Student Activists Make Their Mark
From the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s to student advocacy for an integrated curriculum in the 1990s to Black Lives Matter today, Beloit students have pushed the college and the country forward, especially toward racial justice.
Becoming Better, Beloit’s action plan to center the work of anti-racism and equity, was formally established last year, thanks to a team of students, faculty, and administrative leaders. These aspirations build on a long history.
Student anti-racist activism, in particular, has been a prominent feature of campus life for decades, and the efforts of Beloit’s Black students to be seen and heard have created change.
During the 1960s, Beloit student activists began mobilizing on campus and beyond.
One of the earliest was Jim Zwerg’62, a white student from Appleton, Wis. Inspired by his friendship with his Black roommate Bob Carter’62—a student of Dr. King’s nonviolent teachings—Zwerg enrolled in an exchange semester at historically Black Fisk University, then joined the Freedom Rides to force bus integration in the Deep South.
In May 1961, he and fellow peaceful protesters were beaten by a white mob as they left a bus. Photos of Zwerg, beaten and bloody, appeared in Life Magazine and in newspapers across the nation, bringing awareness to civil rights nationwide, and to Beloit, then a conservative campus.
A few years later, Beloit students raised money to send eight of their own to the Selma to Montgomery march for civil rights. There, local authorities attacked marchers on what became known as Bloody Sunday. About 175 Beloit students who could not go to Selma rallied in sympathy, embarking on a 50-mile march from Beloit to Madison one frigid March day in 1965.
In 1969, the Afro-American Union of students posted flyers across campus with a 12-point list of Black Demands aimed at President Miller Upton and his administration. The demands included more Black faculty and students, courses with an “African and Afro-American” lens on the humanities, mandatory courses on the concept of Blackness, and living spaces for Black students.
Michael Young’69, the Afro-American Union’s president, led the charge, engaging the union in negotiations with college administrators. Upton and some faculty members resented the group’s method of action and their choice of the word “demands.” While finding many unattainable or unreasonable, they ultimately agreed to enact some, with compromise.
The groundbreaking 1969 Black Demands spurred later demands at Beloit, including in 1994 by the newly formed Black Students United, and again in 2015 by Students for an Inclusive Campus.
On June 17, 2020—weeks after the murder of George Floyd and at a time of reckoning over racial violence—BSU sent a letter to the college reiterating and adding onto the 1969 demands. In response, Beloit Student Government revised the Student Statement of Culture, committing to addressing the demands and other cultural norms in the pandemic’s wake. The college used students’ 2020 demands to frame and develop measurable goals in the Becoming Better action plan.
Movement for an Integrated Curriculum
Twenty years after the Afro-American Union issued the first Black Demands, students brought renewed attention to the lack of diverse content in their courses.
In February 1990, Students for an Integrated Beloit College Curriculum (SIBCC) reprinted the 1969 demands in the Round Table, noting that the college’s curriculum and racial makeup had barely changed.
A few weeks later, a banner stating “Half an education is not enough!” waved above Pearsons Hall. SIBCC claimed responsibility for it and for a survey asking students how they felt about Beloit’s commitment to racial diversity. The results, published in the Round Table, revealed a deeply divided campus. Before long, SIBCC released its own demands—aimed at faculty—to diversify the curriculum and include mandatory resources created by people of color.
SIBCC and its supporters organized a rally in front of Pearsons Hall in late March. Around 300 people attended, with students and faculty speaking about the importance of an integrated curriculum.
While other campus conflicts overshadowed the call for an integrated curriculum that spring, students made their voices heard again in fall. SIBCC’s demands were put to a faculty vote in November 1990 and passed by a wide margin.
Beloit Tutoring Center in Mississippi
During the Beloit Plan (1964-1978), students were required to take Field Terms away from campus to apply what they were learning.
In 1966, after Drex Godfrey’68 witnessed rural poverty during a Field Term in Mississippi, he lobbied for the idea of a tutoring program for Black youth and undereducated adults in Cleveland, Miss. It was accepted as a sanctioned Field Term.
That opened the door for the Beloit Tutoring Center in Mississippi, an entirely student-initiated and student-run operation. Beloiters readied the center over spring break that year, equipping its three rooms in the Cleveland Community Center with desks, chairs, supplies, and books to check out.
The Center, which operated until 1968, tutored hundreds of children and adults in small groups from sunup to after sundown, five days a week. Volunteers drove a converted bread truck to bring their Black pupils to majority-white schools in the morning and gave informal lessons on Black history, reading, art, and typing the rest of the day and evening.
Michael Young’69 was one of many volunteers whose lives were changed by the experience.
“I have learned something I couldn’t get out of a book,” he wrote in his 1967 Field Term paper. “I learned how to communicate and live with people on a personal level. I learned how to live with frustrations, disappointment, and happiness … I now worry about more than just myself. In short, I’ve grown up a bit.”
Young’s exposure to rural poverty in the South also opened his eyes to activism. A history major from the South Side of Chicago, Young was the Afro-American Union’s chairman when the group released its Black Demands in 1969. At the time, he was a senior, co-captain of the football team, and the only Black member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
When he was chosen to give the student speech at his Commencement, he delivered an unflinching address about the systemic inequities affecting Black communities.