by Joel Sronce

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Students, led by members of the Black Student Movement, protested after professor Sonja Haynes Stone was denied tenure in 1979. (Photo from North Carolina Collection) Source: https://www.unc.edu/discover/five-decades-striving-progress/

Friday morning anti-racist activists gathered at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill to protest the UNC Board of Governors’ meeting, or what would have been a meeting were it not for public outrage and mobilization. Though the board recoiled to a conference call,  activists nonetheless showed up at the Friday Center, protesting the board’s impending orchestration of a $2.5 million payout – as well as handing off the recently-toppled Confederate statue, Silent Sam – to the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV).

The SCV has expressed its elation with the newly-awarded means to not only re-erect and display the statue, but to do so in new division headquarters it will build for the benefit and education of its followers. In a letter sent from the group’s commander, Kevin Stone, to its membership, Stone writes, “There have been those who say we’ve ‘lost the respect’ of the BOG, etc. while during this whole time, we were working directly with them and for the honour of our ancestors. What we have accomplished is something that I never dreamed we could accomplish in a thousand years and all at the expense of the University itself.”

In an interview with the News & Observer last week, Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center noted the SCV’s staunch defense of the Confederacy and its principles, which includes a 1929 pamphlet displayed on the group’s website that claims, “[t]he negroes were the most spoiled domestics in the world.”

Eight days ago, on Dec 5, student activists led by the UNC Black Congress and Black Student Movement were compelled to divert their time and energy from their final exams for the second year in a row. Once again they refused to remain silent when facing another university decision that was in favor of the upkeep of its anti-Black legacy. Once again they took up the taxing and sometimes even traumatic task of resistance.

And they did so despite knowing all too well that the BOG’s payout to the SCV reaffirms something. The university has a seemingly unshakable propensity to not only be engulfed in the harsh realities of racism and white supremacy that scar all along the length of American history, but be complicit in them.

Yet today marks not only another clash of anti-racists and their opposition, but an important anniversary. It’s the anniversary of a statement, one without which anti-racist activists on campus might not be as emboldened to mobilize once again and lend their voices to the resistance against the sponsorship of neo-Confederacy.

One year ago today – on December 13, 2018 – a statement was released that explicitly supported the Black Student Movement and other activists working to bring justice to campus. It was called the Black Athlete Statement, and its addition to the teaching-assistants’ collective action – one of the most visible, significant campus-worker movements of recent memory – reinforces an essential history of solidarity between student athletes and workers at UNC over the past 50 years.

Last year, less than a week after the Black Athlete Statement was released, Nicole Castro, a Ph.D. student and graduate worker at UNC, published an article in The Nation regarding the long history of opposition to Silent Sam and the anti-racist fervor and vigilance that she contends has always and will continue to endure on campus. Yet those previous volatile chapters of opposition and victorious resistance might be unknown by most residents across the state.

To that point, Castro asks, “Why isn’t this vibrant history better known? Because altering the timeline to make today’s advocates feel small and alone is a time-honed tactic to mitigate activism, especially those of black and indigenous lineages.”

Castro underscores the historical legacy of protest in Chapel Hill teaching assistants and other activists have joined, and without whom our current movements and struggles would have so much less foundation, direction, and empowering memory.

In the same vein, the current and former student-athletes at UNC, who spoke out a year ago to call out the racist maneuvers of their university, to show solidarity with campus workers and a fight for justice, might not have known that they, too, were standing on the shoulders of giants of UNC-student-athlete political activism.

Another BOG maneuver to uphold a heritage of hate is upon us again. Here’s a dive to illuminate that history, a history of political student-athletes at UNC over the past 50 years that illuminates just what tradition the Black Athlete Statement joined, as we now celebrate its first anniversary.

