Benjamin Bowser ’69, Adrian Lamos Jr. ’72 and LeRoy Pernell ’71 never looked back when they graduated from Franklin & Marshall College. In fact, they never intended to come back to their alma mater.
“I said when I left here, ‘Jesus, Allah, Muhammad, Lord, Krishna, please don’t let me ever come back to this place again when I graduate, so it’s quite a miracle that I’m back,’” Bowser told the Common Hour audience that packed Mayser Gym on Oct. 24. He was joined in a panel discussion by Lamos and Pernell. “I guess the moral of that story is don’t ever say never.”
Bowser, retired sociology professor at California State University East Bay and prodigious author on race and racism, Lamos, real estate developer, and Pernell, attorney and former law school dean at Northern Illinois University and Florida A&M University, spoke about an important event in F&M’s history in which they were involved—the 1969 protest by Black students.
“They were asking for cultural responsiveness; they were asking for equitable spaces on campus; they were asking for equitable curriculum; they were asking for professors that looked like them,” said Todd Mealy, the moderator of the panel and author of “This Is the Rat Speaking: Black Power and the Promise of Racial Consciousness at Franklin & Marshall College in the Age of the Takeover, 1967-69.” Bowser wrote the book’s forward.
The late ’60s was an age of students nationwide taking over campus buildings to protest lack of cultural and ethnic representation in academic programs, lack of economic opportunity as well as, among other issues, to demand greater rights for women and to end the Vietnam War, said Mealy, a civil rights teacher at Lancaster’s Penn Manor High School.
“Martin Luther King said in 1965, in the middle of the Watts riots, also called the Los Angeles uprising, he said to Mike Wallace of CBS, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard,’” Mealy said. “What students at F&M were doing in ’69 were not rioting in the city, but they had for years asked for cultural responsiveness on campus and no one heard them.”
That fateful year, instead of a Black studies program the Afro-American Society at F&M requested, a poorly organized course was offered that deeply offended the Black students who felt like laboratory rats, hence the book’s title.
“The Black students in the course realized that they had become the test, the resources in the course,” Mealy said. “So, in other words, the course had become a course where white students in the class were studying the Black students in the class.”
The students locked their professors in Goethean Hall for a nearly five-hour protest until administrative personnel negotiated with them. “In the end, though, no Black studies program was created for another 25 years, roughly” Mealy said. “By 1997, [F&M was] offering degrees in Africana Studies.”
The panel members discussed their involvement in the protest although none of them were enrolled in the class because, as Bowser said, and Lamos and Pernell appeared to agree, the faculty involved “were not prepared and not qualified to teach it.” Bowser said they also protested for co-education at F&M.
What resonated with F&M’s current Black students was the racism the panel members said they experienced as students, such as the “Black tax,” which Bowser described as papers submitted by Black students that were always marked a grade lower than deserved. “If you’re Black at F&M and you write an ‘A’ paper, you get a ‘B,’” he said.
Pernell said, “The color of your skin does not determine the color of your mind.”
Lamos shared, “What my freshman year taught me is ‘Don’t believe anything somebody tells you.’ … Franklin & Marshall taught me a lesson; they put it in writing and they still lied to me.”
Bowser, who explained that his ancestors date back well before the founding of the United States, said, “This has always been a diverse country, and diversity is going to be our saving grace whether you like it or not.”
The panel spoke at Common Hour, a community discussion held each Thursday classes are in session at Franklin & Marshall. This Common Hour was the latest Gamechangers event for the academic year; these events celebrate milestones from the past and challenges for the future. More information about Gamechangers and a calendar of upcoming events can be found here.