Ford Hall 

The Bernstein-Marcus sit-in that went on for 12 days in late November and early December of this year drew inspiration from other movements, most obviously from the movement that took place in Ford Hall in 1969. The students this year called themselves #FordHall2015. While Ford Hall does not exist anymore, and the 1969 Ford Hall occupants may not have utilized hashtags, their occupation had many parallels to this year’s sit-in all the same.

The fall of 1968 was a transitional time for the University. Morris Abram was inaugurated as the second president of Brandeis, following the departure of the former president, Abram L. Sachar. A number of requests made by black students after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death in April had been granted. The number of black students had risen from 58 in the previous academic year to 120 (out of a student body of 2,600), making the student body 4.6 percent black at a time in which 1.6 percent of college students in Massachusetts were black (though the national average was 5 percent). Twenty-three of the students were black men who were part of a new program to bring students from disadvantaged backgrounds to Brandeis called the Transitional Year Program (TYP). The amount of financial aid distributed to black students had almost tripled, and a few visiting black faculty had been recruited.

 In December 1968, an Afro-American Studies program was approved by the Board of Trustees and faculty. But the next day, tensions arose again when a white first-year student reportedly shot a black TYP student in the cheek with a BB gun.

This year, protests at the University of Missouri about racial inequities on campus spurred Brandeis protests. In 1969, motivation for the movement may have been furthered when on Jan. 7, 1969, two visitors from San Francisco State University — Bill Middleton, a black graduate student, and Arlene Davis, a white professor — came to talk to Brandeisians about a student strike at San Francisco State that started in November 1968 and went on for five months. They had been invited to speak by Neil Friedman, a former assistant professor of sociology at Brandeis. 

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By PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT D. FARBER UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES & SPECIAL COLLECTIONS DEPARTMENT

TIME OF CRISIS: President Morris Abram (center) gave a press conference during the student occupation of Ford Hall 1969.

Accounts on whether the visitors directly encouraged, or “dared,” a similar kind of protest to take place at Brandeis are varied — members of the administration informed Abram that they did, while a transcript of an interview with a member of the Ford Hall occupation from 1969 says they didn’t — but the talk did impassion the students to combat issues of racial inequality on campus.

On Jan. 8, Friedman announced that he was going on strike for a week in solidarity with the San Francisco State students and wouldn’t be teaching classes. The same day, the occupation of Ford Hall began. Around 70 black students seized the building and held a news conference in the office of the Black Advisor and Assistant to the Dean of Students, where they presented their ten demands as non-negotiable. None of the ten demands were being presented for the first time — four were first presented in April 1968 following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and most of the others were first presented in September 1968. They hung a banner on the outside of the building, renaming it Malcolm X University, and had control of the switchboard inside, where they answered phone calls and introduced the University by the same name.

The ten demands included the creation of an Afro-American Center, in-creased efforts to hire black faculty, black directors for TYP and Upward Bound (a program that also recruited disadvantaged students), increased recruitment of African students in the Wien International Scholarship Program (which brings international students to campus), a guarantee of ten Martin Luther King scholarships for black students each year, expulsion of the white student who had shot the black student and a written clarification of the standing of TYP students on campus, some of whom had reported feeling stigmatized. 

A major demand was the establishment of an African and Afro-American Studies Department with secured funding and the ability to hire its own faculty. The most controversial aspect of the demand was the students’ desire to have some degree of power over selecting the chairman of the newly established department.

Though Abram stated his sympathy for most demands, and said some of them were already in the process of being fulfilled, he strongly opposed the students having any sort of power in selecting who could be hired, as well as their tactics of taking over Ford Hall. Abram temporarily suspended the students involved and threatened them with expulsion. 

At a faculty meeting, Abram proposed that the University release a statement that the faculty “utterly condemns the forcible takeover of the University’s premises” and demanded that the students leave. The motion passed, with 153 professors voting in favor and only 18 voting against. A suggested addition to the statement, presented in a motion by Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), that added that the faculty sympathized with the efforts of the black students, did not pass. Even though most faculty wanted the students to leave, the use of police force to remove the students was opposed almost unanimously by both professors and students on campus.

Students from other Boston area colleges arrived on buses to show support for the efforts of the occupiers. Representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Urban League also came to show support and offer their assistance to students. 

Around 300 white Brandeis students, many of whom were members of Students for a Democratic Society, a national organization of leftist students on campuses which was well-known for its anti-Vietnam War activism, demonstrated in support of the black students occupying Ford Hall. They congregated in Bernstein-Marcus on Jan. 12 and on Jan. 13, they initiated a strike against classes. The next day, 22 white students went on a hunger strike. A group of students occupied Mailman Hall and distributed all the literature related to the goals of the movement and updates on its progress for anyone who was curious.

Abram and other administrative figures negotiated with the students in Ford Hall over the course of the sit-in, and they eventually came close to an agreement on every demand. Backed by a majority of the faculty, he pledged to work on the development of an African and Afro-American Studies Department and offered the students in the sit-in amnesty if they left the building on Jan. 18. The students left with none of their demands fully met, but with promises that most of them were being worked on. Most of the demands eventually did come to fruition.

After the occupation of Ford Hall ended, students continued efforts to make sure their demands were followed through with. According to a Justice article, the Afro-American Organization organized a boycott of African and Afro-American Studies courses taught by white professors.

In February 1969, eleven separate fires were started in Olin-Sang. Abram speculated that those responsible were affiliated with the Ford Hall occupation, but others thought they were more connected to Vietnam War protests as they were set off inside and outside of the offices of two professors, I. Milton Sacks and Roy Macridis, who were known on campus for their support of U.S. foreign policy concerning the war. There was an investigation into the occurrence, but no one was ever apprehended.

In March 1969, 75 white students conducted a sit-in in the Gryzmish administrative building in support of the demands from Ford Hall, which they felt the administrators were not addressing promptly enough. The students accused the administration of caring more about the public image of the University than its students. 

“We must not allow this situation to be defined as an 11-day crisis which was peacefully ended,” a statement released by the students involved with the sit-in read. “The crisis of blacks in America is 400 years old. The crisis at Brandeis will not be over until a black person can receive an education here, relevant to his needs and the needs of his community.”