Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: B
Interview Date: October 16,
Camera Rolls: 2005-2009
Sound Rolls: 203-204
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Tony Gittens, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 16, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Go back in time 1966, '67. When you first got on campus what disturbed you so much about what you found there?
The way they treated students.
Incorporate my question. What disturbed me so much was--
OK. Good. When I fir--when I got to Howard, ah, back in 1965, um, what disturbed me so much was the way they treated students, the way the Howard administration tended to treat students like children. As though, we couldn't take care of ourselves and, and their job was to, ah, to make us, ah, more cultured, ah, Black people, that they felt that we were these negroes from the field and that we were to be treated like kids. And I found that absolutely insulting. I found the whole idea of this, ah, the largest, most prestigious Black institution in the country, ah, wanting to view itself as the "Black Harvard" as opposed to setting out its own identity. And in general I just found their whole attitude condescending towards students and it was insulting and just something that, ah, you know I thought shouldn't be stood for.
What, now it was known as the "Black Harvard," it supposedly had this proud tradition of civil rights, what were you not finding there, then?
Well what, the whole civil rights history of Howard, first of all, was carried out by few individuals. And as we looked at it a little closer there were always people who were thought of as a bit, ah, unusual there. And there were people, there were people in the law school, attorneys and such. And then there some students like, ah, ah, Stokely Carmichael and Courtland Cox and other students who had gone there. Ah, but they, they left Howard, ah, ah, out of resentment for the fact that Howard wasn't following them along and taking a more progressive stand. So, ah, the civil rights tradition at Howard seemed to carry, was more an individual kind of tradition, that, that Howard just sort of hooked on to. The other thing is that around that time, ah, The whole attitude of the Civil Rights Movement was shifting and Howard wasn't shifting with it. The attitude was that, ah, one of integration, of assimilation. Ah, and the whole movement was beginning to shift towards one of self-identity and, and self-empowerment. And Howard, ah, was resisting that as opposed to carrying that forward.**
Why did you and other students begin to get into this Vietnam protest? What was your personal feeling in connection with that?
Well we were totally against the war. We were against the draft, ah, we felt that the Vietnam war was totally unjust and that especially Black people should have no role in the war. And Howard at that time had compulsory ROTC. Ah, that was another aspect of it that most men there found just absolutely appalling. Ah, we felt that Howard should not be a factory for Black officers to go into the war. And, ah, that we were not going to just participate in it. And as a matter of fact we were going to say no to it. And so there were protests against that and to let the world know, that, you know, Black people were not going to participate in the war. Or at least were going to be strongly opposed to it.
Were there friends of yours or people you knew who had gone over and been drafted, in that, is there a personal connection?
Well between, ah, the time I got out of high school and when I came to Howard, ah, I went to school at night and I worked. And so I had a lot of friends in Brooklyn, ah, who were not, didn't go to college either. And I did have friends who were drafted and one or two who were killed in Vietnam. So there was that kind of personal attachment, an identity I had with, ah, how terrible the war was.
And, and you talked a little bit about the Black consiousness stuff that was going on outside the campus. How did that infect the campus? And was there an attempt by the administration to stop that from coming on campus?
There was, ah, there were demonstrations as you know around that period.
Excuse me. Don't say, as you know. Can you just start again.
OK. Tell me what you said.
There were demonstrations. Just leave out the, as you know.
OK. You're not supposed to be there?
I'm not supposed to be there.
Ah, good-- The whole Howard movement was impacted by what was going on, ah, outside of Howard. Ah, there was a lot of activity in the south. There were Black colleges in the south where students were taking very militant, very firm stands against discrimination. And here there were, the students of Howard, ah, who were considered to be very middle class and sort of away from a lot of that. So there were some students at Howard who believed that that should not be the case and that in fact that Howard if it was to be a leader amongst Black universities should take the firmest of stands. Ah, and we pushed to have, make Howard do that. And, ah, the resistance to that, ah, took the form of, of, for example there were people who would come to Howard. There, there were organizers who wanted to have demonstrations here in Washington and they would come to Howard to try and get Howard students to participate. And there was always resistance on the part of the administration to such people coming on campus. Ah, there were speakers who, ah, we wanted to bring to Howard, towards the earlier days, not so much during the later days. And there was always resistance to these speakers being brought to Howard. Ah, and so the university as a whole felt that it should not be in a controversial position, that, ah, it stated in documents that they felt that, ah, a good deal of money was coming from the federal government to support Howard and that, ah, Howard therefore should not, and Howard students therefore should not be antagonistic toward the government. Ah, we on the other hand, felt that where Howard got its money was its own business and we were adults and able to make our own decisions and take our own stands on things.
