James E. Blackwell as a Scholar-Activist
James Blackwell’s career was one of scholar-activism. Such a person may be defined as one who directly engages with practical problems and strives to improve the world. Scholarly activism brings the lessons of scholarship into the real lives of communities. Sometimes scholars bring scholarship into communities, and at other times they participate in efforts to improve communities and society. Blackwell’s activism has occurred both ways and in substantial measures.
AT SAN JOSE UNIVERSITY
After completing his PhD in 1959, Blackwell became a professor at San Jose State University in California, where he immediately became involved in activism, principally with the San Jose chapter of the NAACP. Blackwell led the establishment of the first office building for the NAACP in San Jose, and under his leadership as president of the local chapter in 1962–1963, membership grew from 257 to 1,532.
Right after Blackwell arrived at San Jose State University, four North Carolina A&T freshmen sat down at a segregated Woolworth counter in February of 1960, and sit-ins spread like wildfire over the South, sparking the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the student movement for civil rights.
The nonviolent direct action of the sit-in movement played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement, helping to bring about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, the sit-in movement did not proceed without hardship. In the Deep South, some authorities reacted swiftly and brutally—arresting protesters and allowing white hooligans to attack them as they sat peacefully.
Some schools, for example, Alabama State College and Southern University, expelled student demonstrators under pressure from the segregationist state governments. On February 25, 1960, thirty-five students at Alabama State College staged an antisegregation sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse. As the protests grew, Governor John Patterson threatened to terminate the college’s funding if it did not expel the student organizers.
On March 2, 1960, the nine students that Governor Patterson considered leaders of the sit-ins were expelled. He also fired or forced out several professors. Dr. L. D. Reddick, a history professor at Alabama State and a Martin Luther King biographer, was fired for “leading the students” in the protests. Three other professors were forced out of the university because of so-called “disloyalty”—Jo Ann Robinson, Mary Fair Burks, and Robert Williams.
Robinson, a professor of English and president of the Women’s Political Council, was the person who supported the bus boycott in 1955 by passing out thousands of leaflets. Robert Williams was an instructor of music at Alabama State and a former classmate and close friend of Martin Luther King. Burks, the founder of the Women’s Political Council and also active in the bus boycott, resigned because of the state’s treatment of faculty and students.
As the expelled students spread to friendly places across the country, Blackwell helped obtain funds to support these students and worked with others to facilitate the transfer of one of them to San Jose State University.
Perhaps more importantly, he rejuvenated the local NAACP chapter and led members into more involvement with other organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality in the growing civil rights battles in San Jose and the surrounding Santa Clara Valley (Ruffin 2014). He arranged or led sit-ins, dwell-ins, and boycotts of Sears and other chain stores in the city, which led to San Jose establishing equal employment hiring policies. In another effort connected to the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Blackwell spearheaded fundraising programs that helped provide bail for Freedom Riders arrested in Alabama.
AT THE PEACE CORPS
From 1963 to 1966 Blackwell worked for the U.S. Peace Corps. For a year he was deputy and then acting director of Peace Corps programs in Tanzania. He was responsible for the administration of all programs and operations, the welfare of all Peace Corps volunteers, and supervision of all local and field staff.
The next year, 1964–1965, he directed Peace Corps programs in Malawi. In his roles at the Peace Corps, he negotiated with the African governments for the types of Peace Corps programs desired. He was a member of the “Country Team” of the American Embassy.
His assignments in Africa were followed by a stint in Milwaukee as director of the Peace Corps Center for Training and Research at the University of Wisconsin. The center provided stateside training for potential Peace Corp volunteers bound for such countries as India, Kenya, and various nations in Latin America. Here he also supervised various research projects.
From 1966 to 1969 Blackwell worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nepal. The first year he was a community development advisor. For the next two years, he was chief, Panchayat Development Branch. He led a variety of development projects with the government, including training participants and negotiating construction contracts for roads, airstrips, and other projects. He also supervised the distribution of relief to disaster victims on behalf of the United States.
At the Peace Corps and USAID Blackwell engaged in community work. This time it was international and on a large scale.
After six years working on a variety of projects for the U.S. Peace Corps and USAID Blackwell brought all that experience back to academia in 1969. After a year as associate professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University, Blackwell became professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMass–Boston).
The Caucus of Black Sociologists
Blackwell’s return to academia in 1969 was a propitious time for scholar activism. In protest of the way African Americans were treated in the American Sociological Association, black sociologists—in concert with many professional, social, and civic organizations—formed the Caucus of Black Sociologists (CBS), now the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS).
