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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

North Carolina’s HBCUs have a long history intertwined with politics, and today they are still engaging with them in some distinct ways.

North Carolina’s historically Black colleges and universities have been trailblazers in the fight for civil rights, cultivating Black scholars and producing government officials. Today, many of those same institutions have undertaken zealous initiatives in the hopes of getting students registered to vote and otherwise involved in the political process.

Black Americans fought a decades-long battle to attain the right to vote in the United States. Law enforcement personnel and ordinary civilians alike beat them, hosed them, and tried many other harrowing tactics in an attempt to suppress their vote. As a result, many Black Americans lost their lives.

Students and faculty of various HBCUs sparked a revolution during the 1960s which quickly spread throughout the south, leading to drastic changes in the political realm that laid the foundation for today.

A small group of Fayetteville State University (then called Fayetteville State Teachers College) faculty and students organized a group called the “Demonstration Committee” to assist in organizing peaceful protests. Afraid to lose their jobs as a consequence of protesting, many from the community provided bail money for those police arrested or jailed.

One major touchpoint was at North Carolina’s largest historically Black institution of higher education. On February 1, 1960, a group of students at what was then called North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College led the first sit-in protest at Woolworth’s, a store in Greensboro.

Later referred to as the Greensboro Four, the students organized the demonstration with students and faculty members of Bennett College for Women after 12-year-old Emmett Till was violently murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.

That same year, Shaw University alumna Ella Baker founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), originally housed at her alma mater. This organization became one of the most influential of the Civil Rights Movement.

Its representatives helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, The Mississippi Summer, and the freedom rides, and the organization worked closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Racists want us to believe that our votes won't matter; so don't bother to vote. What people should understand is that the racists would not try so hard to block the vote if the vote did not matter.”

Gwendolyn Bookman, political science professor at Bennett College, claims keeping students at the forefront of being activists in voting is vital to their experience and an ode to the history of activism from the ’50s and ’60s.

“In just about all of my courses I am able to focus on some form of activism whether that is in the local community or the global community,” Bookman said. “We continue those conversations. And of course, with this being an election year, there is a real concrete way that we can talk about all of the apparatuses that lead to people being educated about voting.”

During her time as a history student at Elizabeth City State University, Eyricka Johnson launched a 2016 campaign to educate students and register them to vote. Her university received an award from the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for their efforts to get students registered which Eyricka accepted on their behalf.

Since the launch of the campaign in 2016 more than 500 other campuses have joined enrolling more than 6.2 million students in total.

Famous Alumni

Here are notable alumni of North Carolina HBCUs that have gone on to prominence in the political realm.

• Congresswoman Alma Adams: NC A&T
• Henry Frye, first Black Chief Justice in NC Supreme Court: NC A&T
• Rev. Jesse Jackson: NC A&T
• Earl Jones, former Greensboro City Council member and the NC House representative: North Carolina Central
• Yvonne Johnson, first Black mayor of Greensboro: Bennett College, NC A&T

Over the decades, HBCU alumni accrued some real influence in North State government, according to retired NC A&T journalism and communication professor Linda Florence Callahan.

“Most of the African Americans in the NC Legislature are graduates of HBCUs,” Callahan said. “A high percentage of elected officials are graduates of HBCUs.”

Callahan referenced the storied and rich history of Black Americans who struggled to exercise their right to vote in making it clear that who can vote should do so if at all possible.

“There have been a lot of pioneers who have marched, been beaten, fired from their jobs, firebombed, bitten by vicious dogs, fire hosed, and murdered for attempting to vote,” Callahan said. ”This shows how much racists do not want us to vote. They know that there is power in the vote; therefore, they will do everything in their power to restrict the right to vote.”

HBCUs have played a significant role in state politics. African American influence in the political realm has proved to be essential, and voting has proven fundamental in making substantial change.

“When discouraged African Americans say that their votes won't matter, that is the message that the racists are putting out,” she said. “Racists want us to believe that our votes won't matter; so don't bother to vote. What people should understand is that the racists would not try so hard to block the vote if the vote did not matter.”

Next: Learning the details behind voting can be tricky, so we’ve accrued some tips on how to be prepared to vote.