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Student Protest at Washington University

Background

The 1968 sit-in in Brookings Hall was the result of the frustrations of the black students on campus, most of whom were in the newly-formed Association of Black Collegians, or ABC. The group, which was led in part by Robert Johnson, a graduate student, had worked in the past to bring awareness to issues such as black student harassment, segregation among the university's service employees, and ignorance of the black student experience on campus. Furthermore, students in ABC were displeased with the number of black students on campus as there were only 119 black students on campus in the Fall of 1968, which made up just 1.8 percent of the student body. 

The tensions felt by black students reached a critical mass in December of 1968, when Elbert Walton, a black graduate student, was arrested for refusing to show his student ID to a campus police officer. Walton felt that since he was on Forsyth Boulevard, which wasn't technically university property, the campus police officer had no to right to stop him. Following the incident, Walton was taken to the campus police station. The next day, Student Life published an article in which Walton reported that he had been beaten by the arresting officer and three others who arrived on the scene. As word of this incident reached the student body, the students of ABC chose to take action. 

Student Life article reporting on the occupation of the campus police station 

The Sit-In

Following Walton's arrest, the students of ABC began to occupy the campus police station. By the afternoon following Walton's arrest, there were 30 members of ABC occupying the police station. The members of ABC demanded an end to black students being harassed on campus as well as the suspension of the officers involved in the incident. The day after the occupation began, it was relocated to the accounting offices in Brookings Hall. Here, the occupation would go on to receive attention from both local and national media. 

The occupation of Brookings Hall would last 8 days. During this time, students in ABC spoke with administrators, held press conferences and developed a list of demands. These demands would eventually be incorporated into the group's Black Manifesto. The Black Manifesto, which ABC issued on December 11, was a document detailing the group's demands and how they should be implemented. The list of demands included increasing black student enrollment to 25 percent by 1969, introducing a black studies program, increasing financial aid for black students, and ending discriminatory personnel practices. 

The day after the Black Manifesto was issued, the university's administration responded to ABC. The chancellor at the time, Thomas H. Eliot, conceded that the university had room for improvement and committed to action that supported several of the demands outlined in the Black Manifesto. Robert Johnson characterized Eliot's response as "reluctant acceptance," however the response satisfied the students of ABC enough to end the sit-in. 

Robert Johnson and Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot

The Aftermath

Because of the occupation of Brookings Hall, the university agreed to meet some of ABC's demands including a commitment to increase enrollment of black students to 8 percent by the start of the next school year, a promise for further financial aid to black students, and an agreement to create a black studies program, which would eventually become the African and African-American studies department.