HOW ODD IT was to watch the events that transpired last week at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The sight of a student protest--and a sit-in, at that--was simultaneously heart-warming and deeply troubling. Having lived through all the stuff the first time around, I regard it kindly from a distance of time, but I sure don't want to live through it again. Hard-won civil rights battles should not have to be fought again.
For those of you who missed it, the University of Massachusetts-Rutgers basketball game was interrupted at halftime by a good ol' fashioned sitdown strike. First one lone black woman sat down at halfcourt, and then she was followed by hundreds of others.
They were protesting the remarks made last fall by Rutgers President Francis Lawrence, who said minorities "don't have the genetic background to do well on college (entrance exams)."
The game was eventually suspended and will be resumed March 2. Lawrence appeared the following day and said merely that he "misspoke" when he made those remarks and that he was sorry. Not good enough by several miles.
If it's difficult to think in terms of student protests in this day and age, it's doubly difficult to imagine student protests in Tucson, at any time. And yet, a biggie took place in this very city just about a quarter-century ago.
On January 9, 1970, the UA Wildcats were to play host to Brigham Young University in basketball at the old Bear Down Gym. The Mormon Church, which operates BYU, was in its transition period, having dropped polygamy but still very much operating within a system of institutionalized apartheid. Blacks and other minorities were not allowed to hold positions in the church, although they were allowed to be members with a limited status.
Students at other schools in the Western Athletic Conference had protested their schools' association with BYU. Fourteen black football players at Wyoming were stripped of their scholarships after protesting against BYU and complaining about the treatment given them by (Wyoming's) all-white coaching staff.
The protests spread throughout the WAC and finally reached Arizona. The day of the game, a rally was held at lunchtime, with protesters dressing in KKK garb. A large banner decrying the UA's association with BYU dwarfed a tiny sign wishing then-President Richard Nixon a happy birthday. The NAACP asked the University for permission to hold a demonstration, but was denied.
University officials, fearing trouble, arranged for a large detachment of plainclothes police officers to attend the game. At game time, some 100 protesters stood outside the entrance to Bear Down and shouted anti-BYU slogans. Eventually, they decided to take things inside. The plainclothesmen formed a human wall and began fighting off the protesters with their fists and chemical mace.
The UA student body president was seriously injured when he was thrown down a flight of stairs.
Several people broke through the melee and ran out onto the court, stopping the action. They joined arms at midcourt and refused to leave. As things began to calm down, two black members of the UA team appealed to the protesters and convinced them to leave peacefully. The game went on with the Cats playing in black armbands.
But it wasn't over yet. The University filed felony charges against eight protesters. BYU called on Arizona and the rest of the conference schools to condemn the action. Instead, the protests spread. Colorado State was the site of the next confrontation, one which was considerably worse than the Arizona fight.
The UA faculty backed the students and eventually all charges were dropped. The protests continued on campus and were fanned by an article in the Daily Wildcat from the head of the campus chapter of the Mormon Church in which he recycled that old nonsense about black skin being the Biblical sign of the beast. He claimed something happened before they were born that made black people ineligible for priesthood in the Mormon Church.
The protests continued throughout the school year and into the next. The following year, the UA-BYU game was played during the afternoon, with a heavy police guard.
Eventually, things cooled down and life went on. In 1978, then-Mormon Prophet Spencer Kimball had a "revelation" that the church's policy towards blacks was no longer operative. It probably had nothing to do with the fact that the U.S. Government was looking into the tax-exempt status of the church.
That same year, the UA left the WAC for the Pac-10, ending its official relationship with BYU. As far as we know, the Mormon Church no longer discriminates against black people. That task has now been taken up by university presidents.
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