In 1970 they formally organized with James Blackwell as the first president. The founding members of the Caucus of Black Sociologists intended for the organization to participate in scholar activism. Although the CBS focused primarily on the representation of black sociologists in ASA at the 1968 and 1969 meetings, they also focused on issues outside the profession. For example, the CBS made statements against the Viet Nam War and the political oppression of the Black Panther Party.
The first two objectives of the CBS, as specified in the constitution are: (1) To enhance the transmission of sociological knowledge to black communities for their utilization in development and survival; and (2) To provide perspectives for the analysis of black experiences as well as instruction for understanding and resolving the varied problems confronted by black people.
Formed during the same time as the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Caucus of Black Sociologists organized with an affiliation with the CBC. Among other things, the CBC would provide technical assistance in the form of policy analysis.
Education, Discrimination, and Affirmative Action
Blackwell had been heavily involved internationally in strengthening communities in his work with the Peace Corps and USAID. At UMass–Boston, his scholar activism focused on education.
In addition to his research and publications on education, Blackwell contributed his scholarship to several crucial federal court cases:
- In 1972, in Adams v. Richardson, he contributed research data used by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in its briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of plaintiffs’ efforts to equalize higher education opportunities for African Americans in Mississippi.
- Blackwell was an expert witness in a 1974 case, Scott v. University of Delaware, where the plaintiff, Norbert Scott, filed suit against the university, claiming racial discrimination.
- In the 1977 Bakke v. UC Davis case, Blackwell was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW, now Health and Human Services) to prepare a report on the importance of affirmative action in higher education. The result was a book-length manuscript, In Defense of Affirmative Action in Higher Education, which was used by Solicitor General Drew Days of the Carter administration in his briefs before the Supreme Court to support of the efforts of UC Davis to increase minority student enrollment.
- From 1984 to 2005 Blackwell played a major role in the long-running Alabama higher education case Knight v. Alabama. In 1981, alumni, students, and others associated with Alabama State and Alabama A & M universities (both historically black universities) filed suit against Alabama’s higher education system claiming it was racially discriminatory in some areas, including admission policies. Blackwell was an expert witness in four trials/hearings. He focused on desegregation strategies and techniques; duplication in the curricula of HBCU’s and traditionally white institutions (TWI); under-enrollment of minority students at undergraduate, graduate, and professional school levels; underemployment of minority faculty, professional staff, and administrators at TWIs; and the role of leadership in desegregation. He also organized strategy conferences for attorneys and plaintiffs and developed a model for their approach, and he provided a sounding board for attorneys and plaintiffs.
- He was an expert witness for the attorney general of the State of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1993–1994 case Podberesky v. University of Maryland. In this case he wrote a paper, “Is the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship Program Defensible?” which was used by the university and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in their briefs before the Court of Appeals.
- In 1994 he was an expert witness in the Mississippi higher education case U.S. Department of Justice v. Fordice, where he focused on ways to facilitate compliance to federal desegregation guidelines.
With the Southern Education Foundation
Blackwell was associated with the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) from 1972 to 1986, participating in many of its desegregation efforts. From 1972 to 1976 he evaluated federal court-ordered state desegregation plans mandated by Adams v. Richardson. Among the reports he produced was “An Analysis of the Florida Plan for Dismantling the Dual System of Higher Education in Florida.” During this time he also helped SEF staff organize several conferences on the status of desegregation compliance in states.
From 1976 to 1986 he was the chairperson of the SEF Research Task Force. The task force developed requests for proposals for desegregation research, allocated research grants, evaluated reports/monographs/books for publication, and helped the SEF become a significant center for desegregation research.
The Urban Mission
Undoubtedly Blackwell felt right at home at UMass–Boston, which was part of the movement among universities in major urban areas to declare a social mission. This mission was seen as comparable to the mission of land-grant universities, which were established to provide at least two major services: to educate the sons and daughters of their constituents, who were often farmers; and to help these farmers address their problems, which often concerned growing better crops. Similarly, urban universities accepted the mission of educating the sons and daughters of their constituents, people in cities, and helping these cities with their problems, the many issues of urban areas.
The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land for the states to develop or sell to raise funds to establish land-grant colleges. The original mission of these institutions was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so that members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education. A vital component of the land-grant system is the agricultural experiment station program, designed to pass along new information to farmers, especially in the areas of soil minerals and plant growth.
In the late 1970s, thirteen public urban universities in major metropolitan areas of the United States formed the “Urban 13,” a research-sharing association. The leaders of these institutions assumed that their schools needed to take leadership roles in their respective urban areas. The rapidly growing urban centers were driving our economic, cultural, and political future, and Urban 13 organizers felt the public institutions in those centers should be the engines behind that growth.
