(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 260-265, 273-275, 278-279)
Students United for Rights and Equality was a biracial organization founded on October 28, 1968. It had two black and two white students as officers. Earnest Pickings Jr., a black junior marketing major from Taylor, Arkansas, served as president. SURE’s announced purpose was “to further understanding among all students, regardless of race, nationality, or religion.” SURE quickly became one of the largest campus groups with more than 150 student and seventeen faculty members.
External investigations concluded that Dr. Bruce mishandled controversies related to SURE. That consensus judgment emerged from reports and rulings of a federal court, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals; a professional academic organization, the American Association of University Professors; and a citizens’ committee, the Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. This committee, led by future Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Steele Hays, held a hearing at SSC in April 1969. In its report some months later, this committee found that Dr. Bruce made many “assumption that were not warranted,” that his “over-reactions” were “obvious,” and that his “personal involvement . . . might well have been left to his subordinates.”
One source shaping Dr. Bruce’s assumptions was the widespread campus disorder occurring across the country in 1968–69. He became convinced that his school was a target of student radicals. Prior to SURE’s organization, as the 1968 fall semester opened, he asked the faculty’s help “in avoiding campus unrest” and warned them that the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) “wanted to destroy society.” A year later, in 1969, he was still worried, telling the Student Senate, “More likely than not there is one or more present on this campus” of the radicals that “have been trained over the summer to disrupt college institutions.” With this mind-set, the president was suspicious of any activism and ready to take action, whether warranted or not.
Controversy began when SURE’s leaders sent a letter in December 1968 to the pastor of College View Baptist Church (one block south of the campus). The letter supported five black women students, recently turned away from its Sunday services, and criticized the church. This ill-considered letter was apparently a hasty action and was not part of any considered plan to challenge Magnolia’s remaining segregationist practices. A serious civil rights movement would not have selected a religious assembly for a confrontation. Taking no chances, however, Dr. Bruce forced SURE’s faculty advisors to resign and initiated action to place the group on probation. The Student Senate voted to support Dr. Bruce’s unwritten rule that student groups could not act in matters beyond the campus.
The president was undoubtedly concerned that SSC faculty and students’ participation in civil rights activities in the local community might cost the school the support he had so carefully cultivated since 1959. With board approval, he had refused local black leaders’ request in 1967 to use Overstreet Auditorium for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s state convention. He clearly feared the potential disruption of civil rights activity. He employed a poor choice of words, however, to explain to the faculty this concern in a December 16 memo about the SURE controversy: “There are some people who have convinced some of our youth that a black face is a free admission ticket to any place or program.” He urged faculty to exercise influence so that SURE’s members did not create “racial unrest, suspicion, and antagonism.” This unfortunate memo—soon named by critics the black face memo—created a negative image of Dr. Bruce in the minds of SURE’s student and faculty members that was as unfounded as Bruce’s fears of SURE’s radicalism. Later, unwarranted assumptions and suspicions pushed matters to a showdown.
The idea that students or student organizations had constitutional rights was relatively new in the United States, and it was foreign to Dr. Bruce’s experiences. As an administrator, he had always acted in accordance with the doctrine of in loco parentis in which he could deal with students like parents might treat their own children. He told faculty critics that discipline was a part of “the teaching process,” a view that courts were then circumscribing. At the same time that Dr. Bruce was acting against SURE, the U.S. Supreme Court on February 24, 1969, handed down one of the most important precedents in the new legal framework. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District upheld the right of high school students to protest in a non-disruptive way even while at school.
