Colgate Sit-ins: Then and Now – Panel Discussion Brings Together Two Generations of Student Activists

In 1968 and 2014 Colgate students strove to create a more inclusive campus community. Participants from both sit-ins shared their experiences in a panel discussion.

Colgate students and alumni engaged in a panel discussion on Thursday, March 24 in Love Auditorium to share their experiences as part of Colgate’s activist history. Titled “A Tale of Two Sit-Ins,” the event brought together participants of Colgate’s two largest sit-ins, which took place in 1968 and 2014.

The event was sponsored by Broad Street Association, Bunche House, Interfaith House, PAC House, Dean of the College, Student Government Association (SGA) and the Africana, Latin American, Asian American and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center.

Ray Hartung ’70 partnered with SGA Senior Executive Advisor Charity Whyte to organize the event and gather the panelists. Jim Smith ‘70, Naceo Giles ‘70, Jon Romano ‘70, Marc Rosenbaum ‘70, Dennis Riordan ‘70, Natasha Torres ‘15, junior Dayna Campbell, sophomore Shemuel Malave and sophomore Mimi Ballard shared their experiences from their respective sit-ins.

According to Whyte, the purpose of the event was to bring people together to talk about race, justice and activism.

Whyte, who moderated the panel, introduced the event by noting that the efforts of the Class of 1970 alumni laid a foundation that has enabled current students to make positive change at Colgate.

“The amazing work that these alums put together when they were here in our shoes made way for [The Office of Undergraduate Studies] (OUS), it made way for ALANA, it made way for us women to be here. It made way for us to talk about gender-neutral identity. It made way for so many things,” Whyte said.

Before the panel began, Dean of the College Suzy Nelson, who will assume the post of Vice President of Student Life at MIT next fall, offered remarks about how the 2014 sit-in affected her personally and professionally.

Nelson said she appreciates that not only is Colgate changing, but she too is changing.

During the 2014 sit-in, students occupied the Office of Admission for five days, shared testimonies of their lived experiences at Colgate and marched around campus chanting “Can you hear us now?” and “I too am Colgate.” From September 22 to September 26, more than 300 students and faculty members occupied the Office of Admission.  

Nelson praised the students’ community-organizing efforts, citing the demonstration’s committees, clear platform, effective language and ability to compile 10 years of campus climate issues into a 21-point action plan as reasons why the sit-in was impactful. These 21 items aimed to create a more inclusive community and have been compiled on the “Colgate For All” website, which shows the progress of their implementation on campus.

Nelson understands the 2014 sit-in as a moment of pride in Colgate’s history.

“We often get discouraged about things that are wrong at Colgate. But this to me reflects what is right at Colgate, and it’s distinctly Colgate. It reflects how strong we are as a community,” Nelson said. “Certainly things are not perfect but this is such a smart group of students, faculty and staff with such a can-do positive attitude and taking on things as big as institutional racism… that just doesn’t happen in every corner of this world.”

Rosenbaum kicked off the panel discussion by providing the historical context for the 1968 sit-in and demonstrating how the national currents of racism and activism were affecting campus life. He then described the series of events that spurred the April 1968 sit-in.

On April 7, 1968, two White members of Sigma Nu Fraternity fired a pistol at two Black students who had been walking down Broad Street. According to Rosenbaum, it was not clear whether the gunfire was from a real pistol or a starter pistol, which is typically used at swim meets, and although nobody was hit, the fact that somebody was shooting a gun was frightening. In response, the Association of Black Collegians (ABC) held a seven-hour sit-in at Sigma Nu and demanded that it be shut down. Colgate President Vincent Barnett accepted the demand and suspended Sigma Nu’s charter.

The next day, faculty met to discuss how the Phi Delta Theta fraternity had blackballed a Jewish student. The ABC gave the administration 24 hours to revoke Phi Delta Theta’s charter on account of discriminatory selection procedures. Afterward, students organized a rally on Whitnall Field and locked arms in order to prevent Colgate officials from entering the Administration Building, where they held another sit-in.

According to Riordan, there was a profound uncertainty about whether an armed intervention would follow their occupation of the building and whether the hundreds of students who participated would all be arrested.

“There was a tension and a fear –a physical fear–of what might happen,” Riordan said.

Romano added that he saw Sigma Nu’s firing at Black students and Phi Delta Theta’s blackballing a Jewish student as an opportunity for student activists to mobilize. Because they were concrete incidents of discrimination that could not be disputed or excused, these events became rallying points for action in 1968.

Giles, who was Chairman of the ABC while on campus, found that although his fellow Colgate students were educated, some were still bigoted and white supremacists. Smart people can still be racists, he noted.

Torres then provided the context for the September 2014 sit-in. She recalled how she and her fellow organizers felt disillusioned with the Colgate community’s apparent aloofness to national conversations around topics such as police brutality, protests in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Torres, along with Melissa Melendez ’15, Kristi Carey ’15 and Kori Strother ’15, founded the Association for Critical Collegians (ACC) in 2014 to call attention to how this context was playing out on campus, and referred to themselves as vessels of the movement rather than leaders. Torres stressed that the sit-in was not just about the experiences of the four organizers, but those of a larger community.

