by Sarah Calise
The Nashville Student Movement gets quite a bit of scholarly attention for its contributions to the history of nonviolent direct action protests, including the development of civil rights leaders like John Lewis. Down the highway, in Murfreesboro, existed a different kind of protest movement—one wrapped up in the “southern hospitality” of a small town obsessed with its Civil War heritage. In October 1968, Sylvester Brooks, an outspoken black student from Memphis, authored a guest column in Sidelines, the student-run newspaper of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). He called into question the university’s sanctioned use of Confederate imagery, and he asked his fellow students, “Does it bother you that the Rebel flag represents utter and unmerciful contempt of the basic human dignity of Black people?”[i] For fifty years, MTSU’s black students have protested the pervasiveness of the Confederacy on their campus. This is their story, from the past to the present.
The ideology of the “Lost Cause” played a central role in the slow progress of this particular protest movement. The men and women who upheld the “Lost Cause” erected monuments and memorialized the Confederacy in order to “transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact.”[ii] Much of Murfreesboro’s white cultural heritage draws upon the town’s Civil War history, including General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 1862 raid, in which the Confederate army “saved” the population from Union occupation and execution, according to the mythos of some citizens.[iii] The local college’s adoption of the “Lost Cause” narrative was a natural extension of white Murfreesboro’s values.
“Does it bother you that the Rebel flag represents utter and unmerciful contempt of the basic human dignity of Black people?” ~Sylvester Brooks, 1968
In the 1960s, MTSU’s use of Confederate imagery was inescapable. The school’s logo used Forrest’s likeness and stamped it onto official letterheads, yearbooks, the front page of the Sidelines newspaper, notebooks, and other items sold at the campus bookstore. At football games, the crowd waved Confederate flags, the MTSU band proudly belted out the “Dixie” fight song, and a student dressed to resemble General Forrest marched the players onto the field. The Kappa Alpha Order fraternity embraced the “Stars and Bars” as part of their identity; they hung the Confederate flag in their house, wore vests and hats adorned with Confederate colors to sporting events, used the flag to decorate their homecoming parade floats, and held an annual “Old South” ball. Even the student union, Keathley University Center, opened in the spring of 1968 with a 600-pound bronze plaque of Forrest attached to the wall. This was the environment black students entered when the school integrated in 1962. When black students publicly demanded change in 1968, they set the foundations for waves of protests and debates for the next five decades.
Before Sylvester Brooks arrived at MTSU, he was already involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a high school student in Memphis. He participated in voter registration drives, wrote letters to the local newspaper, and, because of these actions, received hateful responses from white citizens, including the Ku Klux Klan. Brooks came to MTSU wanting to “push the envelope,” instead of going to a historically black college in Nashville.[iv] One of his first experiences in Murfreesboro involved a motel swimming pool, in which the white guests promptly left the pool as soon as Brooks entered it. He realized that Murfreesboro was far different from living among the large black population of Memphis, but he was not afraid of this new environment: he wanted to “challenge it.”[v]
Brooks’ first few weeks at MTSU were enlightening. One black student acclimated him to campus through a tour of the grounds, including the athletic fields. He advised Brooks not to attend football games, saying it would be “a unique experience.”[vi] In the only game he ever attended, the Confederate display and the Forrest mascot shocked Brooks. He called it “a slap in the face.”[vii] Black students decided enough was enough. Brooks used his writing skills to express his concerns to the rest of the student body.
The student newspaper, Sidelines, published Brooks’ column “‘Dixie’: What Does It Mean?” on October 21, and it immediately stirred debate. Much of the public discussion occurred through the opinion and letter sections of Sidelines. The following issue dedicated an entire page to letters about Brooks’ column. Two MTSU faculty members from the History Department, James Huhta and Jim Leonard, expressed their support for the removal of Confederate symbols. “To invite two hundred black students to feel at home under its [the Old South] symbols, to ask them to forget that their ancestors knew its lash, is to be almost sublimely irrational,” stated Leonard.[viii]
Bobby Sands, a white student, defended the use of General Forrest and echoed “Lost Cause” narratives, using arguments that are still heard today. According to Sands, General Forrest “was one of the greatest military geniuses,” and, although he was active in the Ku Klux Klan, he denounced such involvement later in life. Sands also believed that MTSU used the Confederate flag because it represented “courage, valor, galantry [sic], and perseverance,” even if the soldiers fought to maintain slavery.[ix]
This was the environment black students entered when the school integrated in 1962. When black students publicly demanded change in 1968, they set the foundations for waves of protests and debates for the next five decades.
President M.G. Scarlett urged the students to resolve the issue through their own bureaucracies. He asked the Associated Student Body (ASB) to study the use of the Confederate flag and Forrest as school symbols. The ASB pledged to commit itself to improving race relations on campus, and formed a committee of representatives from various student clubs. For a few weeks, the ASB and the committee debated the university’s association with Dixie. Brooks, representing the Young Democrats, believed that some members of the House held “preconceived ideas,” and did not objectively consider the feelings of black students or the committee’s final report, which recommended a change in the school’s mascot.[x] Since the House and the Senate could not reconcile the differences between their two bills, the ASB informed President Scarlett that students wanted to retain Confederate symbols. Ultimately, Scarlett persuaded the band director to find a new fight song, and, by 1970, the ASB replaced the mascot with a dog, but Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederate flag continued to infest campus.