When SURE invited Joe Neal of Fayetteville to speak in March 1969 about poverty, Dr. Bruce told the organization’s new faculty sponsor, historian Donald C. Baldridge, to tell the students to cancel the invitation. The president feared disruption. Dr. Bruce may have erroneously confused the acronym SSOC with that of SDS. Neal, a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, was an organizer for the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), a Nashville, Tennessee, civil rights, antipoverty, and antiwar group. He and his wife had been arrested in February at Henderson State College in Arkadelphia for refusing to leave an unauthorized meeting with students, an arrest later overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court after a young attorney, Jim Guy Tucker (later Arkansas governor) took the first case of the recently established state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Baldridge delivered Dr. Bruce’s demand to SURE leaders; they refused to cancel Neal’s appearance. It took place without incident on March 20, 1969, before a large crowd of students and faculty. The contingent of local police held in readiness just off campus, that Dr. Bruce had arranged, proved unnecessary. SSC’s Student Senate this time refused to support Dr. Bruce’s action suspending SURE. Senators voted instead 18–14 to support a student organization’s right to invite to campus speakers of their choice.
Lawyers for SURE’s leaders and Baldridge filed suit in federal court on April 3 seeking an end to the suspension and the protection of their constitutional rights. A year later, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis heard the case and ordered revocation of all SSC administrative actions against SURE. The court affirmed the broad constitutional rights of student organizations, students, and faculty to hear speakers of their choice. The court further stated that students and faculty First Amendment freedoms could not be limited to campus or confined to matters only concerning the academic community. The court decision did not lead to the restoration of SURE. By then, SURE’s principal student leaders had graduated; its faculty sponsors had been fired. SURE was never reorganized.
The firing of SURE’s sponsors—especially the tenured Baldridge and separately, Dr. James Meikle, president of SSC’s AAUP chapter, re-established in 1967—brought about the American Association of University Professors’ censure of SSC’s administration in 1971. After an on-site investigation at SSC in November 1969 and lengthy consideration of the resulting report, AAUP determined that none of the fired faculty had received adequate notice, that Baldridge had received some procedural protections—a notification of specific charges and an appeal hearing before a committee of full professors—but that SSC’s administration had failed to live up to the standards of AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom.
Rather than attempt to reorganize SURE, black students created the Black Students Association (BSA), founded on December 15, 1969. Glenn B. Winston, one of the parties to SURE’s suit against Dr. Bruce, initiated BSA’s formation. The separatism that the organization represented was not unique to SSC; all colleges and universities saw the same pattern as black nationalism and black power gained strength in a disillusioned black America in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. The biracial organization SURE was founded at SSC after King’s death and had perhaps been a unique opportunity for SSC to travel down another path. SURE united rather than divided white and black students. But the unfortunate controversy had put an end to that.
A young woman from Brooklyn, New York, Katherine “Kandi” Corbett served for two years as BSA’s president. Her boyfriend, Eddie Corbett, had come to Magnolia in 1967 to run track for Rip Powell; and shortly after their marriage, she joined him at SSC. Eddie Corbett, still a student, was hired as director of Greene Hall. Together they supervised this athletic dorm. Kandi Corbett led the BSA in sponsoring food and clothing drives for needy families as well as dances for students. The organization began the Miss BSA pageant in March 1971 when Diane Fields of Stephens won the first title. Kandi Corbett as a speech major was required to direct a major play. In 1972, she selected for her production famed black novelist James Baldwin’s hard-hitting 1964 drama about white racism, Blues for Mr. Charlie. It was based on the murder of black teenager Emmett Till who, in 1955 Mississippi, had allegedly whistled at a white woman.
The BSA sponsored Black History Week to recognize black achievements often left out of American history books. David Sixbey, who had joined the SSC history faculty in 1968, provided an academic grounding for this event. He had taught a black history course at SSC during the 1969 spring semester, one of the first to be offered in a formerly all-white Arkansas college.
A missed opportunity at racial reconciliation was the brief tenure of Dr. William H. Hunter on SSC’s board of trustees. He was the first African American board member appointed to any previously all-white state-supported college in Arkansas. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s response to the SURE controversy was to name Hunter to SSC’s board in January 1970. Rockefeller’s chief accomplishment as governor was in the area of race relations. He appointed blacks for the first time since Reconstruction to many state positions. Hunter’s time on SSC’s board was cut short when the Arkansas Senate at its first meeting after his appointment, the opening of the 1971 legislative session, refused to confirm the appointment. Governor Dale Bumpers, the Democrat who had defeated Rockefeller in 1970, was also a liberal in matters of race relations. But he chose not to fight to retain Hunter. Bumpers saved his political capital to assure confirmation of civil rights leader Elijah Coleman whom Rockefeller had appointed in September 1970 to the Arkansas State University board of trustees.
