In 1969, what newspapers at the time called “the most massive armed assault ever made against an American university” ended when one student was killed and eight others were wounded on North Carolina A&T State University’s campus, a historically Black university in Greensboro during an uprising against police repression and racial segregation.
Nelson Johnson, a Greensboro civil rights activist who witnessed the attacks, says the violence of five decades ago and the climate of fear it produced isn’t much different than today, especially in recent weeks when more than 20 historically black colleges and universities were targets of bomb threats.
Then and now, Johnson believes, the violence aimed to quell the rise of Black power and excellence.
“I think we are seeing the same thing now. It is an expression of racism in its rawest form and I think the logic behind it is that you don’t threaten places that you don’t see as a threat to you,” Johnson tells Reckon.
Johnson is referring to the recent wave of violent threats against HBCUs, including Bowie State University and Morgan State University in Maryland and Albany State University, Fort Valley State University and Spelman College in Georgia.
Other schools targeted were Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, Howard University, Delaware State University, Mississippi Valley State University and Kentucky State University.
The FBI has opened a hate crime and violent extremism investigation into the threats. No explosives have been found on any of the campuses, but several HBCUs temporarily closed for student safety and are gradually reopening.
HBCU threat of 1969
A perceived threat precipitated the events of 1969, also known as the North Carolina A&T/Dudley Revolt or the Greensboro Uprising.
In the spring of 1969, a student named Claude Barnes was elected student body president of Dudley High School, an all-Black school about one mile from North Carolina A&T State University. The white Guilford County Board of Education pressured Black Dudley High School officials to nullify the election of write-in candidate Barnes, believing him to be too radical because of his activism.
“Because of the board of education’s white supremacy outlook, they hated the thought of young Black people getting free from the historical fear and abuse – and growing into their fullest potential,” Johnson recalled.
After the Sit-In Movement, sparked in Greensboro by four Black North Carolina A&T State University students at a whites-only lunch counter in 1960, Black citizens grew increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of civil rights progress. Groups like the Greensboro Association of Poor People and Youth for the Unity of a Black Society were formed; young Black folks like Barnes joined.
Guilford County Board of Education and Dudley High School officials assumed Barnes was militant and a member of the Black Panther Party, so they feared his influence.
White Guilford County School officials disempowered the Black principal and denied Barnes his position as class president. In retaliation, students boycotted their classes and protested outside of Dudley High School. The protest escalated and police were ordered to meet the protesters in riot gear with tear gas. Many students and Greensboro residents, including Barnes, were tear-gassed and arrested.
The uprising quickly spread to North Carolina A&T State University’s campus as students from Dudley High School sought assistance from on-campus activists like Johnson, the student body vice president at the time.
North Carolina A&T State University students stood up in support of the Dudley High School protest and racial segregation.
This grew into an armed confrontation with police, outside instigators from the Greensboro community and some North Carolina A&T State University students. Then-Gov. Robert W. Scott deployed 600 National Guard soldiers to campus, along with a tank, a helicopter and an airplane. Within a few days, guardsmen moved onto campus and searched buildings. Some soldiers fired shots inside of dormitories and arrested students.
According to an advisory committee that studied the North Carolina A&T State University/Dudley Revolt for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, people responsible for restoring law and order to the campus engaged in a disruptive and unprofessional exercise, destroying property and endangering their own lives and the lives of innocent students in the dormitories.
From May 21 to May 25, North Carolina A&T State University students and Black Greensboro residents feared for their safety. By the end of the chaos, one sophomore student, Willie Grimes, was shot and killed and eight others – two students, five police officers, and a National Guard soldier – were wounded.
Impact of HBCU threats today
Fast forward to today, when threats made against HBCUs during January and February chillingly echo the white police force and National Guard’s response in Greensboro 50 years ago.
At one HBCU that received a bomb threat, Bethune-Cookman University, the local police chief in Daytona Beach, said the individual who called in the threat said a “gunman would open fire on the campus around lunchtime,” the Associated Press reported.
Today it is evident that these threats against historically Black institutions have a legacy rooted in white supremacy that can be traced throughout history and hate has fueled these threats as a way to deter Black excellence and education.
At Jackson State University in Mississippi, one student told CNN he was “uneasy” due to HBCUs “long history of physical threats just because of our existence.”
Although North Carolina A&T State University has not received any bomb threats, Black HBCU students across the nation have expressed a common sentiment: fear.
Ma’Nai Kerr, a North Carolina A&T State University sophomore student, told Reckon, “it is disheartening that we are repeating history in a different way. Because one HBCU might be a coincidence but 15 to 20 shows it is clear that HBCUs are being targeted.”
The FBI has identified six juveniles who are suspected of making the threats. During the threat at Bethune-Cookman University, the caller claimed to be affiliated with the Atomwaffen Division, a terroristic, neo-Nazi organization.
Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, called the threats “a wakeup call” to realize that the struggle for civil rights did not end in the 1960s.
“We have to show that we are not afraid,” Kimbrough said. “The idea is to disrupt us. We can’t just stop doing everything. This is an opportunity to lean into our history.”