May 20, 1968: The UW Black Student Union Sit-In

Black Student Union supporters outside UW Administration Building, May 20, 1968
Black Student Union members and supporters outside the UW Administration Building, May 20, 1968

May 1968, whose anniversary we obviously indulge this month, was a political rollercoaster ride in more ways than one. Worldwide is the legend of that month’s philosophy-fueled and historically cathartic student-worker uprising in Paris. But equally important for us here in Seattle is the anniversary of the date in focus here, when the University of Washington was unfathomably shook by its Black Student Union, then freshly formed and quickly meaning serious racial justice business.

As the students of the University of Paris defiantly shook France’s political foundations, the UW BSU staged a surprise occupation of the offices of UW President Charles Odegaard to demand that the UW take steps to amend the overwhelming lack of minority representation on its campus. Among the BSU’s specific demands were recruitment of more Black students and faculty, more tutoring and counseling for Black students, and expansion of the Black studies program.

At approximately 5 p.m. that evening, after spending most of the day demonstrating outside the UW Administration Building, some 25 BSU members and supporters entered Odegaard’s office suite on the Ad Building’s third floor, where a meeting of the UW Faculty Senate executive committee was taking place. By 7 p.m., the number of sit-in participants had grown to more than 50, and bags of groceries and a portable record player were brought to the group, signaling their intention to maintain the occupation as long as necessary.

The BSU took this action as a very risky last resort, after weeks of politely petitioning the University to develop a recruitment program for Black students and an expanded Black studies program. Prior to the sit-in, the University had politely expressed its alleged sympathy for the BSU’s concerns, yet ultimately ignored the issue. As several Seattle police cars and a growing crowd of UW community members anxiously waited outside the Ad Building, and after four hours of intense negotiation with the BSU and representatives of the UW Faculty Senate, Odegaard finally signed a policy statement committing the UW to the BSU’s demands.

BSU President E. J. Brisker claimed Odegaard’s signature as a victory because it “put Odegaard on record and made absolutely clear his position.” The Faculty Senate executive committee also signed the statement, and later that week the Senate body unanimously approved the statement during its regular meeting. Prior to the vote, Brisker read aloud a prepared statement, which was met with applause by the Senate. Brisker’s statement read in part as follows:

“. . . we would like the support of the Faculty Senate in three key areas. One, in the area of recruitment of non-white students. Two, the development of programs, i.e., remedial and tutorial, that will aid newly recruited students in making the difficult transition to university life. Three, the development of a Black Studies Curriculum which will enable both non-white and white students to learn about the culture and life style of such groups as Afro-American, Mexi-American, and Indian-American peoples.”

The UW BSU sit-in remains unique among examples of student direct action in that its long-term impact involved not merely changes to UW policy, but also the establishment of new academic departments, new faculty and administrative positions, and even new buildings on the UW campus. The legacy of the event remains on the UW campus today in the form of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, the Ethnic Cultural Center and Theatre, and the American Ethnic Studies department. In addition, several of the sit-in’s young organizers have today become significant leaders in the local social justice activist community, including longtime King County Council member Larry Gossett, UW Vice President for Minority Affairs Emile Pitre, and multi-faceted community activist Aaron Dixon, then a Garfield High School student and co-founder of the Seattle Black Panther Party and Garfield’s own BSU.

Sources: Dave Verbon, “Late-Hour Compromise Averts Sit-In Violence,” University of Washington Daily, May 21, 1968, p. 1; “Compromise Issued,” University of Washington Daily, May 21, 1968, p. 1; Robert Cour and Fergus Hoffman, “4-Hour Negro Sit-in at UW; New Talks Set,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 21, 1968, p. 1; Dee Norton, “Agreement Ends Student Sit-in,” The Seattle Times, May 21, 1968, p. 5; Don Hannula, “U. W. Sit-in ‘Just the Beginning,’ Says Black Student Union President,” The Seattle Times, May 21, 1968, p. 5; Dave Verbon, “BSU Working To Carry Out Its Obligations,” University of Washington Daily, May 22, 1968, p. 1; “Faculty Senate to Eye BSU Sit-In Resolution,” University of Washington Daily, May 23, 1968, p. 1; Mike Steward, “Senate Applauds Brisker,” University of Washington Daily, May 24, 1968, p. 1; “BSU Statement To Senate,” University of Washington Daily, May 24, 1968, p. 1; Aaron Dixon, My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain (Haymarket Books, 2012).

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