“The sit-in itself was a manifestation of people coming together in alliances,” Torres said. “It was a collective movement and we wouldn’t have gained momentum without the support of allies, of people of color coming together and really trying to push forward this list of demands.”

In comparing the contexts of the two sit-ins, Malave noted that racism might not appear as explicitly as it did in 1968, but its effects are still felt on campus.

“At Colgate, the ‘Whites Only’ signs never left, they were just made implicit. So you know there’s a space that you’re not welcome in,” Malave said. “The burden is always on students of color to expand their group [to more corners of campus] but that is not easy to do when your safety is compromised.”

Rosenbaum then asked Malave how he experiences danger on campus. The question sparked a tense dialogue about whether this question – asked by a white man to a student of color – was a product of white privilege.

Ballard provided insight into why she found Rosenbaum’s question problematic.

“If I say ‘I feel uncomfortable,’ that is enough. You shouldn’t have to probe into ‘why?’” Ballard said.   

Rosenbaum said he feels it is dangerous to prohibit questioning in a university setting.

“I don’t understand how you can take action unless you understand. And I don’t understand how you can understand before you ask questions,” Rosenbaum said.

Campbell provided examples of the ways in which marginalized groups currently experience danger on campus, and said she takes issue with classifying physical violence as more detrimental than emotional violence.

“If those acts of violence were not taking place, there wouldn’t have needed to be a sit-in, or a die-in, or two demonstrations on the quad, or meetings with the president…so there’s really nothing else we can do to substantiate your idea of violence because that’s what we are experiencing,” Campbell said.

Riordan acknowledged that although both sit-ins strove to create a more inclusive campus, the specific issues the two sit-ins attempted to tackle were not the same.  

“I think what this dialogue illustrates is the profound difference between then and now. We were within a couple of years of the first elimination of de jure segregation throughout the south…The targets of policy were more obvious,” Riordan said.

Junior Colin Ren, who attended the event, noticed how the audience reacted to the shift in tone as the conversation progressed. Ren perceived the behaviors of the panelists as reflective of the time periods in which they had engaged in activism at Colgate.

“What I saw was a debate initiated by the alums to challenge the students, for the purpose of legitimizing their movement and belittling ours. Though it is disheartening to see a distinct generation gap between alums and students on their takes of issues, it is motivating to see the whole auditorium react to problematic statements collectively,” Ren said.

Toward the end of the discussion, Whyte noted how a single question – “What do you mean by danger?” – led to tension, which she said is representative of how the 2014 sit-in played out.

“Just remembering the sit-in, this is what it looked like. It looked like a lot of tension, a lot of disagreement. It looked like a lot of pain, and that is the world that we live in. We live in a racist, white supremacist, disgusting world, but there’s also beauty and there’s also love and it’s all mixed in,” Whyte said.

Torres said she returned to campus to instill hope in the students, and hoped that her intended message of agency was not lost throughout the course of the panel.  

“You all can create change,” Torres said. “You all can take your institution in your own hands and make it what you need it to be.”

Torres addressed the first-year class when speaking about the rapid progress that has occurred in the past few years.

“The Colgate that you all came into is not the Colgate that I came into,” Torres said.

To conclude the event, Whyte asked each panelist, “What do you hope to change in your personal life and what do you hope changes at Colgate?”

Dinner was provided after the event in ALANA, where students and alumni continued the conversation about issues raised during the panel.

SGA Vice President and senior David Kim, who helped organize the event, said he had expected the panelists who participated in the 1968 sit-in to understand the diverse spectrum of contemporary concerns regarding race issues, but found that differences in lived experiences created disparate opinions about how racism currently operates.

“I had high hopes for the 1968 activists, since they were able to voice their concerns in a historical context where de jure and de facto racism perpetuated systemic oppression,” said Kim. “Overall, I would like to believe that this event revealed to all of us that we all need to do individual work to understand how we are affected by and perpetuate whiteness, and how that further contributes towards systemic oppression.”

After the panel, when asked about suggestions for the Colgate community to move forward, Giles said, “I don’t think you can legislate people to feel that everyone is equal or that everyone has legitimate concerns about their standing or their safety. I think the best you can do is to bring people together so that they can have shared experiences, and from that there may come an understanding of legitimate concerns or issues that people are dealing with.”

In reflecting on the interactions among the panelists, Rosenbaum said he had anticipated more interest in the 1968 sit-in from current students and was surprised by the direction the dialogue took after he posed his question.

He said there is always a need for education and reiterated his belief that within a safe university community, any student should feel safe asking a question of anybody.

“If you expect people to do something about your feelings, you have to be able to articulate what your feelings are and what they mean,” Rosenbaum said. “You don’t just say ‘that offends me,’ which is what I felt was happening with my question… You have to say ‘that offends me because…’ and then I’ll learn from that and I’ll change the next time.”

Whyte said she hopes members of the Colgate community are empowered to reflect on what the panel meant to them.

“I think that [the panel] was messy, emotional, painful at moments, informative, tense, imperfect and inspiring. The panel was a great reminder that bringing people together is not always going to be easy, especially across generations,” she said. “My hope is that students… always be critical, [loving] and keep conversations going.”