The 1970 Occupation of the Lorimer Chapel
In 1970, tensions between black students and the administration had reached a breaking point. The administration, it seemed, was unsympathetic to black concerns. Attempts to achieve change through regular college channels were met with resistance and stubborn reluctance. Black student John Mc Clain ’69 completed a study of the problem of black recruitment in January of 1969. In response, efforts were taken by the administration to recruit qualified black students. Yet the system that was in place, with limited scholarships available, prevented much success. In the spring of 1969 the “Proposals for a New Colby” were issued by the newly formed Students Organization for Black Unity (SOBU) detailing the need for a significant change in Colby’s priorities in order to help alleviate the white-black imbalance.
The Proposals stated:
The white/black racial imbalance on this campus is racist as well as discriminatory against the twelve Afro-Americans now in residence. In order to rectify this situation the following measures should be enacted:
1. The recruitment of black students who would probably require some type of remedial assistance. Such assistance could be given in a variety of ways.
A. Colby could establish a summer preparatory program such as those now in existence at Bowdoin and the University of Maine (Upward Bound).
B. Colby could endeavor to send as many incoming black students as possible to existing Upward Bound programs.
C. Colby could establish a transitional year or similar program to cope with the needs of these students while they are here.
2. The hiring of as many as possible Black professors.
3. The establishment, on a permanent basis, of basic courses such as the Negro History course being taught by Professor Foner this semester.
4. The incorporation of various aspects of black culture and black concerns into certain existing courses now offered in various departments at Colby.
5. The admission of a freshman class which will be at least 10% black.
Yet as the spring progressed, there was little evidence of genuine interest in the proposals from the administration. That Spring, Charles Terrell, a black junior, ran for president of the Student Government with the party name of Uhuru Nakawi (Freedom Now) along with several other black students, placing the racial problem as the focus of their campaign. They lost the election, and over the course of the 1969-1970 year, progress was scarce. Ultimately direct action was taken.
At 8:30 p.m. on Monday, March 2nd, 1970, 17 members of SOBU began an occupation of Lorimer Chapel with a list of five non-negotiable demands presented to President Strider, the college administration, the faculty, and the student body. They had selected the chapel because they felt it was the one building on campus whose elimination from daily life would least hamper the ability of the school to function normally. While most of the campus was unaware this action was to be taken, on Monday morning the administration was informed, and Deans Jonas Rosenthal and E. Parker Johnson were on hand at the chapel that evening. For the next eight days, the black students held strong on their demands, refusing to be pulled back into the administrative quagmire. Meanwhile, outside the chapel, student support swelled as white students, sympathetic to the concerns of the black students, organized their own protests.
Charles Terrell, then president of SOBU, helped lead the chapel takeover. The students in the chapel issued their initial statement as they entered the chapel, including their demands which were heavily based on the “Proposals for a New Colby” (full text of letter listing demands).
President Strider responded in writing on Tuesday, March 3rd, sternly refusing to cooperate. He wrote:
” …the college cannot engage in the most useful kinds of discussion under the present circumstances. The occupation of a building occasions the disruption of normal college activities, and, as long as you are obstructing the normal use of Lorimer Chapel, you are engaged in illegal trespass.
If it is approach to your stated goals that concerns you most, you can signal this by leaving the chapel and talking with some of us about real approaches to these goals. If you remain in the chapel, it will appear that your concerns are more with the notoriety of your action and with the atmosphere which could easily be established through continued occupation.” (full text of letter)
The black students held firm, though, responding the same day in a letter that further explained how they felt justified in continuing their occupation:
“If you are unable to engage in ‘the most useful kinds of discussion under the present circumstances’ then it appears that we are not going to be able to discuss this matter. The perpetration of racism ‘occasions disruption’ of normal human development. Therefore, we feel justified in obstructing the normal use of Lorimer Chapel. Hence, the matter of illegal trespass in the Chapel is pitifully irrelevant when compared to the matter of man’s illegal trespass against human dignity.” (full text of letter)
Over the next several days, despite the administration conceding to meet in the chapel, little progress was made. Rumors circulated that the administration was attempting to spark a riot in the chapel, thereby justifying police intervention. But the students held strong.
Eventually, the administration made a controversial decision. At 6:15 p.m., Monday March 9th, the administration was granted a restraining order, which was served to each of the seventeen students in the chapel at 8:30 p.m. They were given two hours to leave the building. Within an hour, they walked out of the chapel, ending the takeover that had begun one week earlier. In leaving, the students vowed to continue to pressure the administration to act on their demands. They stated that their compliance with the restraining order was due to their desire to focus on their demands, not their actions. It should be noted that the administration was denied attempts at a stronger restraining order, including one in which the Student Organization for Black Unity would have been effectively prohibited from meeting as a body on college property.
At 10 p.m. Monday night, a coalition of about 150 white supporters of the black students met to discuss what their next step should be. The Student Government had organized a rally of about 300 students on Friday March 6th, led by President Ben Kravitz, pledging their support for the demands. Following the end of the takeover, the Student Government sent a letter to President Strider stating it “deplores” their taking legal action to resolve the situation, adding that the takeover, contrary to the complaint filed by the administration, posed no threat to college property or students.
On Tuesday March 10th, about 200 students picketed President Strider’s house between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. They were angry with the administration’s bully tactics in emptying the chapel and were upset with the administration’s unwillingness to seek quick results for the five demands. Over the next several days, multiple rallies and large meetings occurred all focusing on how best to achieve the demands.In late spring, the Echo reported on the progress of the demands. It found that the first demand, which called for the acceptance of 50 out of 78 black applicants, was met; according to the Admissions Office, only 62 applications were actually received, and 44 were accepted (70% versus the requested 64%). The second demand called for the implementation of a Black Sub-Freshman Week; the first such week was scheduled for May 17 of 1970 and a similar concept still exists today. The third demand, calling for the elimination of the minimum GPA requirement for scholarship students, was passed by the faculty in March, though it was delayed until the necessary annual funds (estimated at $50,000 at the time) were made available.Within a few years, this occurred, and the GPA requirement ended. The fourth demand concerned the expansion of the Black Studies program; while Colby continues to struggle in hiring faculty of color, there is currently an African American Studies program at Colby. The fifth and final demand was for each incoming class after 1974 to be at least 10% black; this demand has never been met.