Locking Doors to Open Them

By Will Bunch

With the clink of chains and the snap of a lock on a February afternoon in 1969, Roy Jones CCAS’70 and a small group of African-American classmates made a powerful statement. Jones and the other students—including Malik Chaka CCAS’77, Cheryl (Edwards) Amana-Burris CCAS’73, Tom Warren CCAS’69, Myrna (Williams) Thompson CCAS’69, and the late Ollie Thompson CCAS’72—represented a healthy share of only two dozen or so black students on the Rutgers–Camden campus as the tumultuous 1960s wound down. They had entered the student center, shooed away a dozen or so white students who were inside, and padlocked the doors.

Armed with a list of 29 demands  that included fully integrating the Rutgers–Camden student body, adding non-white faculty, increasing financial aid for underprivileged kids, and promoting better relations with the mostly black surrounding community, the civil-rights activists locked themselves inside for as long as it would take for university leaders to positively respond.

The occupiers had no idea whether administrators would negotiate with them—or whether they would be expelled for their rash protest. After the protest shut down the campus, Rutgers officials began a dialogue with the students and ultimately agreed to most of their demands. “It opened the door for a lot of things,” said Jones, who saw non-white enrollment jump from that tiny handful to a couple hundred students by the following year. (In early October 2017, Rutgers–Camden had 1,197 African-American students and 952 Hispanic students enrolled.)

Jones stayed in Camden after graduating and watched the university faculty also grow more diverse as the school became a key mover in its hometown. Now an urban environmental activist heading the National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces based in Camden, Jones said that today “in terms of community needs and civic engagement, [Rutgers–Camden] is one of the best in the country.”

Jones has long felt that the 1969 protesters aren’t well remembered for the changes they wrought. To rectify that, Jones was a main organizer of a daylong program on campus in March 2016 called Beacons of Light: The Black Student Protest Legacy at Rutgers–Camden. “We felt it was important to let this new wave of leaders at Rutgers and students know: How did the university get here?”

Attendees learned about Jones’s personal journey, which started in the still-segregated South when he was born in Fort Lauderdale in 1946 and turned toward activism after moving north and attending high school in Atlantic City. A term paper on lynching—and the graphic photos he saw—made him vow to fight for civil rights.

From that moment on, he said, sports and other activities would take a back seat to political activism. His passion was further fueled when several New Jersey colleges told Jones they could not admit him because they had filled their “quota”—a thinly veiled reference to limited openings that existed for black students in the mid-1960s. Finding his way to Rutgers–Camden after a stop at historically black West Virginia State University, Jones was in the right place at the right time to push for integration.

Looking back, he said the 1969 campus protest inspired him a dozen years later to run for mayor of Camden, albeit unsuccessfully, and ultimately get involved in the movement seeking environmental justice for pollution-plagued, low-income communities. “This event,” Jones said of the 1969 takeover, “shaped my life for the next 48 years.”

A second Beacons of Light: The Black Student Protest Legacy at Rutgers–Camden is being planned for 2018.

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