1969: UNC Food-Service Workers’ Strike

UNC’s food-service workers’ first strike began in February, 1969, as a fight for better wages and fairer treatment, for respect and dignity in their workplaces. It ended more than a month later, in March, and its conclusion saw an increase in the minimum wage for state employees in many occupations across North Carolina. The movement counts as one of the most important victories for workers of color in the Tar Heel State in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet few around the state now know the details of their struggle, and fewer still that the striking workers received vital support from a couple of the first Black members of the men’s basketball program, particularly Bill Chamberlain.

Chamberlain grew up in Harlem, only a few blocks from Charles Scott, no doubt the more famous Tar Heel, who became the first Black scholarship athlete to desegregate UNC’s men’s varsity basketball team.

Even before Chamberlain’s move a few hundred miles down South – a move which his friends in the Black Power movement in Harlem critiqued openly – Chamberlain was no foreigner to racism. He experienced it from his own neighbors when he lived with his high-school basketball coach upstate in Brookville, NY. This taught Chamberlain an early lesson: “Essentially, when racism is a factor, folks who are in power enjoy the status quo.” Not only are his words so apropos of today, but racism and the status quo, as well as his part in a fight against them, would ultimately come to define much of his legacy in Chapel Hill.

Though Chamberlain appreciated the attitude of his new coach, Dean Smith, toward integration, he didn’t find UNC overall to be quite as progressive and hospitable. “There were things on campus that needed to be addressed,” Chamberlain would later write in a book, Dean Smith: A Tribute.

Chamberlain found a more militant avenue for change in the form of the Black Student Movement (BSM), a group that was founded by students on UNC’s campus in late 1967 to actively fight against racial injustice. 

Perhaps the most famous struggle the BSM engaged was as the main support group for the majority-Black campus food-service workers’ strike in 1969. In support of the workers, the BSM held rallies, swelled the ranks of picket lines, distributed leaflets, occupied buildings, and amassed signatures on a petition.

Early in the strike’s course, Chamberlain brought the petition to Smith’s office to inform his coach of the workers’ grievances, showing his coach the BSM’s petition against the workers’ current contract. According to Art Chansky’s book, Game Changers, Smith, who had just asked the university chancellor to wait in the hall while he talked to Chamberlain, soon told the chancellor he would sign the petition and “ask others in the athletic department to do the same.”

But Chamberlain’s involvement in the BSM and the workers’ strike wasn’t limited to passing around a petition. Outside of South Building in front of a couple hundred students, the freshman Chamberlain addressed the crowd regarding the BSM, the striking workers, and a meeting with the university chancellor. The accounts of the language he used differ, though according to an article published a few years later in Black Ink, the Black Student Movement’s newspaper, Chamberlain announced, “I feel that if I’m going to represent the university on the basketball court, they (the administration) should represent me and my Black brothers.”

However, despite his coach’s support, neither Chamberlain, the BSM, nor the workers received the same compassion from everyone in the greater community. Chansky writes that Jesse Helms, then a conservative politician in Raleigh and a commentator on WRAL-TV – and soon to be a U.S. senator for decades – told his TV audience of thousands one night during the strike that Chamberlain was a “Negro athlete who is challenging the policies of a great university.”

And it wasn’t only members of the political class who pointed their bigotry at Chamberlain. The institutional aspects were present, too. When Chamberlain contacted WRAL-TV for the chance to have as much time as Helms to defend himself and the movement, they refused.

Yet despite the near-immovable stance of the university, the militarized force, and violence by the state government, after more than a month on the picket lines, the workers won. What’s more, J. D. Williams writes that “food service employees could take added satisfaction in knowing that the minimum wage increased for other workers on campus and for such state employees as hospital aides, laboratory technicians, office workers, ferry deckhands, laundry workers, recreation assistants, and truck drivers throughout North Carolina.” And though there were more important drivers of the strike’s course and outcome than Chamberlain, his choice to participate – courageous due to his vulnerability as one of UNC’s very first Black student athletes – lent an indisputable hand to the workers’ victory.