When you talk about the student demonstrations, can you talk about going down to Orangeburg and maybe give me a little bit how you went first to Lowndes County the summer before, and then go into Orangeburg and what that did to you.
It was the summer I believe of '66 that, ah, I first went down south. Ah, and it was a SNCC project and they had come up and, ah, asked some students if they would come down and work in the South. I think it was during the spring, I can't recall, I'd have to check my calendar and such, but and, ah, so some of us organized and, ah, took.
Excuse me. Could you just start with Lowdnes County again. Just refer to the fact that you went down and talk maybe about the strength you saw in the people and then go very quickly to Orangeburg.
Got it. OK. So when we were in Lowdnes County, it was incredible to me to see this determination on the part of, ah, rural, ah, Black people who had much less than, than we at Howard had. Ah, and then to see the, the determination and the strength on the part of the SNCC organizers that were there, who had left college, who had decided that this was what they were going to do with their lives. Ah, and it was just incredible to me that, you know, people were willing to put their lives on the line, you know, day after day, for this. And it just had a tremendous impact on me. This was in Lowdnes County. Then later, ah, some students had been killed, ah, in, at Orangeburg, at a university there. And I went down, ah, with some other journalists, ah, to look at that. And there met these students who, because of a demonstration, the same kind of demonstrations that we were having, ah, actually people had been killed and shot. Ah, again, had a tremendous impression on me. Because these people had been willing to give their lives for something. It was not a game for them, ah, it was not a media event for them. And, ah, the impact that it had, ah, on me and other people, ah, whom I related it to when I got back was just incredible. And then what we were doing at Howard and the dangers there seemed minimal compared to what other people were willing to face for the same kind of reasons.** Ah, and those were experiences that just totally changed my view about the role of a student, my role of a student and what I began to define as a role of other students.
Why did you start the manifesto? I mean, what was it that made you say we've got to to something now?
Well there was no, there was no real clarity at that point. Ah, there was an emotional kind of resentment towards the way we were treated and the lack of ah, role the students were, Black students were playing um, in changing society. And the manifesto was a way to put into words, to codify what it is we were about, what specifically we wanted, what it is that we wanted. And what, if we did not get, we were going to go further, be, be more active about getting. Um. So we demanded in the symbolic way the resignations of the president of the university and some of his lackies. Ah, and it was totally, it was specifically we wanted ah, these people gone um, because ah, they represented ah, a school that had been more in the way than it was um, progressive. Um, we, we demanded ah, that ROTC, the compulsory ROTC be abolished. Um. Matter of fact, we got everything we wanted ah, after many, many months and years of struggle. Um, and there were about ten of these demands that we had. And the reason was to codify exactly what we wanted and to have people rally around these causes.
Can you talk about going into the Dean Snowden's office? First of all, talk about why you had such a problem with Dean Snowden, what was it about his attitude toward the students or what he represented?
Dean Snowden, um, he's a chap I, I, I never, I can't say I know him ah, but he represented ah, total ah, Black Harvard mentality all the way through. Um. There was nothing nationalistic or really um, Black about him. Um. Now, I know they're, I, I hate to like pick him out but at that time he was the person who personified everything that we did not like about the university. He had all of his degrees from Harvard. Now, this is not to say that that's bad. You know, it's not to say it's bad. I want everyone to get an excellent education. Ah, and his expertise was in the Greek, ah, the Roman classics. You know. And he was dean and um, he, he had a snobbishness about him that just rubbed ah, not only the students but a lot of the faculty the wrong way.
