12 Days in April

by Christopher Rutherford

In the 1960’s and 70’s, the struggle for Black liberation seemed to be on the hearts and minds of everyone. This ethos was prevalent in many of our homes, our neighborhoods, our music churches, and on college campuses like Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. 

As a kid growing up in Detroit, I witnessed the world change through the power of activism.  Darrell Dawsey, a journalist, writer and alumnus of Wayne State, recounts the legacy of student activism in his recent article, “Transformers: Wayne State students and the Black activist tradition”. In it, Dawsey says, 

“Indeed, the legacy of progressive black political activism at Wayne State University in Detroit, among both students and faculty, runs long and deep. As both a hotbed for activity and a historical crucible for some of Detroit’s sharpest political minds, Wayne State has had a profound and lasting impact on the political direction of not just Detroit, but black America as a whole.”

It’s not surprising, then, that in April of 1989, over 150 African American students occupied the university’s administration building calling on the institution to transform the Center for Black Studies into a fully funded and degree-granting department of Africana Studies (now African-American Studies). The Center for Black Studies had initially been created by the activism of students in 1968. Now, the students determined, it was time for evolution. 

As a student and participant in this historic moment I had no idea how it would change my life.  Like most college students, we were ambitious, focused and tired of asking for permission to have access to our legacy. As a leader in one of the Black student organizations on campus, I was always keenly aware of the many inequities that existed. We planned, we rallied and planned some more.  We pressed the university to address the challenges, but it didn’t seem to be enough. Finally, in my junior year, students responded. We knew there was a need to get their attention in a big way, and we were ready.  

That moment came late one night. I recall getting home from work, checking my voicemail and hearing, “WSU police know about our plans and so the date has changed.  We are going in tomorrow.” My heart raced with anticipation. Am I really going to take over a building?  The plan was simple: we walk in, sit down, and not leave. We were demanding that the Center for Black Studies be elevated to the Department of Africana Studies, by any means necessary! In that instance the “Study In” was born. While many wanted to call it a “sit in”, we were adamant that we as students, we were not sitting, but actively engaging in studying, advancing Black social and political thought, and working toward our degrees.  

We were sure the university would try to remove us by force as police vans drove up and officers set up tables with arrest reports outside the building.  Our first assignment was to be non-violent yet protect the women at all cost. We sat in a circle with our arms locked, with women in the middle and men on the outside surrounding them. All of us waited anxiously for the police to come in through the night.  We waited for what seemed like an eternity. Much to our surprise, they never did.

Over the next couple of days, we diligently worked to decide roles and build on our strategy. There were no leaders, only people who we selected to speak for us. We were a collective from all walks of life.  Whatever the university offered we had to vote on as a group.  Those who didn’t agree and wanted to leave were free to do so, but those who stayed were resolute.    

I vividly remember the challenges as well; the isolation, doubt and fear. The campus police popping balloons in the basement hoping we would think it was gun fire and run out. I remember the heat and hot water being cut off forcing us to huddle together during the cold Michigan nights. 

Our spirits were fed by the revolutionary music of our time -- Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-ONE, Eric B & Rakim -- as we studied by day and debated strategy at night. We received letters of gratitude from ally communities (Latino, White, Arab-American) who were all supporting our actions and urging us to not give up. Even children were brought from Detroit schools to witness what liberation looked like. With fists in the air, they supplied gallons of water while chanting, “We are African people, we are at war!”

We were sustained by our community, family, friends and people who believed in us.  They brought toiletries, food, clothing, and medicine, as they passed on letters sent to them from around the world giving us encouragement. 

For 11 days we relied on the legacy of Malcolm, Martin, Denmark, Harriet, Nat, Mary Lou, Nzinga, Marcus, and millions of others who died in the Maafa. Then, in an instance, it was over.  We had reached an agreement. The jubilation was immense as we erupted into celebration upon hearing the news. We had won this battle -- for our community, ourselves and, most of all, for the children.

On day 12, I reflected on what we had done and what we sacrificed for those eleven days, both the pain and the victory. I opened my journal in an attempt to capture my thoughts. Sitting alone in my room, I erupted into tears. As I struggled to put my experience into words,I couldn’t help but wonder why they fought us so hard when all we wanted was to create something that celebrated what Africans gave to humanity.  And then it hit me. For the first time I truly understood a truth best captured by the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” 

Chris Rutherford is CBMA Promise of Place Program Manager, and a native resident of Detroit, MI.