HBCUs Need The Lobbying Support Of Their Students And Alumni

By David W. Marshall

(Trice Edney Wire) – Every young person needs to heed the words of the late great John Lewis. “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.” Lewis made this statement on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 1, 2020, while commemorating the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. As a founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington in 1963.

His youth gave him a vision for a more transformative society, and he, at times, found himself at odds with older leaders. Lewis was a living example that young people must achieve the change they want by forcing older people, regardless of race, to embrace equitable change. He desired to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get into good trouble, necessary trouble; believing that young people should push for lasting change by holding older generations accountable by speaking truth to power. He taught us the importance of speaking up and speaking out.

We must be willing to make noise and to always speak up about injustice at any cost. A person’s silence is their acceptance. Lewis stated, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” Justin Jones (age 28) and Justin Pearson (age 29) are two Black Democratic members of the Tennessee House of Representatives who followed Lewis’ example and teachings. They are two of the youngest House members, and they got themselves into good trouble, necessary trouble.

Days after the deadly shooting at Covenant School in Nashville that left six dead, including three 9-year-old children, Jones used a bullhorn at the chamber podium to rally the crowd of people seated in the chamber galleries. He was joined in the gun control protest by Reps. Pearson and Gloria Johnson. They were calling for their fellow lawmakers to take action to prevent more gun deaths. The Republican-led Tennessee State House saw the interruption of proceedings as a violation of House decorum rules and eventually voted to expel Jones and Pearson from the legislature without the benefit of full due process. But the two were quickly reappointed to their district seats and easily won landslide victories in special elections.

In the latest unprecedented move by the same Tennessee House, the entire Board of Trustees at Tennessee State University was removed after a vote by the House, and Gov. Bill Lee signed the legislation into law. The Republican supermajority’s calls for a new board were based on multiple audit reports highlighting concerns about the mishandling of finances, housing, and scholarships.

The injustice comes from Tennessee State University, an 1890 land grant institution and the only HBCU in the state, being underfunded for 30 years. Students, alums, and the Black community at large should be aware of the history behind HBCUs and land-grant institutions. The original Morrill Act of 1862 established white-only land grant institutions to teach agricultural and mechanical arts. The Second Morrill Act of 1890 required that states choosing to open a second land-grant institution to serve Black students must provide equitable distribution of funds between their 1862 and 1890 land-grant institutions. Last year, a letter was sent to the governor of Tennessee from the U.S. Secretary of Education and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture regarding the inequitable funding for HBCUs.

The letter stated, “Tennessee State University, the 1890 land-grant institution in your state, while producing extraordinary graduates that contribute greatly to the state’s economy and the fabric of our nation, has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, the original Morrill Act of 1862 land-grant institution in your state, in large part due to unbalanced funding.” If the state funding per student for Tennessee State were equal to that of Tennessee-Knoxville, then TSU would have received an additional $2.1 billion over 30 years. One can easily say that the holding back of critical funding to the tune of $2.1 billion contributed greatly to the university’s financial woes.

This week, student leaders from TSU will engage faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and the community on the best ways to organize action. These same students should remember the example of Lewis when considering the unjust ways HBCUs are disenfranchised by lack of fair funding along with the attempts to dismantle HBCU leadership. It may be time for good trouble, necessary trouble when mobilizing alumni and supporters to defend HBCUs.

The state of Tennessee is not alone. The governor of Mississippi received a similar letter from the Biden administration regarding the inequitable funding for Alcorn State University for $257 million. Yet, in a recent state bill, Alcorn State was targeted for closure along with Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University. A total of 16 states received the letter from the Biden administration. It is a sign that HBCU students and alumni should actively lobby their state lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, to take the integral steps needed to close funding gaps for HBCUs, particularly when equitable funding is mandated by law.

David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization TRB: The Reconciled Body and the author of God Bless Our Divided America.