Let's go back to the Snowden thing. Tell me again, what was it about Snowden that, that was most irritating.
Well Snowden, Dr. Snowden, represented a whole attitude that civilization meant White civilization. He was a very educated man. He had all of his degrees from Harvard which we had no personal problem with, however--
Talk again about what Dean Snowden represented. What was his attitude that so upset people?
Well Dr. Snowden represented the whole attitude that civilization was White civilization. Ah, he was a very accomplished scholar. He had gotten all of his degrees from Harvard. Ah, his expertise was the classics, classical civilization. Greek or Roman classical civilization. And he, he had this snobbishness about him that tended to just rub a lot of people, not only students, but also faculty, in the wrong way. And so in everything he said and did, the way he carried himself, his attitude towards people, the way he dealt with people, he just personified this whole, the attitude that, ah, the only way to be considered a civilized, cultured person was to be as White as possible. And so that's what he represented. He represented that as long as I was at Howard, and as long as he was at Howard. And, ah, a lot of, most people felt that way about him. So he became this symbol, this focus for us to, ah, sort of key in on. Ah, to say that no, that's not the way it is. You know there are a lot of other civilizations that are very developed. How about your own, African civilization that was very developed and, ah, ah, good music need not be classical. Or European classical music. Ah, that, ah, acceptable, civilized dress need not be bow-ties, which he wore daily. Ah, that they could be dashikis and, and, ah, women could cut their hair in Afro styles. And men could allow their hair to grow out. And these were things that he tended to be, tended to oppose. Ah, so he became sort of our focus for, for confronting that whole attitude.
When you mentioned the Afros, was there a problem when people were wearing Afros on campus?
Well the first woman, the first person who cut her hair into an Afro, she did that, she was very involved in the Civil Rights movement. She did that, and reports all kind of animosity on the part of the dorm mothers as they like to call themselves, and her faculty. People who said, you know, "Child, you should just go straighten your hair again." Ah, then there was, there were always problems with women especially, with Afros. And then there was the whole issue of when Robin Gregory was chosen homecoming queen. And Robin had an Afro. And that brought about all kinds of furor on the parts of people who felt that, you know that was just totally inappropriate. That in fact it was ugly. And as a result she took a lot of heat for it.
Talk about, back to Dean Snowden. Describe the day when you go in and you throw this American flag and this manifesto on Dean Snowden's desk.
Well it was ah, we had planned to, after we had developed the manifesto to make the statement. And we held a rally on campus. And we went, we took down the American flag. And then there was this fence. There was this fence that the university had, had built around the girl's dormitory so that--
What, describe the rally in going into Dean Snowden's office, when you throw this manifesto on his desk with the flag.
All right well we decided to have, after we developed the manifesto, we decided to have a rally. And, ah, to tell peop--to students, to say to them what are demands and are stand was. And, ah, we went and we lowered the American flag that was on campus. And then we took the flag and the manifesto over to Dean Snowden's office. Just walked in, didn't, just barged into his office. There was, ah, there about, there were a number of us. 20, 25, 50 students there. And we put it on his desk. He was quite shocked. He was absolutely shocked. He was shaking, he was trembling. And, ah, then we just told him that his time had come. That ah people like himself and again focusing on him, not as a person, as a personality, but as a symbol that people who had the attitudes that he had, that their time had come. That they had just spent, that they'd done their due and it was time for them to sort of move on and make room for more progressive attitudes towards what Black people should be doing in this country. Ah, and we did that. Ah, I remember shaking my finger at Dean Snowden. And him just sitting there trembling. It was quite an experience for both of us I'm sure. And, ah, then just leaving. Just walking out and leaving him there.
Do you think he said anything to you?
Not a word. He did not say a word. He sat there smoking his pipe.
Can you say he didn't say--
He didn't say a word to us. He didn't say a word. He ah sat there smoking his pipe. Ah, in bewilderment not really understanding. See they all had this bewilderment. They didn't really know what this was all about. They, they, they never really sort of understood what it is we wanted. And that's one reason we made the manifesto. Never knew how to really, and never took it seriously. I mean the Achilles' heel was that they really thought we were children. They really thought we were these kids from the fields. And, ah, their job was to keep us in line. And they, as a result, ah, you know they, they took a lot of damage for it. They just never took us seriously.
