A Time of Transformation
As Concerned Black Students (CBS) celebrates its 40th anniversary, Wittenberg Magazine reflects on the historic 1969 walkout and what it meant to those who were there, who followed and who continue to carry the torch today.
In January, the Wittenberg community comes together for a commemorative freedom march, a symbolic event organized to honor those who walked in the past for the freedom of disenfranchised people in the United States. The community also joins together each fall to affirm the dignity of every person and to promote an environment free from intolerance and persecution during the annual Unity March, sponsored by Concerned Black Students (CBS).
Protests. Demonstrations. Sit-ins. Walk-outs. As the nation grappled with a newly awakened moral conscience in the turbulent 1960s, these were the new tools of a generation seeking to illuminate the social problems of racial and gender equality. Campuses across the country became the crucible in which students struggled, debated and, often, created real change.
Wittenberg University was no different. Though Wittenberg had taken some real steps to address racial justice on campus in years past, the walkout of 1969 was a turning point for the university. Ron Woods ’69, president and founder of CBS, says that the walkout represented a point at which Wittenberg had to look in the mirror.
“The university had to ask itself ‘Do we watch from the sidelines or do we become part of the transformation?’” Woods says.
It is a mark of the university’s courage, he says, that it chose to confront these issues and begin to respond to the challenges of racial equality. In the negotiations that followed the walkout, the university acknowledged that racism existed on campus and addressed specific demands in concrete ways. The students were satisfied and returned to campus.
In many ways, the walkout marked a new sense of purpose and identity for CBS. And, not surprisingly, the impact of participating in such a significant event was immediate and lasting for the students who were involved.
“For those of us who were there, it was a moment when we realized that social change was not just a theoretical proposition,” Woods remembers. “It was something you had to be willing to commit to, organize for and make a sacrifice for.”
Woods has carried that experience with him in his life and career. As a professor of African American Studies at Eastern Michigan University, he specializes in civil rights law and policy as well as African American constitutional and legal studies. And, as a member of Wittenberg’s Board of Directors for more than seven years, he continues to play an important role in helping to shape Wittenberg as an institution.
“The walkout helped me see the importance of the continued need for institutional self-examination and growth,” he says.
Woods’ classmate, Levi Wingard ’69, echoes Woods even as he remembers how difficult it was for him and others to decide to participate. After the walkout, he recalls the almost immediate shift in culture and attitude at Wittenberg. Witnessing that change clearly empowered him going forward. After serving as a teacher, assistant principal and principal, Wingard went on to become the first African American superintendent of the Downing Town Area School District in Pennsylvania.
“I wasn’t so sure at the time, but it resonates clearly to me now that peaceful activism can make a difference. We proved it to ourselves,” he notes. “I learned to take a stand when something is wrong and that has served me well as a husband, a father, an educator and an administrator.”
For those who came to Wittenberg shortly after the walkout, CBS continued to be a place for African Americans on campus to regroup, debate and gather – a kind of home away from home. Janet Jackson’75 remembers how very apparent it was to her and others that those students had put themselves and their education on the line for the students who would come after them.
“For us, there was a greater sense of urgency,” she says. “We knew the baton had been passed to us, and we needed to continue the work.”
An emeritus member of the Wittenberg Board of Directors, who also served on the university’s Alumni Board, Jackson has broken her own racial barriers by becoming the first African American woman to serve as a judge in Franklin County, Ohio. Today, Jackson is president and CEO of the United Way of Central Ohio, and when she, Woods and Wingard reflect on the past struggles and victories, they admit that 40 years ago, and even five years ago, they could not have imagined the world as it is today.
“Forty years out, it is a mark of progress that we cannot only elect an African American as president, but also celebrate it as a nation,” Woods says.
“The election of President Obama brings us full-circle; today I believe there is no opportunity that is closed to African Americans, or any minority anymore,” Wingard says. “But there is still a call to stay involved to make a better society and a better Wittenberg.”
This is the core principle that continues to motivate CBS and its current members today. Brittani Sterling ’09, president of CBS, believes that cultural misunderstandings will always exist. That means that CBS will always have an important role to play in promoting awareness of diversity and encouraging discussion. For Sterling, remembering the walkout every year is personally inspiring, as well as powerful, because it forces people to be reflective.
“The walkout challenges me not to be complacent, and it makes me think about how I can do more,” she says. “In many ways, we still have a long way to go.”
Lauren Welch ’10, vice president of CBS, has sensed a shift in attitudes and the willingness of more students at Wittenberg to be open to the experiences of minorities since the election.
“I think the election has changed this community’s views,” Welch notes. “More people are trying to understand African American history, and I notice more people in class questioning their own views and tendencies.”
Welch and Sterling both stress that CBS is not just for African Americans today. They emphasize that CBS strives to include everyone and celebrate diversity of all kinds. With its long history on campus, CBS has also laid the groundwork for other groups on campus, standing as a kind of beacon to the entire community of the value of coming together for what you believe in.
As the audience for CBS programs broadens, Forest Wortham, director of multicultural student programs, the W.A.G.E. Womyn’s Center and adviser to CBS, believes CBS still must continue to be vigilant in the quest to maintain equal opportunities for all. He also hopes the election of President Obama will help society return to the belief that education creates opportunity.
“Here is a man who got where he is today because he went out and got an education. He is a new role model and not just for African Americans,” he says. “In my mind, CBS has to continue to make sure that poor and disenfranchised young people of all backgrounds have access to higher education.”
Woods agrees and also is excited by Obama’s call to bring all ideas to the table.
“That is what a liberal arts education is about, that is what Wittenberg is all about – the passing of the light, the willingness to be courageous in embracing ideas,” Woods says.
The walkout of 1969 was a call for change, and it’s a call that continues to bring students together today with many now asking how they can be united, while still celebrating the differences that make them distinctive.
It is a new way of looking at things. This became crystal clear for Jackson, who is now playing an active role with recruitment along with fellow CBS members, and whose son began his first year at Wittenberg this fall.
“His experience at Wittenberg is already so different from mine because society has changed,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean race doesn’t matter – it does. And we have to ensure that it stays on the agenda.”