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The early 1970s featured lectures by several famous Americans. Among them were two of America’s most famous black politicians and civil rights leaders who spoke at SSC: Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland; and Julian Bond, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had become a Georgia legislator.
Invitations to these African American leaders were examples of efforts to make the formerly all-white school more inclusive as it adjusted to a growing presence of black students. The percentage of SSC’s black enrollment grew from 8 percent in 1969 to 16 percent in 1972 to 20.4 percent in 1976. Administrators, faculty, and student leaders sought in numerous ways to reduce the campus’s racial polarization. The Student Senate created an anti-polarization committee that in April 1973 sponsored a STOP week (Students to Overcome Polarization). When a slate of black candidates ran for student government association (SGA) offices that spring, two were elected. Gail Strickland became the SGA secretary and Dale Cheatham its treasurer. Rhonda Rhynes defeated three white males to win election in 1975 to the SGA vice presidency. The senate had acted in the 1971 spring semester to assure inclusion of blacks as cheerleaders. Paulette Stephens and Leah Lilly won places on the eight-member squad. Sylvia Thomas was elected to the homecoming court that same year. Most staff and faculty sought in various ways to ensure equal treatment. Financial aid director Bernard Polk made special efforts to help black students from low-income families stay in school.
SSC athletics perhaps did as much to promote integration as any other single college activity. The greatest campus heroes of this era, Bill Barnes and Al Flanigan, were black athletes. Flanigan and Barnes, together with Johnny White, formed a winning combination that took Coach Watson’s basketball team to another AIC championship as well as a District 17 NAIA title in 1971.
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Students in the Black Students Association (BSA) were no doubt proud of black successes in athletics. They were less satisfied with SSC’s academic programs. They wanted black studies and black faculty. David Sixbey and several cooperating faculty won the Academic Affairs Committee’s approval in the 1974 spring semester to begin a black studies minor. Dr. Bruce pointed out the liabilities of SSC’s low salaries and remote location in national competition for black academics then in short supply. He always added that SSC must hire the “best qualified” individuals. Black students thought this explanation was an excuse to maintain the status quo and asked why “sufficiently qualified” was not acceptable. It was acceptable, according to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and federal courts.
Arkansas’s state colleges and the university came under the first HEW review for civil rights compliance just after Richard Nixon became president in 1969. His administration carried out massive desegregation of the South’s public schools. The region’s colleges also came under scrutiny. Following a lawsuit—the Addams case—Judge John H. Pratt for the U.S. District of Columbia ruled in 1973 that ten states, including Arkansas, had failed to desegregate higher education. He ordered HEW to withhold federal funding unless colleges filed acceptable desegregation plans. During 1973–74, representatives of Arkansas’s institutions met frequently to prepare a plan.
At that point, SSC’s Black Students Association decided to add its weight to the pressure for change. Terry Calahan, BSA president, announced a ten-point set of grievances and declared, “It is time for us to take action . . . by any means necessary,” a word choice made famous ten years before by Malcolm X. Despite their language, Calahan and other BSA members were not black militants. A committee of faculty, administrators, and board members met with the black students who accepted assurances their concerns would be addressed.SSC’s board on May 28 endorsed Arkansas colleges’ affirmative action plan prepared for HEW and the court. Among its provisions were numerical goals for more blacks in academic positions. The plan also pledged that the governor would ensure that every college board of trustees had at least one black member. Governor David Pryor’s appointment of Emmie Gamble to SSC’s board in 1977 fulfilled that pledge. Kathleen Jordan and Irene Brannon’s employment in 1974 doubled the number of SSC black academics. As a result, SSC had the second highest percentage of black faculty and staff among Arkansas’s state-supported colleges.