In late 1968 at San Francisco State College, African American students led a 133-day on-campus strike, the longest of its kind in U.S. history. One of their primary goals was to force the school’s administration to establish the nation’s first Black Studies department.

Prior to the strike, the university had briefly offered a smattering of courses focused on the African American experience through other departments. But the Black Students Union, driven by the racial turbulence of the 1960s, wanted its own department with a degree program and a full-time Black faculty teaching about the history, culture and contributions of their own people. They called for a curriculum that went beyond traditional Euro-centric views and better reflected Black perspectives.

Their five-month strike—tense, combative and rife with violent police confrontations—ultimately succeeded. Not only did it bring about a Black Studies department at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), but it opened the floodgates to profound change in American academia. Within a few years, African American Studies emerged in hundreds of higher education institutions across the country.

Debate Over Black Studies Had Been Percolating

When San Francisco State erupted into strife, it was one of many schools in the nation grappling with similar demands to broaden their curriculum. Six months before the strike started, in May 1968, Yale University held the first major symposium to debate the political and scholarly legitimacy of Black Studies. Few at the conference contested the worthiness of the new discipline as a serious subject for scholarly inquiry. But there was a fierce philosophical debate about how it should function within the academy.

Dr. Nathan Hare, the first head of San Francisco State’s Black Studies department, was among those at the symposium approaching the discipline from a Black nationalist perspective. He believed that the principal function of Black Studies should be to empower Black students with knowledge and pride, uplifting them and, by extension, the Black communities they hailed from. In his written proposal to SF State to create the department, Hare, a University of Chicago-trained sociologist, wrote that the program would be irrelevant unless it was “revolutionary and nationalist.” His views reflected those of the era’s Black Power movement, which promoted racial autonomy and self-determination.

Photos: The San Francisco State College Student Strike

On the other side of the spectrum were the integrationists, who believed that the new discipline shouldn’t just benefit African Americans. They thought white students and faculty should also have a role in its development.

As president of the influential Ford Foundation, an early funder of African American Studies, McGeorge Bundy took up the integrationists’ cause. “The strength of Black Studies was not in its politics, identity or nationalistic sensibility,” wrote the former Kennedy administration official in a foundation report, “but rather in its ability to enter the academy and desegregate the faculty and curriculum of traditionally ‘white’ disciplines.”

Even among Black scholars and activists, perspectives varied. Some wanted the comfort of working in a traditional discipline and were concerned that Black Studies might be a fad. “If the university is to succeed in this,” wrote Martin Kilson, an African American government professor at Harvard, “the proposals for Black Studies emanating from Negro militants must display more common sense.”

Bayard Rustin, a key organizer of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, was not a supporter of Black Studies departments. “These students are seeking to impose upon themselves the very conditions of separatism and inequality against which Black Americans have struggled since the era of Reconstruction,” he wrote.

Riot Police Overtook the Campus

A member of the Black Student Union being taken into custody Dec. 3, 1968 on the San Francisco State Campus.
AP Photo
Dec. 3, 1968: A member of the Black Students Union being arrested and taken into custody on the San Francisco State Campus.

The student strike at San Francisco State College began on November 6, 1968, capping almost a year of steadily escalating unrest. At a time when campuses nationwide were erupting in antiwar and civil rights protests, SF State students had made numerous demands of the school: Diversify the faculty and curriculum. Admit more students from marginalized communities. Ban the ROTC from campus. And stop sharing students’ academic standing with the Selective Service System, which was disproportionately drafting young men of color to fight in Vietnam.

When the school suspended George Mason Murray, a popular and charismatic African American English instructor, it was like dropping a lit match on dry kindling. Murray, who also served as the Black Panther Party’s minister of education, had been suspected of telling African American students to bring guns to the campus to protect themselves. Students wanted him reinstated. The strike quickly followed, instigated by the Black Students Union in conjunction with a multi-ethnic student coalition called the Third World Liberation Front.

Chief among their 15 demands: There should be a bachelor’s degree granted in a new Black Studies department, along with 20 full-time teaching positions. In 1967, the Black Students Union had developed courses in the African American experience through the university’s Experimental College, which gave students the freedom to create their own coursework. Eventually, these courses were moved out of the Experimental College and offered for credit across various university departments with 11 courses and nearly 400 students. But the program was poorly funded and there was little agreement on what to teach.

Students kept the pressure high with picketing, rallies and building occupations. The school administration responded by closing down the campus and ceding control to local police, who showed up in riot gear with batons. News coverage showed students being beaten and maced. By mid-January, many teachers walked out in sympathy—and with demands of their own.

Ultimately, the students were granted their Black Studies department (part of a new, broader College of Ethnic Studies), along with the ability to select some faculty. Their demand that Hare receive a full professorship, however, was rejected by the school administration. Neither he nor Murray had their contract renewed for the following year. The strike ended on March 20, 1969.

Black Studies Gain Legitimacy

The strike that helped create San Francisco State’s Black Studies department had an immediate and transformative impact on American academia. By the early 1970s, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 500 programs, departments and institutes in higher education dedicated to African American Studies had been established across the country, largely through efforts of Black student activism. Other communities—Latino, Asian, women, gay and lesbian—took note and began lobbying for their own representation in higher education.

The scholarship that has followed in subsequent decades has delved into the complexity of the African American experience and altered long-accepted narratives placing white people at the center of history, culture and innovation. “In large measure, scholars have come to accept the United States as a pluralistic society with multiple viable cultures,” wrote Columbia University African American Studies Professor Farah Jasmine Griffith, “rather than as a ‘melting pot.’” 

HISTORY Vault: Voices of Civil Rights

A look at one of the defining social movements in U.S. history, told through the personal stories of men, women and children who lived through it.