Eddie R. Cole, The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2020), 358 pp.
Eddie Cole opens his book, The Campus Color Line, by setting the scene at the Georgia Institute of Technology on January 17, 1961, on the eve of the historically white college / university’s (HWCU) desegregation. He describes the setting in vivid details that point to how unique this scene was: Georgia Tech was the first historically white college or university to desegregate in the South without the motivation of a court order; in contrast to the vast majority of college or university presidents throughout the United States, moreover, Georgia Tech’s president Edwin Harrison, spoke candidly with his white students about the changes to come. He expressed faith in his students’ capacities to reckon with these changes peacefully and gracefully. As Cole demonstrates throughout the rest of this volume on the role that university presidents played in desegregation specifically and in response to the Black Freedom Movement more generally, university presidents were rarely this adept at handling the internal and external forces that weighed on their institutions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education.
In contrast to the vast majority of historical and conceptual discussions of the university and the Black Freedom Movement, Cole focuses throughout this book not on student activism, but on the university and college presidents who led the institutions at which this activism demanded and/or threatened specific and material attention to the persistence of Jim Crow policies throughout the United States. Other recent considerations of the university during this era, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s (née Rogers) The Black Campus Movement (2012) and Roderick Ferguson’s We Demand: The University and Student Protests (2017), focus largely on the capacity of students to influence the institutions at which they study. In these treatments, university and college administrators are typically cast as stubborn roadblocks in the path of students’ demands for more equitable institutions. Cole’s focus on administrations—and the presidents and chancellors at their heads—ironically lends clout to the understanding of student government associations and other student groups as incredibly powerful in their influence on the function of the university. While university presidents were required to contend with the often-conservative pressures of state politicians and wealthy paternalistic donors (and, particularly for Southern HWCUs the demands for desegregation issued by President John F. Kennedy personally and the federal government more broadly), student demands also weighed dramatically on administrators’ navigation of these power structures. Though Cole is not overtly interested in these student movements, his focus on administrations ironically highlights the real power of student groups—and community organizations—to promote change.
Cole organizes his book around seven case studies that reveal the different power structures at work as university and college presidents responded to the Civil Rights Movement throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. He addresses universities and events that received national attention, such as the white mob violence that resulted in the deaths of two people in response to the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962 (Chapter 4) and Governor George Wallace’s performative attempt to prevent Vivian Hood and James Malone from entering Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in 1963 (Chapter 5). Cole’s consideration of the power dynamics in Mississippi and Alabama, as well as at a wide range of other universities, allows him to map the complex networks of interest that influenced university administrations during this period of change. His discussion of how university presidents and chancellors managed these power dynamics provides a compelling indication to readers of how they might approach similar demands for equity at universities today. Over the course of these interlinked case studies, Cole addresses presidents’ navigations of support for student activists involved in the Black Freedom Movement at the historically Black Morgan State College in Maryland (Chapter 1) and the historically white UCLA (Chapter 3); issues of housing discrimination and university expansion at the University of Chicago (Chapter 2); questions of the university’s obligation to its local communities, particularly in light of student freedom to invite white, incendiary, conservative speakers to Princeton (Chapter 6); and the ultimate failure of HWCUs like the University of Wisconsin to adequately foster collaboration with southern HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) (Chapter 7).
Each chapter begins with biographical treatment of the men who were presidents of these institutions during critical moments in their interactions with demands for Black Freedom. Cole’s focus on these men’s professional trajectories does hazard a kind of exceptionalism. For instance, his treatment of Martin Jenkins, who effectively managed the conservatism of Baltimore in order to establish and maintain state support for the HBCU Morgan State College, suggests that only Jenkins could have been capable of garnering such successes. Cole’s focus on one man’s journey in each of his case studies threatens to disassociate these men from the widespread group efforts of the period, emulating a kind of Rosa Parks phenomenon. And yet, Cole lucidly maps the power structures that directly affected these men and the decisions they made that ultimately shaped their universities’ responses to local demands for specific iterations of Black Freedom and national demands for a performative demonstration of a civil rights ethic. His discussion of the proponents and antagonists of desegregation provides an important example of how historical treatment of racist and ambivalent white figures helps us understand how change can occur as well. As Cole concludes Chapter 5, for instance, the president of the University of Alabama, Frank Rose, was by no means an anti-racist activist. While Cole argues that Rose artfully navigated the tensions between figureheads of desegregation like JFK and staunch defenders of the racist status quo, like Wallace, it was the threat of violence and not an anti-racist ethic that motivated him to desegregate the university swiftly. Much the white moderate that frustrated Martin Luther King, Jr., Rose ultimately accommodated Wallace’s segregationist performance in a way that allowed Rose to finally successfully desegregate the University of Alabama. Cole’s corollary treatment of Robert Francis Goheen’s allowance that Mississippi’s overtly racist governor, Ross Barnett, speak at Princeton in 1963 interestingly suggests that adequate responses to events that appear to support white supremacy ultimately motivated Princeton to better engage the Black communities that lived in the surrounding neighborhoods.
In other words, while this book is overtly a historical treatment of desegregation and institutions of higher education during the civil rights era, it also speaks to challenges faced by universities, their administrations, and their students in our current neoliberal—if not neoconservative—age. It is therefore an important contribution to critical university studies, as well. This book can act as a kind of guide to administrators who are tasked with maintaining foundation stones like the freedom of speech, while also mechanizing equitable treatment of the marginalized communities affected by universities’ operations. Cole concludes that these lessons are necessary for current administrators today, many of whom failed to adequately respond to the white nationalist foundations of the recent Trump presidency: He writes that “any institution truly dedicated to liberation” must “embrace the influence of their position and commit to racial justice” (319, emphasis in original). Cole’s lucid and pragmatic description of networks of power in the 1950s and 60s provides current scholars, administrators, and students a useful road map for effecting social change today.
Abigail Fagan (Leibniz Universität Hannover)