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©2002 Quest Productions, VideoLine Productions and Educational Broadcasting Corporation
A co-production of Quest Productions, Videoline Productions, and Thirteen/WNET New York.
At the end of May in 1925, a deeply troubled W. E. B. Du Bois boarded a train to visit Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, his alma mater. He had been disturbed by reports that Fayette McKenzie, the autocratic white president of the university, had instituted a dictatorial rule on campus. Magazines were censored, dating and dancing forbidden, and conversations between male and female students restricted. McKenzie had been seeking a million-dollar endowment from Northern foundations that were sympathetic to his request -- provided that McKenzie suppress any militancy on campus. The foundation wanted black schools to teach their students to accommodate to Jim Crow as Booker T. Washington had preached, and not to challenge it, as Du Bois was suggesting. On June 2, with the president of the university, the trustees, students, and alumni packing the chapel, Du Bois attacked McKenzie. "I have never known an institution whose alumni are more bitter and disgusted with the present situation in this university. In Fisk today, discipline is choking freedom, threats are replacing inspiration, iron clad rules, suspicion, tale bearing are almost universal."
Du Bois' speech added fuel to the fires of protest that had been burning on campus. In November 1924, the board trustees arrived on campus and were immediately greeted by students chanting anti-McKenzie and pro-Du Bois statements: "Away with the Tsar" and "Down with the Tyrant." The trustees recommended to McKenzie that he make a few minor concessions. McKenzie seemingly agreed then reneged on his promises. Students responded with a brief, but noisy demonstration. The students overturned chapel seats, broke windows all the while keeping up a steady shouting of "Du Bois, Du Bois" and singing "Before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave." McKenzie immediately retaliated by summoning the Nashville police to campus. Eighty policemen armed with riot guns broke down the doors to the men's dormitory, smashed windows, beat and arrested six students. The students were charged with a felony, a crime for which they could be sent to prison.
The arrested students were eventually released and left the school. In response the students called a strike that polarized the Nashville community. Du Bois supported the strike. They held fast for eight weeks despite the pressure. When local white banks and the post office no longer would cash their checks, the black community stepped in to the rescue. Despite having the trustees' support, McKenzie's rule was over and he resigned. The victory had repercussions on other black campuses. At Howard University, a confrontation between the white president and the school's black faculty and student body lead to the president's resignation and the appointment of the first black president of Howard.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
- What was W. E. B. Du Bois' educational philosophy? How did it influence the students at Fisk University?
- Describe the changes McKenzie wanted to make. In your opinion were Fisk students right to protest the changes the president had in mind? Explain your answer.
- From what you know about Jim Crow and the period following the Civil War, what was different about the attitudes of black students at Fisk in the 1920s compared to black students in the 1880s, 1890s and at the turn of the century? What had changed?
- How do you think students would respond to a policy changing the direction of their school today?