By Adina J. Pernell
In honor of African American History Month a screening of the ground breaking documentary “Agents of Change” was shown to a standing room only audience at the City College Rosenberg library.
“Agents of Change” combines photographs, live footage, interviews and personal accounts to create a picture of the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University (SFSU) that raged for over four months and resulted in nearly 600 arrests. It was these events that led to an armed standoff between African American students and white students at Cornell University.
The event was hosted by City College African American Studies Department Chair, Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin and Juanita Tamayo Lott, who in her own words “worked in Washington D.C. most of her career, was at the U.S. Commission On Civil Rights,” is the author of several books and whose personal accounts of the SFSU strikes are also featured in the film.
The film is co-produced and directed by Abby Ginzberg who has worked on numerous award winning documentaries and Frank R. Dawson who is a producer, writer and founding partner of NuHouse Media Group. Ginzberg and Dawson capture the change of a nation within the film.
“Agents of Change” showed a first hand account of the integration process of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities into all-white colleges and universities, and chronicles how Black Student Unions became a force for radical change in race relations.
The strikes were the result of demands to the administration to establish a curriculum that reflected the cultural viewpoints and identities of African American students on campus and to hire more people of color in faculty positions.
The film highlights the culmination of events that led to a rash of protests and riots and police violence that raged on campuses all over the United States.
The subsequent turmoil ended in SFSU, the first college to establish an African American studies program in the nation and a decision which was later echoed at Cornell University and many other colleges across the country.
In a discussion after the screening, Lott drew parallels between the SFSU strikes in “Agents of Change” the four students who went on hunger strike to successfully save SFSU’s underfunded College of Ethnic Studies in May of 2016.
When Carter G. Woodson an African American historian founded Black History Week in 1926 he had no idea that it would go on to become Black History Month in 1976.
With issues of race and equality still alive and well, the growing sentiment is that African American History Month is needed more than ever and that it needs to grow with the times.
“I feel like in 2017 people respect the tradition of Black History Month and what it represents,” Dunn-Salahuddin said, but that it needed to evolve “to meet the needs of a new generation.”
“It’s relevant but do we care?” English major Najma Douglas said about African American History Month. She felt that “the ones in community that hold the power are not using that power to help the community.”
More and more students are taking matters into their own hands and getting proactive. Which according to Tarik Farrar, former department chair of the African American studies department at City College, is a positive step towards change.
He felt that the new generation of activists had “learned something from the struggle” and has “a capacity to lead and change the world infinitely greater than people of the generation that I come from.”
Dunn-Salahuddin wants to implement what she calls “hashtag Black history 365” where the African American studies department has a year long program of events that “crosses departmental lines”.
Ultimately she wanted to “teach from a social historical perspective,”\ emphasizing “that black history is more than just a laundry list of names” and that “millions of nameless people were equally as courageous and contributed just as much” as famous ones.
“I didn’t know anything before I enrolled at City College,” said sociology major Jeremiah Rushing. “I can understand why things are the way they are today especially when you can look back and see what’s already been written.”
Without ethnic studies programs Rushing felt that we wouldn’t “be able to teach people their history and the tools they need to control their own [future].”
Woodson believed that African American history was not only about the larger than life figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman but also the everyday men and women who fought for freedom.
More than 80 years later his idea still holds truth.