I agree with your well articulated assessment Dr. Lipscomb. As I mentioned in my related post on X (formerly Twitter), this article does an excellent job of exploring the nuanced expression of HBCU culture regarding protests.

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