1990s: Housekeepers and the Black Awareness Council

More than 20 years after the food-service workers’ first strike, Black workers and students at UNC – including student athletes – were still fighting for equality and representation.

The 1990s in Chapel Hill saw another one of the most successful labor struggles in the entire American South over the last few decades of the twentieth century. The movement was led by the UNC Housekeepers Association (HKA), who, by the end of their struggle, received more than one-million dollars in raises and back pay. As another majority-Black workforce at UNC, the housekeepers found their footing thanks to an important resource: campus workers’ history.

As Charlotte Fryar writes, “The housekeepers’ movement, directed by the legacies of Black freedom striving, shaped the 1996 settlement by using the University’s history as a tool with which to pursue justice for Black low-wage workers at the University, creating a model for how histories of injustice could be used to rectify present conditions.”

Not long after the HKA began to set its course in the early 90’s, a parallel movement took off, too, one maintained by student athletes.

By the mid-1980s a proposal for a Black Cultural Center (BCC) on UNC’s campus had been fully formed, and near the end of the decade the initiative won a temporary space – what Black Ink revealed as “a one-room former snack bar” – in the Student Union. Yet it wasn’t until the death of Dr. Sonja Haynes Stone, a celebrated Black educator at UNC, in 1991 that students began to more militantly push for a free-standing BCC in her honor.

The following year saw a coalition of racial-justice advocates, including the BSM, once again in an alliance with campus workers. This time, in the spring of 1992, when the coalition issued a list of demands to Chancellor Paul Hardin, the demands included better pay for the university’s housekeepers. When Hardin announced that he could not meet the requests, nor support even the idea of a free-standing center, the Black Awareness Council (BAC) was formed the following summer.

The BAC was the thought-project of uncommon racial-justice leaders on campus: four players of UNC’s football team. They were John Bradley, who became the Black Student Movement president from 1993 to 1994, Jimmy Hancock, Malcolm Marshall, and Timothy Smith. Their mission was to “increase awareness among African Americans about issues on campus and in the community that have a direct impact on them and their people.” Their movement largely fought for the free-standing BCC, but it intersected with the housekeeping workers’ movement, too. And they meant business.

In September, John Bradley, the BAC, and hundreds of supporters marched to the Chancellor Hardin’s house, chanting, “No justice, no peace” (and blasting Arrested Development’s “Raining Revolution”). A week later they marched from the Pit to the South Building and occupied it, promising more direct action if plans for the free-standing center weren’t formalized. Later the movement was joined by Spike Lee, who had read about the militant student-athletes in an article in the New York Times. He then spoke to thousands in the Dean Dome, praising the courage of the BAC’s student-athlete founders. The escalation worked. Near the end of the month, the university formed a working group (which included Michael Jordan’s mother, Dolores) to plan for the BCC. By the end of October, Hardin – who had by now claimed to favor a ‘multicultural’ center – was finally on board.

Yet over the following months tensions escalated again when the site for the free-standing center couldn’t be agreed upon. In April – as Hardin sat in New Orleans watching the Tar Heel men’s basketball team win the National Championship – students began to stage more sit-ins in the South Building. Not long after the Championship game, men’s basketball player George Lynch joined the struggle, calling for an increase in students’ support.

In the middle of April, about 70 people crowded the building during one of the sit-ins, and the police arrested 16 students and one community member – the first mass-arrest on campus since the Vietnam War. (Later that day, Bradley led a march to the police station, where he assumed those arrested had been booked.) The charges were dismissed a few weeks later.

Into the following semester the debate over where to build the center had yet to be resolved. During an October home football game at Kenan Stadium, a couple of planes flew overhead, trailing banners, including one that read, “UNC STOP BENDING OVER FOR BCC.”

After the game, the Daily Tar Heel reports Bradley saying, “At a time when you’re trying to give your all to the University and you’re trying to represent the University in the best way possible… having something like that fly over really takes it out of you.”

