Toward a Black University: Student Activists at Howard University in the Black Power Era

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Hampton Room (Omni Shoreham)
Jocelyn Imani, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution
In May 1968, students at the University of Dakar launched an indefinite strike of classes and exams to protest the government’s proposal to reduce their living stipends. The strike quickly spread to secondary schools, transformed into a widespread urban rebellion, and triggered a general workers’ strike across cities in Senegal. This paper examines the factors that led to the students’ protests and their ability to catalyze a broad social uprising that nearly toppled the regime of president Léopold Senghor. Beyond the issue of stipends, students were motivated by a number of political concerns that they had raised throughout the short existence of the University of Dakar. Created in 1957 as the eighteenth French university, the university continued to function as an essentially French institution after independence in 1960. The 1968 strike was a culmination of previous conflicts that had pitted students against French university administrators and Senghor’s government. Based on archival research and interviews with former Senegalese student organization participants, I argue that student activism was focused on two main issues. First, students increasingly rejected French dominance of administrative and pedagogical posts at the university—a demand which found resonance among secondary students who faced similar conditions. Second, student unions in Dakar demanded the reintroduction of democratic rights eliminated by Senghor’s government, including the freedom for student unions to take “political” positions. Finally, this paper reflects on the transnational nature of the strike—not only the strikers’ relationship to the French protests of May 1968, but also the role of students from other countries in West Africa, who outnumbered the Senegalese students at the university.
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