Talk about Charter Day and what it was like going into the auditorium, there were all these people amassed, the alumni are there, what was it like?
Well Charter Day, ah, was a day at Howard that ah where they celebrate the fact that the university, the charter of the university was signed. And we wanted to make a point there too that, ah, that need not have been an auspicious day. That, ah, Howard was there and it's history was spotted. And so I remember the night before, we planned. We planned the demonstration. Ah and I remember the meeting. And noone was really quite sure how that was going to go off. And we decided that we were going to go into Crampton Auditorium. And we seated ourselves sort of in different plo--spots around the univer--around the auditorium. And I can't remember the signal. The signal was something like either myself or someone standing up. I remember I was sitting next to Adrienne Manns. And we're sort of looking at each other saying, "Gittens," she was saying, "Gittens, you know, we really don't have this quite together." We were saying, "We got to do it," you know. And, ah, we just said, "Well it's time." We stood up. All these people stood up and started going towards the stage. Ah and ah Dr. Nabrit was there, and there was someone getting some kind of an award. I can't recall who she was. And I remember walking up on the stage and just saying, you know, "This is all over." You know, "This is over." And then people gave speeches. And students would stay there. Many people left and a lot of students stayed there and, and listened to the speeches. I mean we just totally disrupted the whole thing. And left to make a point. To make a point. That ah, you know, Howard just had to change.
OK now describe--
Can I add to that?
Ah, so I, I don't want to give and leave the atittude that this was a frivolous activity. Ah that I, I just want to make the point that we were human beings and our activities came out of a stand that we took to make a difference at the university. And in that process there were a number of times where we often weren't absolutely sure about what we were doing, how the demonstrations would go down. Ah, however we knew that we were going to make that place change. You know, that we were going to make it change. That ah it just was not functioning adequately, and it was just going to have to change. So it was not frivolous at all.
You talked at one point about the connection bet--that they were trying to keep the university separate from the community. Can you say something about that?
The univ--Howard University is located, ah, in a community that parts of it are developed, but there's a whole strip along Georgia Avenue that's not very developed. And there's always been this confrontation, this, this conflict between, ah, what, in that, at that point were called these block boys or, or gangs, kids who lived in, in the area, and Howard students whom they viewed as being middle class and snobbish. And our feeling was that the university had to relate to its immediate environment if it was going to live up to its mandate. I mean it, you know we, we, we couldn't be, ah, ah, creating officers for ROTC, ah, to go fight wars thousands of miles away and then have a community that's, I mean not even like right next door, but right at your door that, ah, where there's all kinds of problems, economic problems and, ah, social problems, and not really, and health problems, and not really do anything for them. And so a lot of things now that ah--
If you could say, if you could talk a little bit--
So we wanted the university to just what we call relate to the community. You know to have events that would, ah, would be attractive enough for people in the area to come in. You know to have concerts and things. Ah, we wanted them to relate to ah all kinds of activities that were going on in the communities. There were social groups and church organizations that were doing things. And you know we had students and we went out and we tried to participate in them and bring speakers and, ah, from those communities. We talked about all kinds of things that, ah, never really took place. But daycare centers for, for young mothers. And med-school doctors who would go out and spend some time, you know, working with people there. So that, that was what we were looking for. That was our, our utopia. For what the university should do for people who live right there.
Talk about the takeover and going up from the rally, now you really didn't think there was going to be a takeover at that point. And how many people were in this rally?
