Black Liberation Theology owes a debt to African American and Black Studies. Through these studies, we have the information, framework and thinkers upon which much of our work rests. Should the US continue to ban “Black Studies,” it also intimates that the work of Black Liberation Theology is also under imminent threat.

The following article, by Derecka Purnell, explores the value of Black Studies. Her article, “America has a history of banning Black Studies identifies the trajectory of critical race theory and the subsequent action from such an education. Please read the following article and share and/or “like” it. Please follow the work of Derecka Purnell and provide any feedback you deem helpful.

The Misogynoir to Mishpat Research Network (c) 2023

America has a history of banning Black studies. We can learn from that past

Derecka Purnell

Rightwing pundits target knowledge found in critical race theory because they know it leads to action

Members of SNCC sitting around a table planning
Students who organized for formal Black studies programs on campuses were directly, or indirectly, involved in or inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s political education and organizing efforts in the south. Photograph: Lynn Pelham/Getty Images

Tue 14 Feb 2023 11.18 GMT

On the first day of Black History Month this year, the College Board announced significant changes to its Advanced Placement African American studies course. The billion-dollar company made this move after widespread rightwing pushback against the inclusion of liberal, progressive and radical books by Black authors in the curriculum (they have since apologized). The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, currently leads the fascist charge on banning books and silencing ideas for students and schools. But he has fascist friends.

During the 2020-2021 school year, over 900 districts nationwide suffered “an intentional campaign to restrict or ‘ban’” anything deemed “critical race theory”, according to The Conflict Campaign. These districts represent 35% of all students in elementary, middle and high school. While we should organize to eliminate the elitist, profit-driven College Board from their schools, they ought to fight to introduce, protect and proliferate Black studies on campus.

This is not the first time that politicians have tried to ban Black studies curriculum and social movements education from schools and campuses. These bans have historically come on the heels of Black and multiracial uprisings in the streets. Academic deans and faculty committees have marginalized and ousted professors with radical politics. University and high school administrations are often antagonistic to departmentalizing Black study programs. States cut funding for these programs and their professors while increasing funding for and the presence of policing. But fortunately, such repression has catalyzed resistance that birthed Black studies programs in the first place.

collage of images of these thinkers and activists

For example, students who organized for formal Black studies programs on campuses were directly, or indirectly, involved in or inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) political education and organizing efforts in the south. When SNCC rose to national prominence in the 1960s, they offered a direct pipeline for students from across the country to enter the civil rights movements.

New recruits put their training and organizing process to use during the Freedom Summer of 1964, when the organization, along with the Congress of Racial Equality (Core), welcomed thousands of student volunteers to help organize Freedom Schools, political and popular education programs geared toward oppressed Black residents in Mississippi. Freedom School instructors taught math, history, reading and writing. They also worked with students to study race riots, the origins of inequality and the role of Black people in building the future. The curricula posed various insightful questions, including: will the white community, either privately or through the government, effectively resolve its own indecision on racial questions? Should a few people have a lot of money, should everybody have the same, should everybody have what they need? How should we want to treat other countries? Can we have peace if we keep building bigger bombs?

After the Freedom Summer, many students entered or returned to college to avoid being drafted into the military for war, and at least beginning in 1968, student demonstrations began to explode on college campuses. James P Garrett, who had been with SNCC, Core and the Communist party, was a lead organizer of the Black campus movement that swept the country in the late 60s and early 70s. With his comrades, he helped create the first Black Student Union (BSU) and Black studies programs in the country. These BSU and Black studies programs were educational and political strategies to build solidarity and power among Black and other oppressed peoples. Consequently, the BSU default membership included all Black people on campus, including faculty, staff, community members and other people of color.

The struggle for Black studies was birthed through political education and experimentation. Rather than using African American studies courses as an exclusive class towards preparation for testing, Garrett and his fellow activists organized to raise consciousness among marginalized groups on and off campus, shift university resources to the surrounding Black community and to develop a Black studies program to politicize students to participate in different forms of activism. They helped develop free schools that taught interdisciplinary courses and enlisted instructors to teach.

At San Francisco State University (SFSU), the Black student union and Third World Liberation Front (a collective of various affinity groups on campus) replicated political education and politicization programs from SNCC and the Black Panther party. Off campus, they built relationships with labor and union organizations, facilitated a tutoring program for low-income students of color and ran a breakfast program modeled after the Black Panthers’. Black student organizers even identified potential Black students and lobbied for their admission; upon entry, the BSU put them through a political education orientation as well.

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The Black and multiracial coalition continued to push for greater presence to advocate for people of color on and off campus. Eventually, they led a five-month strike against the university that included students, staff and faculty in support of 10 demands that furthered their goals of raising consciousness, building a Black studies programs and moving resources off campus. The university shut down in response to violent clashes between protesters and the police. Garrett even recalls that protesters threw a racist professor out the second-story window of a campus building. SFSU met the students’ demands and created the country’s first official Black studies program.

In her book on the Black campus movement, Martha Biondi explains that most Black students were not “politically active, or especially socially conscious” before their campus uprisings, but they were eventually led to engage in radical study while pushing their colleges to meet their demands. Their politicization process influenced their paradigm, demands, strategies, tactics and outcomes. Through their study, student and staff organizers developed an intimate bond with each other and a commitment to improving Black communities that surrounded the university, even risking and facing backlash, university disciplinary action, arrest, bodily injury and death.

This history is important because it helps us realize that today’s book banning efforts belong to a broader political backlash to the current Black liberation movement that started with the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The ideas and demands that Black people, and all people, deserve freedom from police violence, deserve quality housing, deserve universal healthcare, deserve a world that has different problems from what Dr King identified as the triple evils of racism, capitalism and militarism. It is no accident that these ideas are found in the very same books that prisons ban, including mine. Prison officials, politicians and rightwing pundits target knowledge found in critical race theory because they know that theory leads to action for people who care about love, liberty and justice. They want to stop people from being inspired to fight for better lives.

But they do not have to win. Just as students, teachers and community members rose up against repression in the past, students, teachers and the rest of us must continue the political organizing to keep education radical, free and accessible to all.

Derecka Purnell is a Guardian US columnist. She is also a social movement lawyer and writer based in Washington, DC. She is the author of Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom

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