The informal Urban 13 continually added members to their group and in 1998 established the more formal Great Cities Universities organization, which evolved into the current Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), consisting of forty-six institutions across the country. This coalition focuses on lobbying Congress and has liaisons with several federal agencies. The USU sees itself as addressing three areas of central importance to cities and residents (Coalition of Urban Servicing Universities 2007):
- Human Capital: addresses the need for training of urban teachers and students at each stage of the educational pipeline.
- Strengthening Communities: emphasizes building the capacity of the institutions to engage with their communities on social policy and economic development.
- Urban Health: focuses on ameliorating urban health disparities in cities through university-community partnerships, with attention to increasing the number of urban health professionals.
Research at UMass–Boston
A main aspect of the urban mission is to provide research and technical assistance on issues in urban areas. UMass–Boston put a heavy emphasis on this urban mission by creating several comprehensive research institutes and centers. Blackwell played a central role in shaping one of them, the William Monroe Trotter Institute, and recruiting its first director.
The Trotter Institute researches African American issues and provides technical assistance to community groups and agencies. Its first project was a report on the local African American community. Blackwell produced the study of the economic status of the community, which showed that African Americans were not participating equitably in the economic boom that was happening in Boston during that time. The impact of this project led him to be recruited by the mayor to assist the local government in strengthening the residency requirement for city-funded projects.
In 1984, with $2 million in funding from foundations, the National Research Council (NRC) began a study to report on the status of blacks since 1940 and the future status of blacks in the United States. Critics of the NRC study were concerned about the ramifications of a major study of African Americans in the ideological climate of the 1980s. Great Society programs had been dismantled and a cease-fire declared in the War on Poverty. Some critics expressed concern that a major study by a prestigious academic organization like the NRC might serve to validate the 1980s trends toward limiting the role of government in addressing the ills of society, especially those concerning race. Furthermore, these critics contended that NRC study groups, while including some persons with a commitment to principles of equality and fairness, included a significant number of scholars who ruled out both the historical oppression of African Americans and contemporary racial discrimination as major influences in existing African American communities.
As a result of these concerns and considerations, in the spring of 1987, the Trotter Institute organized a counterproject, Assessment of the Status of African-Americans. Sixty-one scholars from across the country were arranged into study groups, one for each of six topics: education; employment, income, and occupations; political participation and the administration of justice; social and cultural change; health and medical care; and the family. In addition to cochairing this project, Blackwell also wrote a chapter on education. Four other books were produced from this project (Hill 1993; Reed 1993a; Reed 1993b; and Willie, Garibaldi, and Reed 1991). The NRC study (Jaynes and Williams 1989) discussed ongoing racism, but presented it as isolated events by individuals, while the Trotter Institute study addressed racism as a systemic issue.
IN THE MEDIA
Blackwell has been interviewed numerous times by major television networks and newspapers. In addition, he has been involved in documentary films. In 1963 he wrote and appeared in a thirty-minute television documentary, A Century after Emancipation, which was broadcast over Station KNTV in San Jose, California. Later, in 1974, he was featured in a film produced by CRM–Random House Productions, Prejudice: Causes, Consequences, and Cures. This film was widely used in colleges and universities.
In retirement, Blackwell continues to give scholarly presentations on education and other issues and to serve on national and local boards. He also continues to receive awards and honors for his work, including Washington State University’s (WSU) highest award, the Regents Distinguished Alumnus Award, in 2002. As the WSU announcement indicated at the time, “a 1986 study reported in Social Forces ranked him No. 5 among black sociologists (living or dead) who made the most significant contribution in the field,” undoubtedly, the result of his lifelong scholar activism.
About the Author
Wornie Reed is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Coalition of Urban Serving Universities. 2007. Proceedings: Advancing an Urban Agenda in Human Capital, Strengthening Communities, and Public Health. Retrieved June 8, 2010, from http://www.usucoalition.org/downloads/part2/2007USUProceedingsFINAL.pdf.
Hill, Robert B. 1993. The African American Family: A Holistic Perspective. Westport, CT: Auburn House Publishing Co.
Jaynes, Gerald David, and Robin M. Williams Jr., eds. 1989. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Reed, Wornie. 1993a. Health and Medical Care of African-Americans. Westport, CT: Auburn House Publishing Co.
Reed, Wornie, ed. 1993b. African-Americans: Essential Perspectives. Westport, CT: Auburn House Publishing Co.
Ruffin, Herbert G. 2014. Uninvited Neighbors: African Americans in Silicon Valley 1769–1990. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
William Monroe Trotter Institute. Assessment of the Status of African-Americans. Boston: William Monroe Trotter Institute, UMass–Boston, 1990.
Willie, Charles V., Antoine M. Garibaldi, and Wornie Reed, eds. 1991. The Education of African-Americans Westport, CT: Auburn House Publishing Co.