We had ah decided that we were going to have a sit in in the administration building. And ah we met the militant, the group Ujamaa and some of the student government people. And the university was going to have hearings again ah to try ah--ah students. Some students who had been more active on campus. So we had a rally in front of ah Douglas Hall. Ah and we said that you know we were just tired of this, tired of the way we were being treated. And that ah we were going to have a sit in in the administration building. And I remember different people gave speeches. And I gave the last speech. That was part of the plan. And we had these bags of food that we were carrying in. And we're saying, and I said, you know, we're going to go in. You know we're going to go and we're going to sit down. And we just, we're not going to get up until they just refuse to have these hearings. And I remember just walking off, walking away from the steps and going down. And I was out front and there were some people by my side. Ah and then I remember turning around and just seeing all of these students. And it, it was just so movingly incredible. I mean I'd, we had never been able to get this response before just, and I just realized that all these people were also tired. And I just, we just walked, and we walked around. And we went into the first floor of the administration building. And everybody sat down, just sat down. When we went in there, when we planned this the night before, you know we figured that, you know we'd just sit on the first floor and that would be it. And we would just stay there. And then more students, people began to hear about it. And then the whole first floor was full. Then the whole second floor was filled. Then they went up the third floor. And the whole building was just filled with these students who had come out of the dormitories, come out of their classes to just participate in this. And it was incredible. It was just ah, just amazing. I mean after all that time, all that work, that you know someone was actually listening. And so we just stayed there. It was then about noon and we stayed there and the newspapers began to hear about it and ah reporters began to show up. And the university, the people who worked there just left. They just left the building to us. And, so then we said, "Well, we have to organize this." So we had meetings. There was this group that we called the Central Committee. And we met and we started having chairmen of certain committees. There was a Sanitation Committee, there was a Communications Committee. And there was a Food Committee, and a Security Committee. There were all these committees and we met. And there were just some incidents there that astounded me. Like, ah, the switchboards had to be manned. And so we just made an announcement. From somewhere someone came up with a PA system. Someone went and got a PA system within an hour. And there was, then we said well we need some people to man the switchboard. And all these, these women got up and went and took over the whole university switchboard. I remember looking into this room and they were just--just very professionally and efficiently running the switchboard. I said, "How do you know, how do?" And they said, "You know these students work, you know, doing this kind of stuff, you know, part time." And everyone was saying, they were saying on their own that sorry, the university is closed today, the students have taken it over, you know. And that went on for days. And they developed a schedule for taking care of that. Then there was ah, there was food that all these people from off campus, this community, who the university, up until then had very little relationship with. People began to bring food, you know, ah, ladies would bring these, these bags of food. And churches would take up collections and bring us all this money. You know and they would give it to us. And then these cultural groups would come in and say, "You know we want to do something. You know, can we perform?" And there'd be plays and, and all kinds of things would go on. And people from around Washington would come and give all these supportive speeches and say, "Whatever you want, let us know." You know we, and then, people who could not get into the building, there are all these students outside of the building who were just there. Just there, you know just willing to participate. And signs were made. "Howard University, the Black university." You know ah and people would, then teachers would come up. And they said, you know, "What can we do?" And we had classes that were going on. Because some students would be afraid they were getting behind. And these faculty members saying, you know, "Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it." And people would come in and have, we had seminars. It was just quite, it was amazing. It was amazing. You know just, and we met every morning, and we met periodically to take care of the issues. It was just a, an incredible experience to just show that, you know, the administration, these people who thought that we were kids, you know were just so offkey, just so wrong about the whole thing.
When you say they were offkey, why--what was i--what did it show the university?
There, there was, ah, the way we define what it is we're about in--in the broadest sense, was that the mai--the first debate around the role of Black education.
Talk abou--just briefly talk about what the organization behaviorally showed the university in terms of your being adults.
Well I think that the demonstration showed the university, the administration there, that they were not dealing with helpless children. That they were dealing with people who were quite capable of taking care of themselves in a very serious organized fashion. Ah it also showed them that, ah, ah, there were not just these few militant minority students who had these, these grievances with them. That in fact there were thousands of students who were disgruntled and were willing take a stand to put their education on the line. To let them know that, that, ah, they were just offbase with ah understanding who it is they were and what they wanted out of their education, out of Howard University.
Talk about the fear you had that the police might be called on campus. And what was the context of that fear? I mean, had they been called on other universities?
The, the context, well--
If you could just say, "You were afraid that the police would be called."
Well that wasn't too true.
