In the litany of protests and demonstrations that have taken place in our nation’s capital there is one that is seldom mentioned. On September 29, 1980 students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) assembled in Washington, DC for Black College Day. Varying estimates of the crowd ranged from 30,000 to 60,000. Students traveled by car and bus from points as far away as Atlanta and Texas to join their peers to call attention to several issues that were prominent during that period. The event took on even greater meaning because it was staged in the middle of a presidential election year when incumbent President Jimmy Carter was facing Republican opponent Ronald Reagan.
The idea to descend on the seat of the federal government originated in an organization, the National Association of Black University and College Students, or NOBUCS, that represented the student leadership of HBCUs. Students on Black college campuses were growing increasingly concerned over the climate of the country in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Bakke affirmative action case in 1978 and the possibility of cutbacks to student aid under a new presidential administration. While NOBUCS supported the idea of a march or protest in Washington, DC, the organization did not have the resources to stage such an event on its own. After much debate within the organization, it was determined to reach out to journalist Tony Brown, at the time the most high profile Black public affairs journalist. Brown, who had served as the funder and dean of the Howard University school of Communications, was the host of the PBS show “Tony Brown’s Journal.” While Brown brought resources to the table, he also brought some controversy. His show’s primary sponsor at that time was Pepsi and the soft drink giant was conducting business in South Africa; something that many of the student leaders took issue with since Blacks in that country were suffering under apartheid. Nonetheless, Brown became the sponsor and branded the event in a way that differed from the original vision, including the addition of a Black college marching band and campus queen component.
Another controversy brewed in the background as some Black college presidents were concerned that the march would appear critical of the Carter administration as the Democrat was facing a tough re-election fight against Republican Ronald Reagan. The conservative Republican was seen by most Blacks as indifferent to civil rights and was campaigning on a platform that included a proposal to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Adding to these concerns was the fact that Tony Brown was a Republican. All three presidential candidates, Carter, Regan and independent John Anderson, were invited to speak at the rally but none appeared. Tension did exist between the campus presidents and student leaders on the issue of partisan politics, but the students pushed ahead and proceeded to organize and prepared to descend upon Washington, DC.
On the day of the march students from across the country pulled into Washington DC, with Howard University serving as a staging ground for marchers. It was a remarkable sight as thousands of Black college students wearing the paraphernalia of their institutions or fraternities and sororities could be seen on the streets of the nation’s capital. The depths to which students went to get to the event could be seen on the license plates of vehicles around the Howard campus and the fleet of buses provided by hair care products company M&M Products for students from the Atlanta area HBCUs. One of the memorable moments of the march toward the U.S. Capitol was when the students met at an intersection with protesting Iranian students. Iran was in the throes of upheaval and students from that country has come to the nation’s capital to voice their concerns. As the Black College Day marchers yielded, the Iranian students crossed an intersection with the Black students watching.
At the stage area near the U.S. Capitol, the marchers heard from a collection of speakers, in addition to performances by Black college bands. Among the marchers were all of the Black Greek letter fraternities and sororities, and many members of the Congressional Black Caucus were in attendance as well as several prominent Black leaders. One of the most memorable speeches was given by the president of the Morehouse College student government association, Rev. Tyrone Crider. The event remains to this day the most focused effort of historically Black college students to bring their concerns directly to the federal government.