Q&A with Theodore D. Segal, Author of Point of Reckoning

 

Photo of Theodore D. Segal

Photo by Eli Turner

Theodore D. Segal is a lawyer and member of the board of directors for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke in 1977. His new book is Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University which narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face.

You were a corporate lawyer for many years and then turned to writing. Why did you write this book in particular?

I wanted to understand how we ended up here. How is it possible that 50 years after the end of the tumultuous Sixties, our schools, workplaces, and society continue to grapple with so many of the same issues of race and racism that were the focus of activism years ago. I believed that by looking closely at the years immediately following desegregation at Duke, I could expose the entrenched attitudes and narrow, reflexive responses to desegregation that sparked protest and served to stifle racial change at the university. 

Point of ReckoningThis was happening at universities across the country, why Duke?

I was a student at Duke in the 1970s and had the opportunity to study Black and white student activism at the school in the Sixties. More broadly, Duke is an ideal setting to study the racial issues that are the focus of my book. Called “the plantation” by many Black workers, members of the Durham Black community, and students, Duke has a long history of segregation and racial exclusion. The school is among a group of prominent southern historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) that desegregated only when forced to do so in the early Sixties. In the late Sixties, Duke had significant white and Black student protests only ten months apart. This juxtaposition provides a unique opportunity to examine how racial attitudes informed the ways that white trustees, administrators, and faculty perceived, and responded to, white and Black student protest.  

Why do you consider the arrival of Black students at Duke a “historic encounter”?

The arrival of Black students marked a profound change for Duke and other HWCUs. For decades, Jim Crow and segregation had defined the organization and daily operations of these schools. Desegregation created immense challenges for all parties. White administrators, faculty, and students, most of whom had never interacted with a Black person other than in a service capacity, were forced to learn—for the first time—how to relate to Black students. Likewise, Black students, the vast majority of whom had never interacted with white individuals as equals, faced their own challenge: how to deal with white administrators and faculty, and white students as peers. How would they live and work together at Duke? Under Jim Crow, the academic and social opportunities offered by Duke were for whites only. The “Duke Experience” was a training ground for advancement in white America. Theoretically at least, desegregation meant that Black students now would have the chance to share in these opportunities. But how that worked depended on whether Duke was prepared to invest the political capital, as well as the economic and human resources, necessary for Black students to realize their full potential. How Duke administrators and professors and the Black students responded to one another in this initial encounter set the pattern for race relations at the university for decades to come. 

How did the University prepare for the arrival of Black students?

Duke did little to prepare itself for the challenges desegregation would present. The university did not study the experience of other schools that had recently desegregated. Duke made no changes to anticipate or address Black students’ distinctive cultural, academic, and social needs. It did not monitor how the new Black students were managing and what challenges they were facing. Administrators and faculty made only modest attempts to get to know the Black students personally once on campus. As one administrator described, Duke looked at desegregation “from a white perspective.” The chance to attend Duke was seen as a great opportunity for the new Black students, and school leaders believed that the Black students would adjust to campus life through what one described as a natural kind of “amalgamation.” The Duke president in the Sixties commented later that, in essence, the university said to these students, “come in, be white.” This is not what these students wanted or needed.

How did Black students experience Duke during the early years of desegregation?

Duke’s first classes of Black students grew up, for the most part, in protective, segregated Black communities in the South where family, school, and church worked in concert to foster achievement and self-respect. Arriving in the midst of Duke’s “sea of white” was, according to one Black student, “almost as complete a shock as you can encounter.” Highly accomplished and initially “grateful” for the chance to attend Duke, almost all of the school’s Black students encountered racism: academic deans who assumed the students were weak academically; discriminatory grading (especially in writing courses); physical and verbal intimidation; hostility from campus security; racist symbols such as display of the Confederate Flag and the singing of Dixie at athletic events; exclusionary fraternity and sorority admissions policies; and offensive comments in the dorm. In addition, some Jim Crow policies and practices remained in place at Duke even after desegregation. These experiences, coupled with the small number of Black students on campus, led to profound feelings of loneliness and isolation.

 You write that the Black students who came to Duke in the early years following desegregation were the “good kids” in their communities whose families, churches, and schools raised them to be high-achieving “rule followers.” How did these young people become so deeply engaged in campus activism and direct protest?

Multiple factors converged to make this transformation possible. Loneliness and isolation prompted students to form the Afro American Society (AAS)—at first a social outlet that allowed Black students to get to know one another and remain in contact.  As AAS meetings were held, feelings of isolation ebbed and Black students became a very close—and very separate—community within Duke. Black students came to see that the university had failed totally to provide them with the academic, social and cultural resources necessary for them to thrive at Duke. With Black Power and Black campus activism emerging throughout the country, the students found a political and cultural framework for understanding their situation at Duke, as well as a protest strategy for addressing common concerns.

Duke had a large white student protest in April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by a takeover of Duke’s administration building by Black students in February 1969. How did the response of trustees, administrators, and faculty to these two protests differ?   

In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., over 250 predominantly white students marched in the rain to the home of the Duke president to present him with a list of four demands. The president invited them inside out of the weather and called them “guests” when they refused to leave. After 36 hours, the group moved to Duke’s main quadrangle. Over a four-day protest that came to be known as the “Silent Vigil,” over 1,500 protestors joined the sit-in. A simultaneous dining hall and class boycott, as well as a worker strike, effectively shut down the school. Still, trustees and administrators treated protestors with deference. After four days, the chairman of the board of trustees addressed the Silent Vigil (offering minimal concessions) and joined the group in singing “We Shall Overcome.”    

Ten months later, approximately 50 members of the Duke AAS occupied the registrar’s and bursar’s office on the first floor of Duke’s main administration building, presenting the university with a list of 10 demands. Within an hour, senior leaders decided that the protestors would be given one hour to vacate. If they failed to do so, they would be declared “trespassers” and the police would be summoned to campus to eject them, using force if necessary. Durham County and State Police assembled in Duke Gardens and were brought on to campus around 5:30 p.m. Although the Black students subsequently departed the administration building voluntarily, the police could not be withdrawn and a police riot on the main quadrangle ensued.

 How did university administrators resist change, even while claiming to support many of the issues and demands raised by the students?

Most fundamental was the belief that Black students should be grateful for the chance to attend Duke and that they should simply aspire to “fit in.” Among the arguments “progressive” administrators used to resist change was “gradualism” (change takes time),  pragmatism (donors will stop donating), and “reverse discrimination” (accommodations to address the distinctive needs of Black students represent discrimination against white people). Once activism emerged, students were seen as controlled by outside forces. Throughout, administrators insisted that change could only come through the “proper channels.” This meant dealing with a layered committee process unable to cut through red tape.

 What lessons are there today for students, faculty and others seeking racial change at HWCUs, and what lessons are there for administrators, trustees and faculty who profess support for these anti-racism efforts?     

Because of the persistence of historic racial attitudes, a multi-layered and decentralized decision-making process, reflexive deference to alumni and donors, and limited resources, it is exceedingly difficult for HWCUs to change from within. Systemic racial change is possible only where there is sustained external pressure and when leaders possess a moral commitment to racial justice and a willingness to reallocate resources to support new priorities. While each institution will need to find its own pathway to racial change, all will need to expend the same amount of time, energy, money and other finite resources that they currently deployed to address other “existential” objectives. Duke, like other schools, reinvented itself in a matter of weeks to face the Covid crisis. A similar level of focus and investment over a substantial period of time is needed to dismantle systemic racism at the school.

Read the introduction to Point of Reckoning for free and save 30% on the book using coupon code E21SEGAL.

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