Fisk students have long history of fighting injustice
The Tennessean ~ Adam Tamburin| firstname.lastname@example.org
After a few hours of debate, McCarley and her classmates at Fisk University set out on an overnight trip to Missouri. They arrived in St. Louis by 8 a.m., and soon they were in position outside the Ferguson Police Department, where they watched as protesters clashed with police officers in riot gear.
McCarley and the other Fisk students served as legal observers to the protest, and they watched to make sure that each demonstrator was able to chant and march without the threat of violence or arrest. It was harrowing at times, but the students stayed in place for hours.
"I have a very strong sense of when something's right and needs to be done," the 20-year-old McCarley said. "It's a gut feeling. It moves me toward doing the right thing. If it's right, I'll disregard sometimes even my own safety.
"I just have to do it."
For more than a century, that kind of conviction has been baked into many members of the student body at Fisk. From W.E.B. DuBois to U.S. Rep. John Lewis and now to McCarley and her peers, students have come together to challenge the city, the federal government and even university administrators when their surroundings failed to match their ideals.
Fisk students' longstanding zeal for activism and social change, which was crystallized during the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s and reignited by the Black Lives Matter movement, has become a vital part of Fisk's identity. McCarley called the campus "hallowed ground" and credited Fisk's long list of influential alumni with spurring her on.
"Fisk made them the people they became and they were able to be a part of history," McCarley said. "I figure if you want to be a part of American history or black history, there's no better place to do it than Fisk."
Now, as Fisk celebrates its 150th anniversary and looks to the future, some university leaders think Fisk's story and history of activism could bring new relevance and stability to the long-struggling school and help it thrive in a new century.
"At Fisk, it’s expected that students raise critical issues, and it’s expected that part of the academic experience is about how you address those issues," said Reavis Mitchell, a Fisk professor and historian. "It makes your education more socially relevant. It takes a philosophical education and makes it practical and applied, and that’s what every university wants.”
Fighting the status quo
Fisk's history of student activism stretches back to its founding in 1866. The first group of students ranged in age from 7 to 70, and all had made the leap from slavehood to education, according to an account from the university.
Through the years, generations of students challenged the status quo of their eras. DuBois, an 1888 graduate, was one of the founders of the NAACP and was a vocal opponent of racism. As a member of the NAACP board, he was a leading voice for anti-lynching legislation after World War I.
He also stood by students at his alma mater during multiple clashes in the 1920s with the largely white administration led by President Fayette A. McKenzie. McKenzie banned the student newspaper, expelled students and fired teachers, according to records kept in the Fisk library archives.
Students, who saw McKenzie's policies as racist, boycotted classes and protested on campus. Some of them were arrested for rioting. But McKenzie ultimately bowed to the pressure and resigned.
"I thank God that the younger generation of black students have the guts to yell and fight when their noses are rubbed into the mud," DuBois wrote at the time, according to the archives.
But no generation of Fisk students is more storied than those who electrified the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Lewis, D-Georgia, and others like Diane Nash and Matthew Walker Jr. were among a group of Fisk students who led protests throughout the region, notably participating in sit-ins at Nashville's downtown lunch counters. They remained committed to nonviolent resistance even as they faced violence and arrest.
The sit-ins spurred citywide action, as blacks and whites alike boycotted department stores that refused to integrate their lunch counters. Walker got his teeth knocked out while demonstrating, but the protestors' efforts were rewarded when, in 1960, Nashville became the first city in the South to desegregate its lunch counters.
"You had a lot of thoughtful and aware people at Fisk," Walker, a 1962 graduate, said over lunch recently in Nashville. "We knew that nonviolence had worked in other places and there was nothing that convinced us it could not work here.
"It was the kind of thing that once you're in, you're in."
After the sit-ins, Walker and his peers traveled to Alabama to bolster the Freedom Rides, when protesters across the country sought to fight segregation in buses and at bus stations by traveling on bus lines through the South.
Walker and his friends were on the bus when it rolled into Jackson, Miss. Police arrested them at the station, but the passion he had cultivated in Nashville and at Fisk pushed him forward, and he continued to participate in the movement.
"It was Nashville students who revived, resurrected, breathed new life into the Freedom Rides," Walker said. "We were victorious veterans, and we didn't want anyone to disprove the effectiveness of nonviolent demonstrating."
Protests targeted administration, too
Later in the 1960s and '70s, when Walter Searcy was a student, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. fueled protests that ultimately turned inward.
Searcy and other students banded together for a wave of protests against the university's administration and board of trustees. Throughout Searcy's time at Fisk, students confronted the administration many times, demanding an African-American studies course, better quality of life on campus and improved financial aid.
Activism became the unifying purpose of Searcy's life after he graduated. He went on to lead the local chapter of the NAACP and ran former President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election bid in Illinois.
In a recent interview, Searcy said his time fighting injustices on and off campus at Fisk laid the foundation for a lifetime of work.
“I think that Fisk’s influence is indelible, unshakable," he said. “It edifies us and nourishes us and until I die will continue to do so."
Continuing a 'proud tradition'
Interim Fisk President Frank Sims said he was very familiar with the school's impact on so many of its students. Sims had served as a board member before taking the top spot last year, and his wife, mother-in-law and son went to school there.
Sims said that throughout Fisk's 150 years, the institution has given marginalized or first-generation college students a place to learn before they "go on to make huge contributions to society at large."
"This proud tradition that we have and have had at Fisk is something that we believe we can continue to replicate," he said. "And it's something that we believe we have to do."
Past generations of student activists have motivated Justin Jones, a Fisk senior who became a high-profile advocate of Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan to expand access to health insurance for thousands of low-income Tennesseans.
Last year, Jones walked 273 miles from a town in North Carolina that lost its hospital to the U.S. Capitol to advocate for access to health care. In an interview with The Tennessean after a protest last month, Jones echoed the words of Fisk students who harnessed the power of nonviolent resistance to topple Jim Crow-era laws across the South.
“Our goal is to get people to ... engage in acts of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience,” said Jones, 20. “We have to make them see that this is not a political issue — it’s a moral issue.”
Since taking office, Sims has made parallel efforts to share stories from Fisk's history while also working to grow the university's financial resources for operational costs and scholarships. Both issues have been challenges in the past, and Sims sees the yearlong celebration of the school's 150th anniversary as an opportunity to tackle them simultaneously.
"What we want to do is highlight and focus on those past accomplishments, with an understanding that they will still be our focus going forward," Sims said. "That's kind of the script we're going to use" as administrators speak to donors.
Fisk might be taking new steps to share that message with potential donors and the community, but McCarley said it has long been an inescapable part of her time on campus.
"Fisk does have a unique history and influence in at least changing the hearts and minds of a small group of students," she said. "Often they were labeled as the troublemakers.
"Those are the people who went down in history."
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.
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