In 1968 there were only 63 Black students at the University of Washington, at a campus of 33,000 students. A new documentary film on the efforts to diversify the University of Washington will air on UW TV this February.
"In Pursuit of Social Justice: An Oral History of the Early Years of Diversity Efforts at the University of Washington," talks about that time with interviews of Emile Pitre, Verlaine Keith-Miller and King County Councilor Larry Gossett.
A preview of the documentary was shown at the Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma last week where an exhibit, "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story," is displayed. The exhibit, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrest of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott that followed, will run through mid-January and will feature a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
The film was produced by E.J. Brisker, Ernest R. Morris and Pitre and narrated by Hubert G. Locke.
The 1960s was a time of civil rights unrest in the country and the University of Washington campus was not immune to the tension.
Pitre recalls walking across campus and being confronted by a student who told him, "Everywhere I go you damn niggers are here."
"Whether its outcome would be immediate or not, it was imperative that action was taken," Pitre said. "We didn't know the seriousness of the consequences if it didn't work, but we also felt like we were warriors and if we had to die for it, so be it."
Gossett was one of the 13 founding members of the Black Student Union on campus.
"We were naïve, but we were also very committed and felt that our nation had to change to benefit all of its people." Gossett said.
Gathering together at a reception following the screening of the film, "In Pursuit of Social Justice: An Oral History of the Early Years of Diversity Efforts at the University of Washington," are those who helped produce it, from left, Seattle City Councilor Larry Gossett, Clyde Merriwether, Donald Eichelberger, Eddie Walker and E.J. Brisker
"We saw ourselves as intergrationists instead of separatists," he continued.
The Black Student Union officially announced its organization on Jan. 6 1968 in front of the Husky Union Building. The organization's purpose was to bring about better cultural understanding among the Black students and work at being more effective at bringing about Black power.
In May 1968, the Black Student Union got word that the governor planned to meet with then-university president, Charles Odegaard. Union members decided to take over the administrative office. It turned out, the governor didn't show, but Odegaard met with the faculty senate. The Black Student Union and many supporters took over Odegaard's office for four hours with a few professors remaining with the group. One of the Black Student Union members, Eddie Walker, even climbed up the side of the building in protest.
Gossett recalls the student union's vice president, E.J. Brisker, telling Odegaard that if he couldn't do better than to have 63 Black students out of 33,000 after the university's 107-year existence and no courses dealing with the Black experience, then the campus was racist and it needed to change immediately.
After the sit-in, Odegaard signed off on five basic reform changes demanded by the Black Student Union.
• Create the first affirmative action program in Washington state, and recruit more Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and low-income Asian and White students.
• Establish a Black studies program;
• Create a learning resource center;
• Hire more Black staff members, including professors, counselors and administrators; and
• Ensure that Blacks and minorities were represented on every policy-making committee.
As a result of the Black Student Union's involvement, 1,120 Black students now attend the university out of 40,000 students; 54 percent entered through the Equal Opportunity Program, which was implemented as a result of the sit-in, and 51,500 students of color have graduated from the university.