By DONOVAN HARRELL
Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday coincided with the University’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of an event that changed the lives of black students at Pitt.
The “Say It Loud: The Black Action Society, The Computer Center Takeover, and Transformation at the University of Pittsburgh” event honored the more than 40 students who, on Jan. 15, 1969, staged a sit-in at the eighth-floor computer center in the Cathedral of Learning.
This strategic protest led to the creation of Pitt’s Africana studies program and several other improvements on campus for African-American students.
The William Pitt Union’s Kurtzman Room was standing room only as attendees listened to excerpts from the upcoming publication of “Say It Loud,” a collection of oral histories and reflections from 1968-69. The title came from the popular James Brown song, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The book launch celebration will take place during Sankofa Homecoming 2019 this fall.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the events of 1969 happened “at a time of incredible change and tension.”
“(The) Civil Rights Movement was under full swing; Dr. King had just been assassinated; the year before, we had unrest in the Hill District; we had violence on U.S. campuses across the United States with confrontation and conflicts.
“And these students stood up in a way that they felt they had to do, and in a peaceful and dramatic and effective way, they brought the conversations to this campus. What happened there created the beginnings of real dialogue, it created the beginnings of an understanding that we have to do much more and to do better.”
The chancellor at the time was Wesley Posvar, who died in 2001. His wife, Mildred, was in attendance for the commemoration.
Curtiss Porter, an original Black Action Society organizer, told the crowd that BAS was formed on the eve of King’s assassination.
The use of the word “black” to describe their group was considered bold for the time, Porter said.
“And being black and proud was highly controversial,” Porter said. “ ‘Black Power’ was like a curse word for many segments of our society.”
According to the Pitt Archives, the historic protests began when African-American students went in and out of classes on Jan. 15, 1969, reading a statement from the Black Action Society that argued for the cancellation of classes in honor of King’s birthday. King had been assassinated the previous year on April 4, 1968.
The students then demanded Posvar cancel classes. Posvar told the students that any student who decided not to go to class would be excused.
Students also demanded Pitt recruit more black students; integrate more African-American history in the University’s history courses; increase the amount of African-American faculty and promote the present African-American professors; and the creation of a Black Studies program.
The students decided that further action was needed to get their demands met in a timely fashion, so they decided to live up to their name and take over the computer center, a vital resource for the University at the time, Porter said.
“Without access to these data and the computer systems, the University could not functionally operate,” Porter said. “We hinted with our negotiating team that if someone accidentally fumbled through the keys of computers and the data got erased or otherwise contaminated, we wouldn’t know what that was about.”
After students occupied the computer center for several hours, Posvar agreed to sign an agreement that the lock-in participants wouldn’t be punished, and their demands would be put on a fast track.
The agreement led to the creation of more financial aid and scholarships to black students, a black student and faculty recruiting team approved by the BAS, excused absence from class for black students on Malcolm X’s birthday and the establishment of King’s birthday as a University holiday.
“We felt with the computer center takeover, for us it was a moment when the human spirit rose above circumstance,” Porter said.
Lora Hubbard, another BAS member at the time, recounted how difficult it was to organize during a time where cell phones and social media didn’t exist.
In the end, she was proud of how things were handled by the protesters and by Pitt, as students in other colleges had more violent experiences when they protested.
“There was no contention,” Hubbard said. “That’s what I remember. Everything doesn’t have to involve screaming or hollering. … It was reasonable, and we knew what we were owed.”
Several other leaders of black student organizations, such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the African Student Union at Pitt, spoke about the impact of the actions BAS members took 50 years ago.
After the readings, attendees took a commemorative walk holding lanterns — to the sounds of drums — from the Fifth Avenue side of the William Pitt Union to the Cathedral of Learning.
Attendees then headed to Alumni Hall for a separate candlelight commemoration and reception.
Hubbard said racial dynamics at Pitt and the country have changed over the years. However, there’s still much work to be done.
“Times are truly different from those times … but there are some familiar smells,” Hubbard said. “There are some things that are very familiar.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.