The Movement for Black Lives Is Standing Up for HBCUs

Politicians may talk a good game, but where is the national plan of action to grow and protect our HBCUs?

Graduates cheer as first lady Michelle Obama delivers the commencement speech during the Bowie State University graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland on May 17, 2013, in College Park, Md. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Of the 4,726 degree-granting institutions, 100 institutions educate and train almost 10 percent of black college students. Yet since their inception, HBCUs have been in a war for their very existence, whether facing Congress or state legislatures.

HBCUs have even found themselves repeatedly at odds with President Barack Obama. As economist and author Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College, said in an interview this summer with Roland Martin on the Obama administration, “There was insensitivity to HBCUs and a sense that we didn’t ‘deserve’ [federal] money.”

Still, during this election cycle, presidential candidates have used HBCUs as backdrops to garner the vote of black people, but none have shown dedication—present or past—to ensuring their sustainability and longevity. This lack of dedication to HBCUs is reflected in the policy platforms of both major political parties as well as many alternative political parties, where HBCUs are mentioned as an afterthought or not mentioned at all.

For example, Hillary Clinton’s campaign touted its plans to make the first two years of college free at public HBCUs, as well as give $25 billion to private HBCUs. Upon deeper analysis, her plan would actually be two free years of community college open to all American students, as well as $25 billion available to all 1,600 private colleges and universities in the country.

The Green Party, with its presidential nominee Jill Stein, merely states in a one-liner that it will support HBCUs, but it offers no substantive plan for how. And there’s zero mention of HBCUs by the ultraconservative Republican Party and Libertarian Party, which could mean that they’d prefer the eradication of these institutions, as they plan for so many government entities.

So where is the national plan of action to grow and protect our HBCUs?

In the absence of a comprehensive platform to address the needs of the black community, in August a coalition of more than 60 black-led organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Network, known collectively as the Movement for Black Lives, or M4BL, released their own platform entitled, “A Vision for Black Lives,” which addresses numerous inequities disproportionately affecting black people, including higher education and HBCUs. The M4BL coalition writes:

In recent years we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait. … We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.

In its policy platform, which is arranged into six sections, the Movement for Black Lives demands the following:

  • Tuition- and fee-free public college
  • Student-loan-debt forgiveness
  • The preservation of HBCUs through reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act, with increased and sustained funding for both public and private HBCUs
  • A mandate for state governments to match federal funding for HBCUs
  • The publicly funded expansion of undergraduate and graduate degree and certification offerings at HBCUs
  • Public funding for HBCUs to attract and retain staff and faculty
  • An increase in federal and state funding to HBCUs for building maintenance and upgrades, operational budgets and research
  • Ban the box” on college-admission and student-financial-aid applications
  • The expansion of the Second Chance Pell Grant to all individuals (juvenile and adult) currently incarcerated

More than 30 HBCU presidents currently support the movement, and the platform has already been endorsed by myriad other organizations, including over 67 remaining members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who are viewed as precursors to today’s black millennial organizers and activists.

In a recent interview, Ash-Lee Henderson, an organizer for Project South and member of the M4BL policy table leadership team, said, “[What] we know is that there’s a need for transformative justice, for demands that actually aren’t just Band-Aids on the big-issue problems that our communities are facing. And so, we wanted to put together a vision, a visionary platform, with transformative demands to not just reform the problem but to transform the way that black folks are able to live and thrive and support themselves in our communities.”

The Movement for Black Lives has released a timely proposal with legislative and executive actions to ensure the survival and success of our remaining 100 HBCUs. And with presidential candidates, and a soon-to-be-named president, struggling to connect with black millennials, the M4BL policy team has also given them ideas to build from if they so choose.

What remains to be seen is whether our elected and appointed officials will take note and have the gumption to be allies with black people and our illustrious institutions of higher education.

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