When the student organization Allied Blacks for Liberty & Equality (ABLE) was founded at Knox College in 1968, the political atmosphere on campus was charged. ABLE was founded by a few of the ten black students enrolled at Knox at the time. Since then, ABLE still faces many of the same challenges as they did 50 years ago.
Alumni Jeanne Franks ‘71, Brenda Butler ‘71 and Semenya McCord ‘71 were invited back to the Knox campus on Feb. 22 to host a panel discussing their experiences as students at Knox, as well as their experience starting the ABLE club. To a crowd of over 20 people, they recalled 1968 as being a politically turbulent time period. In particular, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on April 4 that year was a defining moment in each of their college lives.
“I just wanted to be a regular college student, but that spring of 1968 my whole life changed when Dr. King was assassinated. It just really took me to a different place. I left Knox that year with straight hair as a Pi [Beta] Phi. I came back with an afro and I started doing [ABLE],” Franks said.
ABLE aimed to seize the change they needed — starting with the Knox College campus. Franks, Butler and McCord remember how schools across the country were struggling with racial integration. Butler herself had gone to an all black high school in Texas before she came to Knox College. She too felt like 1968 was a pivotal year in her life.
“Lots of things were happening, Dr. King had just gotten assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging. John Podesta, as you all know was in our class year, was very active in the anti-war movement. Not only were we forming the black student organization, ABLE, but we were also protesting the war,” Butler said.
Butler recalled a particular instance when Podesta ‘71, Butler and another student planted crosses in front of Old Main and a hung an effigy to protest the war. She also recalled a time when her, Franks and McCord drove up to Carleton College located in Northfield, Minn. in order to be part of a protest. Black students from Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) had organized an event inspired by the lack of diversity at their schools. Butler felt like Knox had similar issues in diversity as many of the colleges across the Midwest, despite Knox priding itself on its abolitionist roots.
“There were only seven black students in our class, but not many more on campus and there were 1,300 students on campus. By that time a lot of black writers were proliferating in the market, but there were no African American studies,” said Butler.
Butler paused to say that she recalled Professor of English Robin Metz had taught a course that could have been categorized as an African American studies course, but that there were no black professors on campus. The panelist believed this was an issue that Knox needed to resolve. After attending the ACM protest, they vowed to go back to Knox and take their education into their own hands.
“The idea was to go back to our colleges and make change, institute change and that’s what we did,” Butler said. “That’s when we formed the organization [ABLE], that’s when we made the demands: we wanted a cultural center.”
Butler recalled that her joining ABLE became a problem for her as a member of Pi Beta Phi. Many of her white sisters left the organization and started a new sorority, all while cutting ties with Butler.
“One of our demands was to ask for a counselor or some staff member. Black students would come [to ABLE] and say they feel totally lost. [Knox] was totally foreign to a lot of black students that came,” Franks said. “One of my roles was to make the incoming freshman class feel comfortable. For some it felt like a totally unfriendly environment.”
To this day, ABLE does not have a counselor or advisor for their club on staff. However, sophomore and co-President of ABLE Niky Washington stated that the Center for Intercultural Life and the Africana Studies department play large roles as faculty leaders and organizers.
Many of the panelists discussed having to put themselves in uncomfortable situations as minorities. Visiting Instructor of Africana Studies Professor Kwame Zulu Shabazz proposed to the panel that the current climate of inequality relative to race centers around the fact that too much is asked for from people of color, and not enough from white people.
“Black freedom has been always worked out on white terms; which means that white people aren’t expected to sacrifice anything. And to get out of this cycle, we have to reverse that. We have to insist that white people go into other spaces, and stop demanding that we do,” Shabazz said. “[Frank] used the language [that black people] have a higher tolerance — true; but why are black people always expected to have a higher tolerance?”
Sharing a similar point of view, Washington stated that non-black student involvement is one area in which the ABLE of today is lacking. She believes this is because there is a misconception that ABLE is only for black students to participate in.
“I’d like to see a lot more other students come to learn about ABLE and the history and to hear black students talk about their experiences, too,” Washington said. “I feel like when it comes to any cultural club, you can come in and you’re bringing something, too; even if you’re not black, you’re still bringing in your own culture that can have parallels sometimes, or even differences that are really important to note.”
According to Washington, students sharing their experiences is one positive constant that has remained across the variety of issues that have affected the black community over the years. The weekly Thursday meetings at 7 p.m. at ABLE House work as a platform for students to navigate dialogue on social, political and educational issues regarding race. Above all, ABLE wants to work as a service to students.
Besides the panel discussion, current ABLE members are organizing events throughout the calendar year of 2018-2019 to commemorate 50 years of ABLE. One upcoming event called “Black Hair Curls” will host a dialogue on black hair experiences. ABLE will host this event in Ferris Lounge on Thursday, March 1 at 7 p.m.
Regarding the future of ABLE, Washington expressed wishes to keep the club on the track it is on now. They hope to continue the pattern of collaborating with organizations on-campus, keeping the old crowd coming, and welcoming both new and frequent faces in each meeting
“I think that’s my one hope,” Washington said. “That we expand our audience, and we have more black students coming, and that other students feel welcomed to come into ABLE.”