Yet changes came gradually, until finally ground was broken for the BCC in 2001. The center was finished three years later, opening for the first time in 2004, nine years after Bradley’s graduation.

Though the movements for the housekeepers and the BCC were parallel in many ways, not fully in solidarity with one another throughout their duration, there’s a good chance that the latter would not have achieved its success without the former.

In a 2017 interview with Charlotte Fryar, Bradley said it was through conversations about the housekeepers’ struggle that he had even heard about the movement for the Black Cultural Center in the first place. Bradley told Fryar that he thought the students at the time regrettably considered the housekeepers’ movement “an ancillary movement that they couldn’t identify with.” But it remains true that the group that he and the other football players initiated at the time – not to mention the successful construction of the Black Cultural Center itself – was thanks to the housekeepers’ courageous and public struggle.

2018: The Black Athlete Statement

Finally, in 2018, a few days before the Black Athlete Statement emerged, anti-racist teaching assistants called for a strike following then-Chancellor Carol Folt’s proposal to spend $5.3 million to build a new on-campus facility to house the Confederate statue that had been ripped down by protesters four months prior. As some in the campus community pointed out, UNC would then become the first university to re-erect a Confederate statue a couple of decades into the twenty-first century. 

The graduate workers’ collective action to withhold submitting the grades for thousands of undergraduate students grew into at least 80 participants across many departments. They were a group composed of some TAs who had never met one another, yet who were united in a movement they believed in nonetheless.

Statements, letters, and Google Forms in support of the collective action and the broader work of anti-racist activists poured in from universities, associations and organizations across the country, and even beyond our national borders. Then, one form emerged that raised some eyebrows: The university’s athletes — arguably some of the most equally powerful and muzzled people in the community — began to make their voices heard.

First came a Google Form displaying the title: “Current and former University of North Carolina Student-Athletes Against Silent Sam.”

Its statement reads in part:

As current and former Tar Heels, we love our University and its people. We love our classmates and teammates, our coaches and our fans. All of them. A monument to those who fought and killed to keep Black people enslaved has no place on our campus. White supremacy has no place on our campus.

“We oppose any decision to keep Silent Sam on Carolina’s grounds as well as any retaliatory action against students and faculty.”

Throughout the week leading up to the Board of Governors’ meeting to vote on the university’s $5.3 million proposal, athletes joined each day by the dozens. As of the end of 2018, nearly 300 athletes had signed their names. They represent more than 20 varsity sports, stretching from the Class of 1967 to the Class of 2022. It included some famous names, NFL and NBA stars, and plenty of athletes who are household names across North Carolina. John Bradley was among them, as was his teammate and fellow BAC-founder, Tim Smith.

While this statement’s breadth is unmatched, it was soon joined by another one that surpassed it in its language and power.

A few days later, on the eve of the BOG meeting, the Black Athlete Statement emerged.

It strikes an even more demanding tone, including:

“We would have liked to have heard the opinion of the athletic department leadership and coaches regarding this disposition of Silent Sam…especially in light of the high number of Black athletes who have participated on the basketball, football and track and field teams over the history of Carolina athletics. Their silence is very glaring and tells us a story.”

“We agree with the 500+ member Black Student Movement statement that Black students and faculty are often used by the university as “accessories.”… We love UNC but now also feel a disconnect from an institution that was unwilling to listen to students and faculty who asked for Silent Sam to be permanently removed from campus.

“This “slap in the face” is not new to African Americans though. We have learned and observed many times in U.S. history whereby institutions turn their backs on marginalized people… We make a pledge to stay informed and connected with our voice and resources to activists who will work to bring justice and light to matters at UNC.”

Whether or not they read the statement before they met, the BOG couldn’t escape it. The day after the statement’s publication, as more than one-hundred people gathered in protest outside their meeting, a woman exclaimed into the megaphone:

“So I am here standing on behalf of Harrison Barnes, Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Marvin Williams, Theo Pinson, J.R. Reid, David Noel, and many, many more, who we are collecting signatures from, many who are in the NBA, but who send their support and who want all of the students to know, especially the student athletes, that they stand in solidarity with us.”