In the late 1960s, MTSU’s black students began the arduous process of combating the entrenched ideas of the “Lost Cause,” and similar to black freedom struggles on other college campuses, they enhanced black student life.[xi] Several of the black students who protested Confederate symbols founded the university’s Black Student Union in May of 1969. From its start, members of the BSU educated their peers about black history, and brought black speakers and events to campus. After pressure from students, Bart McCash taught the first black history course, called “The Negro American,” in the fall of 1969. That same year, Sidelines gave black students a platform to publish a five-part essay series on “The Black Movement in America.” Students also founded black fraternities and sororities during the early 1970s.
Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, MTSU students persisted with their vocal attacks against Forrest. Phyllis Hickerson-Washington, a black student during the 1970s, remembered that they “wanted Nathan removed from everything,” especially after a cross burning occurred on campus in December 1970.[xii] After outcries in Sidelines from black and white students, the university phased out Forrest in logos and merchandise by the end of the 1970s. In 1989, the student chapter of the NAACP appealed directly to the president and requested the removal the 600-pound plaque of Forrest from the student union. President Sam Ingram quietly ordered it gone over winter break. For the next three years, some students, alumni, and organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans angrily corresponded with university officials and Tennessee state legislators about the removal of the plaque. James E. Walker, MTSU’s first black university president, never entertained these white supremacist groups. The university donated the plaque to Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park.
By the 1990s, the only lasting physical monument to the Confederacy on MTSU’s campus was the ROTC building, named Nathan Bedford Forrest Memorial Hall. Built in 1954, Forrest Hall remains on campus today after surviving two major protest movements in the past 10 years. In 2007, a small but vocal group of black students and white allies, led by a young woman named Amber Perkins, demanded the university rename the building. Similar to 1968, President Sidney McPhee allowed the students to decide Forrest’s fate. Over a thousand people signed a petition to keep Forrest Hall, so the Student Government Association squashed the issue.
In 2015, following the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, a group of black students once again protested Forrest Hall. They used more direct tactics than previous movements at MTSU. Black students held three separate nonviolent protests—two in front of Forrest Hall and one in front of President McPhee’s home on campus. Students made signs that read, “Change the Damn Name,” and yelled chants like “Run, Forrest, Run!” However, unlike previous protests, these students faced an uphill legal battle due to the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013, which required a majority vote from the Tennessee Historical Commission before altering or removing any Confederate monuments. On February 16, 2018, after the Sons of Confederate Veterans cross-examined several MTSU representatives for over five hours, the commission denied the university’s request to rename Forrest Hall. The defeat felt inevitable for many involved in the two-year process.
The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013 requires a majority vote from the Tennessee Historical Commission before altering or removing any Confederate monuments.
Black students courageously protested the white supremacy rooted in many facets of MTSU and Murfreesboro history. They slowly chipped away at racist structures through a combination of bureaucratic channels, grassroots efforts, and immense perseverance. Forrest Hall’s continued existence is not a failure of the students, but an example of how apathetic white liberalism allows racist values to control systems. Tennessee’s state government is determined to preserve the “Lost Cause,” and they have the legislation to achieve it. As an act of resistance against the false narrative, archivists at the MTSU created the Forrest Hall Protest Collection, which documents black student activism since 1968, and holds MTSU and Tennessee accountable for decades of racism since 1930. This fall, the archive will moderate a panel called the Movement 68 Symposium, in which black alumni (including Sylvester Brooks) will reflect upon their involvement in the enduring struggle against the Confederacy on campus.
Sarah Calise earned her M.A. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University in May 2016. She currently holds the position of Political and Regional Collections Archivist at the Albert Gore Research Center. Since 2015, she has managed the Forrest Hall Protest Collection, which is a publicly accessible digital archive of black student activism at MTSU. Her current research interests focus on student activism in the United States, and the issues of access and ethics in digital archives. You can join her in passionate discussions about professional wrestling, Harry Styles, or comic books on Twitter at @SarahCalise.
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[i] Sylvester Brooks, “Dixie: What Does It Mean?” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 21, 1968. Digital access: http://digital.mtsu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15838coll11/id/192/rec/2
[ii] Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003), 1. For more on the “Lost Cause” and Civil War memory, read Race and Reunion (Blight, 2002) and Remembering the Civil War (Janney, 2013).
[iii] See “Monument will honor Confederates killed in Forrest raid,” Daily News Journal, June 29, 2015.
[iv] Sylvester Brooks, interview by Erin Toomey, September 2000, interview MT024, Albert Gore Research Center. Listen to the Brooks’ oral history here (transcript available): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Z3F7xBmCz0
[viii] Jim Leonard, “Praise for Brooks’ Column,” Sidelines, Oct. 24, 1968. Dr. Leonard died later that year in a car accident. His father’s gift to the History Department led to the creation of the James N. Leonard History Scholarship to promote racial understanding.
[ix] Bobby Sands, “‘Dixie’: What Does It Mean?” Sidelines, Oct. 24, 1968.
[x] “ASB Congress Deadlocks; Forrest Decision Tuesday,” Sidelines, Dec. 16, 1968.
[xi] For more on black freedom struggles on college campuses, see Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012).
[xii] Phyllis Hickerson-Washington, interview by Suma Clark, 2011, Centennial Conversations: Race Relations, Albert Gore Research Center. Watch a clip from this interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeEIPxjN3cw
Sylvester Brooks… wow. I did not know anything about this freedom fighter. Thanks for sharing these details about black student activism at MTSU. I enjoyed reading this.
Wow, what inspirational courage!