Oh OK. Go ahead--
However you want to answer--
Oh. There, there was, there was not, there was some concern that the police would be called in. However we felt that we had so much community support that there was so much recognition on the part of the media who--whom were covering this event. You know in the nightly news. Ah, that, ah, no force, that the university was not going to use any force to, ah, to remove us. Ah, that so much community support had come to us that, you know we felt, pretty safe that no police were going to be called in.
And if you could talk about the negotiating team. How did you decide that, about the negotiating team that there would be so many women on it?
At some point the university trustees and admninistration, they wanted to ah negotiate. They wanted to sit and talk with us to find out what was going on. And, so we put together a negotiating team. And the team was headed by Adrienne Manns**. And some other folks there. And, ah, it was quite interesting that a lot of women were on the negotiating team. And the reason was, one is that, ah, people like Adrienne and, and, and Carol were just so bright. I mean they were articulate and bright, and was, were able to go toe to toe with anyone in terms of a debate or in terms of the discussion about negotiating something. And then another thing is that a lot of the men tended to like to be in front of the camera. A lot of the women tended to like to, ah, maybe not be in front of the camera and to get along with the work that needed to be done. Ah, so that's why we had a lot of women on the negotiating team and all through the demonstrations and the organization that we did.
Why did you end the takeover? What did you, what did you accomplish?
With the takeover, ah, we jus--a couple of things happened ah that made us want to, to end the take--the takeover. Ah, one was that we had gotten a lot of what we, we said that we came in there for. We told them what we wanted and the negotiations were very successful in our regard. We had made a very strong point about it. You couldn't see a lot of reason to stay there outside of just being belligerent. And we thought that that would be immature, you know to do that. Ah, and so we decided that as we chose to go in that we would be adult and mature and responsible enough to choose to go out. And, we talked about it, at length, and came down one morning, and just made the announcement that we felt that it was time to go. And we had an open microphone, ah, there were no press there, we put all the press out, as far as we knew, and we had an open mic and anybody could come up and say whatever they felt about it. You know, and there were some people who felt that we shouldn't go, and then the vast majority said that we should go. We took a voice vote, and so we walked out. And we just left the place. We cleaned it. Ah, put everything as much back in order as much as we could, as we recalled it and we just walked out that day. And students went back to the dorm and we went back to doing what it is we did before we went in.
How did you feel? I mean, how did you feel, you, I mean, you're, you've now gotten what you want, and you're presented with students who are about to leave. How did you feel leaving, what was the environent? What was it like, you know, you talk about what was playing on the loudspeaker?
Um. Well let me say a bit about ah, getting all that we wanted. Ah, we didn't get everything that we wanted. I'm thinking back on this. Ah, there were some issues that still had to be negotiated. Ah. I, I remember in leaving though that ah, there was singing. The peo--
OK, talk about what you got and of the feeling as you all are just describe as if we had no footage what was it like?
The negotiating team had come back and, ah, they, we had gotten a lot of what we had asked for. Students were there. We talked about it that night, and that morning we got up and we went down and we said, you know, "It's time for us to go." And we gave our reasons why we should go**. And we asked all the press to leave, who were there, and we had open mic so the students could come up and say whether they were for it, whether they were against it, whatever the reason, that went on for about an hour, hour and a half, two hours. We took a voice vote, and the agreement was that, that we should go. And as we went out of the building, ah, people, we cleaned the building. There was singing. People were singing. And what I felt best about was that no one got hurt. That we were walking out of there. We chose to go in. We were choosing to go out. We weren't forced out. And that we'd gotten a lot of what we went in there for. And I think that experience changed the life of every single Howard student that was on campus that day. Everyone felt proud. And as we walked out I felt very good. And the students tended to feel very, very good about themselves and about, they just felt their whole self-image of what a, what they were as Howard students just changed. They felt part of the whole world of, ah, of Black progress. So it was quite a, it was a wonderful feeling to have ended, ah, by choice and in such a positive way.
Perfect. Let me ask, don't stop yet. Is there anything else that you would like to say in the context of the takeover?
I could tell stories. But I'm sure you don't want any stories--