As the meeting stretched on, and across town players and coaches from the men’s basketball team held a press conference ahead of their game the following day. When asked about four of his current players signing the first Google Form, head coach Roy Williams said he supported their decision. Then, he expressed his own desire for the statue to not be re-erected on campus.

Williams isn’t a fraction of the anti-racist political figure of his mentor, the late former men’s basketball coach Dean Smith, who Dave Zirin once described as “perhaps the most visible white anti-racist of the last half-century.” But still, when one of the most powerful voices in the state weighs in, bolstered by his current and former players to express his opinion (and critiqued for not having done so), there’s no doubt it can have an effect on the outcome.

A couple of hours later, the BOG refused Chancellor Folt’s proposal, a surprising turn of events when considering the board’s conservative history, as well as its most recent decision in 2019. Therefore, it’s no stretch to assume that they were quaking at the solidarity of the striking graduate workers, campus activists, and student athletes that thundered around them.

Through to Today:

These stories bring us to the immediate present, where the $2.5 million payout to the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans is only perhaps the most hideously blatant of many financial and discriminatory concerns across the university. Today’s student-athletes at UNC aren’t exactly joining the picket lines, nor are campus workers exactly forming picket lines, but these histories illuminate important solidarity, not only against white supremacy in all its forms, but against the exploitative arrangements that increasingly dominate modern universities.

Regarding labor, food-service operations have been subcontracted. The $1.80 hourly wage that workers won in 1969 translates to $12.79 today, yet the contemporary median wage for a food-service worker across North Carolina (not limited to university campuses) is $9.26. In Orange County, home to UNC, it’s $9.36. Both median wages are less than 75% of the purchasing power of the wage for similar work that UNC food-service workers won half a century ago.

Today immigrant housekeepers are facing new forms of discrimination at work, and a large percent of UNC’s graduate workers are paid well below the poverty line.

Where student athletics are concerned, last year, Roy Williams was paid $2,281,778. A few miles down the road, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski raked in $7,048,206. Countless other profits are made in universities, conferences, and the NCAA, while student athletes continue to not earn anything, not even an education.

An opinion piece in the News & Observer, written last year by a former student-athlete – a football player at Vanderbilt who became a Ph.D. student at UNC – cited recently-released NCAA data that revealed the graduation rate for UNC’s Black male athletes at an indefensible 42 percent. That’s 49 percentage points lower than the overall student-body rate of 91 percent. As the author writes, “This graduation crisis represents a betrayal of UNC’s black athletes, who predominate in the school’s lucrative men’s basketball and football teams. Under the NCAA’s ‘amateurism’ rules, the athletes get not one penny of salary from the athletic department’s near $100 million revenue.”

Like Silent Sam, this university tradition belittles Black students. It’s necessary to recognize a link between the university’s stubbornness to fully rid itself of a monument to white supremacy – not to mention its most recent deal – and its failure to provide a legitimate education (much less financial compensation) to its Black student athletes. Both endure through the safeguarding of a status-quo that prioritizes certain voices (and lives) over others to detrimental, discriminatory ends. The university, much like anything these days, is more and more beholden to the wrong traditions at the demand of the wrong people. For everyone’s sake, that needs to end.

Thankfully, this is only the first-year anniversary of the declaration of the Black Athlete Statement, meaning the convictions and the will to resist racism and exploitation, to stand up and be counted off the basketball court and outside of the workplace, likely remain familiar and strong. I wouldn’t bet that the final whistle has blown on the momentous displays of solidarity between student athletes and campus workers, whose vulnerability often polices their political voices into silence. As new shouts from that silence can be heard, sleeping giants stir.

Joel Sronce is a contributor at PLR, a graduate worker at UNC-Chapel Hill, and an organizer in Greensboro.