By: Noni Ford, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2018, Media, Bloomington
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Many protests occurred at IU Bloomington in the 1960s, but one in particular helped catalyze a great deal of change for African-Americans on campus and contributed to the development of the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center: the Little 500 sit-in of 1968.
The Little 500 is the largest collegiate bike race in the United States, and the sit-in involved about fifty students, who banded together to protest racially discriminatory clauses in IU’s fraternity charters. They hoped to increase the recruitment of African-American faculty and students, and to persuade the university to invest in a program dedicated to African-American studies.
To put this into historical context, IU had opened its doors to women and minorities well before 1968, but racism and bigotry still existed on campus. The Ku Klux Klan still held parades in Bloomington, and at one point a grand wizard attempted to speak on campus. Progress was hindered by resistance.
About a month before the Little 500 Sit-in, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The event shocked the nation and had a deep impact within IU’s African-American community.
A memorial service for Dr. King had been held at IU, but no black students were chosen to speak at the service, despite the fact that students such as Robert Johnson, a prominent voice on campus when it came to politics regarding race at IU in the 1960s, would undoubtedly have had a lot to say.
Others on campus did attempt to include African-American student narratives and experiences in their accounts of IU history. One such attempt was called Operation Dialogue, a regular meeting of white and black students who discussed matters of race in America.
Operation Dialogue screened several films about racism in America, and hosted speakers, such as Robert Johnson, then president of a Black student group, to talk about race relations at IU.
The conversation and debate that the club had was usually peaceful… that is, until the last meeting of the group when professors got involved. Students believed they understood the nuances of race relations better than faculty ever could have, from having experienced them in real life, while faculty relied mainly on books to guide their views.
These incidents created a distinct divide between faculty and students on campus when it came to minority issues at IU. In 1966, a student named Pete Montague wrote a journal of essays titled “Racial Discrimination at Indiana University: A Report on Fraternities and Sororities.”
In it he discussed how IU’s fraternities and sororities propagated racist ideology, coded into their by-laws, and how, in 1961, Sigma Chi, a prominent fraternity, continued to exclude minority students even after a racist clause in their constitution was deleted.
Shortly thereafter, two IU professors in the Art Education department, Mary J. Rouse and Larry Kantner, published an open letter in the Indiana Daily Student about how a “certain black leader” shouldn’t “threaten” action against sororities and fraternities based on discrimination, and how this student should have done more research before making such a public statement.
They attempted to frame issues of discrimination as impossible to prove unless expressed explicitly.
In response, a publication called The Black Student: Organ of the Office of Afro-American Affairs, ran an incendiary article about professors Rouse and Kantner. Students argued that discrimination didn’t have to be explicit to qualify as discrimination, and that it was still recognizable in multivarious ways, especially in the daily experiences of so many.
This was the state of things at IU leading up to May 10, 1968, the day of the Little 500 sit-in.
For the protest to be effective the students involved needed someone to help organize the event, a leader that could help unite everyone and push forward all of their demands. That leader was Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson was a sociology graduate student and the head of the AAASA, or Afro-Afro-American Students Association.
He wrote articles about the AAASA’s mission in the Indiana Daily Student, spoke at public events on campus, and organized black students on campus to address problems with representation and equal treatment at IU.
According to Mary Ann Wynkoop in her book Dissent in the Heartland, “He was one of a few students at IU who worked with both black and white activists,” which helped strengthen the AAASA mission. (Raising Awareness of Black Issues with Curriculum on campus and changes to be more diverse—Archives, Collection C11, Box 2).
The AAASA was formed “to cooperate with individuals and organizations dedicated to the eradication of those impediments to human progress,” such as racism and segregation. The group advocated for peaceful protests and a growing discussion about diversity at IU.
At the time it was formed in the 1960s, only 2% of IU’s student population was African-American, meaning a large portion of the university’s minority students banded together to change the landscape of the university we see today. Even though the group did not promote violence, the FBI opened a file on the organization at the time.
Robert Johnson organized members of the AAASA, as well as Clarence Turner, another graduate student who was very involved in issues of race at IU, and Kenny Newsome, an IU basketball player. They met in the stadium on the morning of May 10, joined by about 50 other black students.
Barricading themselves in the stadium, all they had were “sticks, helmets, and improvised shields for defense” according to the research of the IU Archives Exhibit. Thankfully they never had to use these resources since their protest remained nonviolent, and after three days their demands were met and the Little 500 was able to begin.
In response to the protest, IU President Elvis Stahr appealed to IU’s fraternities and sororities to comply with the black students’ demands. All but one fraternity agreed to change their charters and with that the Little 500 race was allowed to go on. This protest was one of the more effective ones on campus and led to many more protests by students for the remainder of the 1960s.
In addition to changes to fraternity and sorority charters, the protesters also called for an increase in black students, as well as black faculty, and the development of a black studies program at IU. These requests were also met by IU’s administration.
By 1968 there was already a task force underway that targeted Gary and East Chicago African-American students for recruitment to IU. A program in Black Studies was drafted and would be proposed and passed by the following year, making IU one of the few universities in the nation with a dedicated Afro-American Studies program.
The fifty or so students who decided to protest that May 10 of 1968 didn’t know that nearly sixty years later, a building would stand on campus that promoted the growth and development of African-American students. All the protesters knew was that they were fighting a worthwhile fight and that it would hopefully enact some kind of change on IU’s campus.
They were successful in promoting change and so much more that day in Memorial Field, and this is reflected in the success of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center and current state of our campus today.
Read more about the history of Little 500 here:
Read more about the founding of the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center here: