Joyous hymns from Rankin Chapel’s outdoor services competed with a blustering wind across the Howard University courtyard on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the tranquility of an “easy Sunday morning” met the constant anxious clamoring of curious visitors, eager to take in the sight of an encampment in the shadows of the chapel. The protest site outside Blackburn with approximately 30 tents and sleeping bags — many of which had been soaked by a rainstorm the night before — became ground zero for an impromptu “war room” when the Rev. William J. Barber II and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. exited the services to meet with and encourage student protesters.
Young activists seized the Armour J. Blackburn University Center building on Oct. 12, seeking a meeting with Howard President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick and a resolution to issues that include what they describe as mold-ridden dormitories and a lack of voting rights for students.
“I’ve been coming here every year to the chapel. And I’ve been in your spot as a student leader. You all have to set your narrative because you’re going to be here and need to be supported. But the other piece of it is while you are here in this space, think about Howard, think about the dorms, think about the mold and then think about it beyond this,” Barber said.
“The majority of you are freshmen. What is the spirit trying to set in place much further than this battle?” he asked.
Barber, who serves as president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, told the students his first protest occurred in efforts to reverse a pay schedule change at North Carolina Central University that eliminated the ability of students to pay their tuition in four installments over the course of the semester.
“People [then] owned farms, so their moms and dads had to take the stuff they grew first, to sell. Then all of a sudden, they cut it, and a whole lot of our students, and my friends, were getting thrown out of school. So, we protested, similar to what you all are doing, and took over the place. We said, ‘You all can’t do this,’” Barber said.
“But in the process, we also started thinking why is it that the HBCU gets so [much] of our money? Why is it that we don’t have free Pell grants? It produced more . . . we started it on campus but it didn’t end there. Every protest gives us a deeper consciousness,” Barber added.
Howard freshman Tyler Davis said the Blackburn takeover grew from a town hall hosted by the student association to which the administration had been invited but none attended. Now in its third week, protesters say they’ve hit a stalemate with the administration.
“The final word that we have gotten is [the administration] will not start negotiations with us until we leave the building. Unfortunately, our stance is we will not leave the building until we have negotiations, so we are a stuck right there,” Davis said.
“We still have not seen [Dr. Frederick],” he said. “The only person we have ever seen is our vice president of student affairs, Dr. Cynthia Evers. But every time she comes, she just threatens us with expulsion. I’m from Florida, so I gave up a lot to be at this school right now and for it to be tents in front of the Blackburn because adults will not talk is kind of ridiculous and very upsetting.”
While parents have expressed great concern and professors have supported them by bringing food and supplies, student protesters found the prayers and counsel of two civil rights icons a godsend.
“We are taught at every turn that our lives matter and that we have to fight injustice but as soon as the culprits look like us — or we consider them to be our allies and family, we are supposed to just take it on the chin,” said Marcus Long, Howard University freshman. “That’s not logical and having these two powerful men of God encourage us to fight on, means a lot.”
Protest organizer Aniyah Vines said one of the demands that has gotten a lot of traction nationwide relates to decent housing.
“There are four other demands that we have,” Vines said. “The board of trustees took the voting rights away from students, faculty, and alumni. We’re still fighting for our voting rights to this day. We are also requesting a meeting with the president, the administration and the student body.”
Before leading the students in prayer, Jackson reassured students that what seems like an impossible fight remains just the opposite.
“Students should not be punished but appreciated for standing up for justice,” Jackson said.