Movement 68: A History of Black Student Activism at MTSU
In October 2018, the Albert Gore Research Center honored 50 years of Black student activism at MTSU with a program called Movement 68. The core of this program was a two-hour long panel discussion with six Black activists from different eras of the University's history dating back to the 1960s. The spirit of Movement 68 also informs the archival work at the Gore Center in addressing the archive's silences in documenting the Black history of MTSU and Rutherford County.
PROTESTING THE CONFEDERACY ON CAMPUS: An Overview
On October 21, 1968, Middle Tennessee State University’s student newspaper, Sidelines, published a guest column from Sylvester Brooks, a Black student from Memphis, Tennessee. Titled “Dixie: What Does It Mean?” Brooks asked the white student body why they continued to wave Confederate flags, sing the Dixie fight song, and pay homage to Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. He addressed how these activities alienated Black students and, therefore, “should be banned and abolished.” He challenged white students to move forward with a New South that included everybody, which meant ridding the campus of Confederate symbols. As Brooks said, “You cannot seek a newer world while clinging so passionately to the relics of days long given to the past.”
Brooks’ column caused contentious debate among the MTSU community. Sidelines published a series of letters from students and faculty that directly responded to Brooks’ arguments against the usage of Confederate symbols on campus. For every person in support of Brooks’ ideas, there were just as many people against them. Over the next few years, Black students protested the university’s relationship with the Confederacy and Nathan Bedford Forrest. In December 1970, two crosses were burned on campus during a week of events sponsored by the Black Student Union. By 1971, the students’ persistence resulted in a couple of changes, including a new mascot and fight song for sporting events.
Since 1968, MTSU students have continued to protest against Confederate symbolism on campus. In the 1989-1990 academic year, the university’s NAACP student chapter succeeded in persuading the administration to remove the 600-pound bronze plaque of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the outside wall of Keathley University Center. In 2006, Black students protested the name of the ROTC building, called Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall. The students, particularly protest leader Amber Perkins (pictured right), received guidance from Sylvester Brooks on how to handle the backlash from Murfreesboro’s white community and the university’s administration. The university kept the building’s name until a new wave of activism began during the 2015-2016 academic year, which finally resulted in the administration’s decision to seek approval for a name change from Tennessee government entities. In the spring of 2016, the university's Forrest Hall Task Force approved a name change as well as the Tennessee Board of Regents. The final step is approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission working under the guidelines of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013 (later amended in 2016 and 2018), which states that no piece of public property may be "removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered" without a two-thirds vote of approval from the Commission.
On February 16, 2018, after a hearing where MTSU offered extensive evidence on the history of Confederate symbols at the univeristy , the Tennessee Historical Commission voted to deny MTSU's request to rename Forrest Hall.
On October 23, 2018, the Albert Gore Research Center hosted a two-hour panel discussion to honor the past 50 years of Black student activism at MTSU. The panelists included: Sylvester Brooks, Dr. Phyllis Hickerson-Washington, Dr. Michael Mc Donald, Dr. Vincent Windrow, André Canty, and Arionna White. There introductions by Gore Center director, Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes, and Gore Center archivist Sarah Calise. The keynote speech was given by Lae'l Hughes-Watkins, archivists and founder of Project STAND. Calise and Barbara Scales moderated the panel discussion. View the original program.
Learn more about this movement from Sarah Calise's essay published in The Activist History Review called, "Protesting the Confederacy on Campus."
 Josh Howard, “A Confederate on Campus: Nathan Bedford Forrest as MTSU’s Mascot,” Sport in American History (blog), August 24, 2015, https://ussporthistory.com/2015/08/24/nathan-bedford-forrest-and-mtsu/.
The Forrest Hall Protest Collection (founded in 2015 when the last waves of Black student protests began) exists in order to collect, preserve, and provide access to the documents, accounts, and history of the individuals and organizations involved in the debate over the name of Forrest Hall and other Confederate symbols on MTSU's campus. The Albert Gore Research Center has a strong presence in the Middle Tennessee region, and has an obligation to the students, the local community, and future scholarship to document the current events on campus in their connection to the university’s history. The repository is important for institutional memory, student movements, history of discrimination in institutions, civil rights history and memory, and Lost Cause memory.
Movement 68: Honoring 50 Years of Black Student Activism (2019)
Created in 2019, this exhibit explores the fifty-year history of Black student protests against Confederate imagery on MTSU's campus since 1968. It includes photographs, video, audio, and documents from the Albert Gore Research Center's university and political collections.
I AM TRUE BLACK (2021)
In March 2021, the Albert Gore Research Center and James E. Walker Library opened an exhibit called I AM TRUE BLACK: A History of Black Student Life & Activism. The exhibit explores the history of Black student protest movements, the foundation and work of Black student organizations, and other aspects of Black student involvement in MTSU's campus life from the 1960s to the present day. View the exhibit panels as PDF files here.
The Gore Center made Sylvester Brooks buttons and I Am True Black t-shirts as promotional items. They also created the I Am True Black: The Syllabus, which provides a list of primary and secondary sources about this important history.
Albert Gore Research Center
P. O. Box 193, 1301 E. Main St.
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, Tennessee 37132
University Archives: 615-898-5202
Todd Hall Suite 128
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Or by appointment
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