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Spelman College Reflects on the 1976 Lock-In Protest Share a Spelman College Press Release

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On March 25, 2024, more than 100 students, staff, faculty and alumnae gathered in the Camille Cosby Fine Arts Center auditorium to view never-before-seen footage from the Spelman College Protest of 1976.

The screening and panel event, titled Forgotten Herstories – “The 1976 Lock-In of the Spelman Board of Trustees,” served to acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice of the Spelman students who overtook the Board of Trustees meeting almost 48 years ago and demanded the College appoint a Black woman president.

“This is the beginning of further discussions about activism, especially on this campus,” said Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, C’66, founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center, Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies, and participating faculty member in the 1976 protest. “And it is the hope that Spelman’s history, this history that has not been talked about as much as we’d like, will be more visible in the histories of the College and provide our students with a more complex, nuanced, comprehensive view of who Spelman has been and how we have evolved since 1881.”

A Look Back

At the time of the 1976 protest, over 95 years after Spelman College was founded in 1881, the College had yet to appoint a Black woman as president. When Former President Dr. Albert Manley announced his retirement after 23 years, students, staff and faculty eagerly anticipated that the Spelman College Board of Trustees would appoint someone who reflected the student population.

However, in April of 1976, the Board approved the appointment of Dr. Donald Stewart to succeed former President Manley – a decision that spurred mass dissatisfaction across campus, according to Naming Our Own & Claiming Black Womanhood: The Spelman College Protest of 1976, a scholarly article written by Dr. Richard D. Benson II, former associate professor in Spelman’s Department of Education. For there to not have been at least one Black woman qualified enough to serve as president in the eyes of the Board was simply unacceptable to the College community, according to the article.

On April 22, 1976, during the Board of Trustees’ annual meeting, nearly 50 Spelman students and faculty members mobilized in protest and locked all 18 Board members in the conference room. An estimated 500 to 600 students out of the 1,200‚Äźstudent body spent the night in the halls outside the room, according to a New York Times article written in 1976. They demanded a new presidential search, the inclusion of the campus community in the selection process, and clemency for the staff, faculty and students who organized the protest.

The lock-in garnered local and national media attention, with supporters speaking out in support of the students, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., singer James Brown and former U.S. Congressman Andrew Young. Other students protested across campus in support of their sisters in protest outside of the conference room.

The Board members were released after 26 hours on April 23, 1976, with a promise to revisit the decision within 10 days, according to Dr. Benson’s article. The Board inevitably declined to readjust their original appointment and Dr. Stewart was officially appointed as president, a position he held from 1976 to 1987. However, Dr. Stewart noted that his retirement in 1987 would certainly mark the end of an era for male and/or non-Black leadership.

Many faculty agree that it was a 26-hour period of time that changed everything, laying the groundwork for the first Black woman president of Spelman College, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. Despite the significance of the protest and its historical impact, it is a moment in history that is seen by many as a stain on the College’s legacy.

“These critiques emerged because of the relative silence about one of the most important sagas in Spelman’s nearly century-old history, as well as what appeared to be hypocrisy on the part of the College —-or not practicing what you preach about the importance of Black women's leadership,” said Dr. Guy-Sheftall. “For me personally, it influenced the trajectory of my scholarship with respect to documenting Black women’s feminist activism at HBCUs and elsewhere.”

Uncovering Archival Footage

A few months ago, Holly Smith, college archivist at Spelman, unearthed footage from the protest, prompting the screening and panel event that took place on March 25. Emily Halevy, accounts manager for the audio preservation firm Preserve South, led the project to migrate the film to digital format, and Nicci Carr, Spelman Archives senior administrative assistant, edited the footage to a 24-minute film.

“Preserving and providing access to this incredible footage is critical to understanding the lock-in in the broader context of Spelman history and campus activism, locally and nationally,” said Smith. “We have so many rich resources in the Spelman Archives related Black women and Black history. It’s imperative that we activate the archives in a way to connect to the past and help inform our future, especially in these crucial times of current student and community activism.”

Six panelists guided the audience through the viewing of the archival footage. Dr. Cynthia Spence, C’78, associate professor of sociology; Dr. Richard Benson II, associate professor of the Black radical tradition in education at the University of Pittsburgh; Jainaba Seckan, C’2014, screenwriter and DEI practitioner; Diana Refsland, former associate professor of sociology at Spelman; Smith; and Dr. Guy-Sheftall.

Participants watched the short piece of time captured on video, reflecting on the immense bravery the young women demonstrated in fighting for what they felt was right. The panelists heavily emphasized the importance of learning from our past and those who came before us to properly engage in activism today.

“You’ve got to go to the archives, you’ve got to look at the records. You can emote all you want – emotion is good, it is necessary! But it is not sufficient to engage in activism,” said Dr. Spence, who is also Spelman’s Social Justice Fellows program director. “We are very much concerned about making certain that our students understand a social justice praxis.”

Spelman students have a long and storied history of protesting that both precedes and extends beyond the 1976 Protest. Even now, as students protest the social injustices of this era, their dissent reflects the same refusal to accept the unacceptable that can be seen in alumnae throughout Spelman history. The legacy of the College, in part, reflects the courage of students to demand their voices be heard, even in the face of uncertainty and criticism.

While the 1976 protest did not immediately result in a new president, it did lay the foundation for Dr. Cole’s appointment and the subsequent appointments of Black women thereafter, according to those present that day. The protest of 1976 is a stark reminder that the activism of today stands to benefit the women of tomorrow.


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