The legacy of the Morrill Hall takeoverby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Thirty-seven years ago, a group of African American students occupied the University of Minnesota's records office, demanding the university improve attitudes toward minorities. The 24-hour takeover was small compared to some of the other civil rights protests of the day. But it helped change the shape of the U of M. This weekend, the original Morrill Hall protesters are back at the university for a conference to mark the event.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The genesis for the takeover came months before, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968.
At the time, John Wright was a young University of Minnesota graduate student with the cloud of the Vietnam War over his head. He was a fourth generation Minnesotan. His father and other family members had attended the U of M.
But as a black man, Wright remembers enduring insults and other indignities on campus that left him feeling outcast.
"This was a very inhospitable place for African-Americans. Dormitories were closed. If you were black you could not live in University of Minnesota dormitories in this, a public university," Wright recalls. "The social life, the fraternities and sororities were all closed. There was nothing to reflect your experience or history in the curriculum."
Wright was frustrated that talented black students skipped the University of Minnesota, choosing instead to travel thousands of miles to attend one of the traditionally black universities in the South. He took it on himself to recruit students door to door in Minneapolis' black neighborhoods.
Still, he felt the university neglected to offer incentives for minorities to enroll, much less pursue a degree. Wright and others formed the Afro-American Action Committee and drafted a set of demands.
They met with university President Malcolm Moos and other officials. When the students felt the talks stalled, they issued a 24-hour deadline. After the deadline passed, seven students walked into the student records office in Morrill Hall on Jan. 14, 1969, and refused to leave.
Matthew Stark was an assistant professor in 1969, and led a program to involve minority students in civil rights issues. He recruited students to march from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Stark was the staff advisor for the AAAC, but says he didn't know about the Morrill Hall takeover until police came to his office requesting he come talk to the students occupying the building.
"It was quite sad seeing this liberal university digging its feet in, and not doing programming that was being suggested by the students," says Stark. "And the students' frustration level kept increasing until finally they decided they had to do something more drastic, more visible."
Stark was the only university staff member, and the only white person, to stay with the students. He encouraged them to refrain from vandalizing the offices. He also convinced them to keep the focus on racial issues by not aligning with the Students for Democratic Society, who were looking to join the protest.
Stark says the students negotiated with the administration through the night, and managed to reach common ground by the next day -- much sooner, he says, than if the students hadn't pushed the issue.
"The demands that they had written up -- their concerns for African-American youngsters coming here in the future, having a department on African-American studies -- what can be evil about studying African-American history? This is not a bad thing," says Stark.
In fact, John Wright argues many good things came out of the occupation. He is now a professor in the Department of African and African-American Studies at the U of M. The department exists in part because of the discussions that sprouted from the Morrill Hall takeover.
"All that is rooted in the takeover of Morrill Hall. And all the subsequent development of Chicano studies, American Indian studies, even Women's studies and so forth," says Wright. "All these lead to the issues that were raised and the institutional responses generated by the Morrill Hall takeover in 1969."
Three of the students who organized the takeover were charged with unlawful assembly, inciting a riot and destruction of property. They were all acquitted of the most serious charges.
At the conference, the participants will be reminiscing about the takeover and discussing what obstacles minorities still face trying to further their education.
- All Things Considered, 04/21/2006, 5:53 p.m.