The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security heard testimony Thursday about a wave of bomb threats against historically Black colleges and universities, including more than a dozen this month alone. February is Black History Month. More than 60 educational groups called on Congress this week to take immediate steps to support and protect HBCUs. We speak with legendary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose 2017 PBS film, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” documents the pivotal role HBCUs played in dismantling segregation after the Civil War and creating a Black middle class.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
This week marks more than 60 — rather, this week, more than 60 educational groups called on Congress to take immediate steps to support and protect historically Black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, after a wave of bomb threats against them. Federal authorities say more than a dozen HBCUs nationwide received bomb threats this month alone. February is Black History Month.
This is Dr. David Wilson, president of one of the HBCUs, Morgan State University, testifying Thursday at a congressional hearing on the violent intimidation.
DAVID WILSON: As a young Black boy growing up in rural, segregated, Jim Crow Alabama on a sharecropping plantation, who was not permitted to, of course, attend school full-time until I was in the seventh grade, I have experienced firsthand this type of trauma and this type of racial violence, if you will. And this is why I have devoted my entire career to providing educational leadership to campuses, to enable them to nurture the intellectual growth of Black students and not to stifle it.
And it is so unfortunate that there is so much hatred in our nation today being held by those who are trying to simply prevent HBCUs from educating a disproportionate number of Black students. Yes, the vast majority of these more than 100 institutions have been around since the mid-19th century. And from their inception, they have just simply been targets of domestic terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: David Wilson is president of Morgan State University, testifying remotely before the House committee. Just on Thursday, a bomb threat paused classes at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina before classes resumed at the 155-year-old school established shortly after the Civil War.
Today we spend the rest of the hour with the legendary documentarian Stanley Nelson, who’s made more than 30 films about the Black American experience, including a 2017 PBS documentary on the pivotal role played by historically Black colleges and universities in shaping Black life, creating a Black middle class and dismantling segregation. Nelson has received his first Oscar nomination for his new film about Attica, the prison uprising. We’ll talk about that in a minute, but, first, this trailer for Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: The question for African Americans has always been: What is education’s purpose? Who controls it? And what is the relationship of education to the broader aspirations of our people?
JONATHAN HOLLOWAY: The more the system denies you the chance to read and to write, the more that becomes a prize that you must have.
MICHAEL LOMAX: Black colleges were redefining what it meant to be Black in America. You were pursuing a career where intellect mattered.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: An educated Black population could not be an enslaved Black population.
PROTESTER: We want Black power!
JOHNNY PARHAM: If you weren’t out there demonstrating, then something had to be wrong with your school.
UNIDENTIFIED: We wanted freedom now. But whites were not prepared for any changes here.
MAN ON THE STREET: I think they should be kept out any way possible.
KIMBERLÉ CRENSHAW: A slaveholder could work a slave to death. He could rape a slave. He could do virtually anything but teach a slave how to read or write.
JOHNNETTA COLE: As soon as the war breaks out, the first thing they want is to get an education. They wanted those schools to be as free as possible from paternalism, from racism, whether subtle or blatant.
JESSIKA WARD: Movements are easily birthed on HCBUs’ campuses.
We must love and protect each other.
We’re all going through the same experience.
ALVERSIA WADE: HBCU is somewhere where I can be completely myself.
JOHNNY C. TAYLOR JR.: The Black college experience provides the place to be in the majority. That is such a unique and empowering experience.
CALVIN LONG: This HBCU experience has taught me that anything is possible as long as you have that one spark.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, the 2017 film by Stanley Nelson, one of the leading documentarians of the Black American experience.
Stanley, welcome back to Democracy Now! In a moment we’re going to talk about the film you’ve been nominated for an Oscar for, Attica, but can you talk about the significance of HBCUs and the threats they’re facing right through to today, this dramatic congressional hearing that took place yesterday on the bomb threats?
STANLEY NELSON: First off, Amy, thank you so much for having me on.
You know, the significance of HBCUs cannot be overstated. You know, it’s probably been the biggest pusher for African Americans to come into the middle class. My parents both went to HBCUs. You know, the significance of HBCUs can’t be — it’s just amazing.
And I think it’s really significant, because HBCUs, many of them, were formed right after the Civil War, and so they’ve been around for over 150 years. And I think the threat that they’re under now is really significant and really is almost — is really telling, because it’s kind of like where this country is, that 150 years after their formation, once again they’re under threat. When they were first formed in the 1870s, 1880s, they were burned and under threat. And now, 150 years later, they’re under threat again.
AMY GOODMAN: And how have HBCUs developed? What has changed over these years, and the role they play in American society, and the stress, especially during the pandemic, that these schools face?
STANLEY NELSON: I think one of the — it’s really interesting, because, in many ways, the role they play is very similar to the role they played early on. You know, they’ve always played a role for African Americans to get an education who might not get an education in any other way. So, when they were first formed, African Americans were not allowed in colleges. Today African Americans are allowed in colleges, but the grade school education, the high school education that African Americans get, so many times, is inferior. So, still HBCUs are a way for African Americans to go to college, and many of them then go on to mainstream institutions for graduate school and are kind off vaulted into the middle class. So, I think, in many ways, the role that they play is really similar for the role that they play historically.
AMY GOODMAN: And the development of Black leadership in the United States, the number of people who have gone who are leaders in all different professions.
STANLEY NELSON: Yeah. I mean, you know, we can name them, from Kamala Harris to W.E.B Du Dois, you know? So, they’ve played a huge role. And in so many ways — there’s one little bit of that clip you played — you know, they’re, in many ways, still like Wakanda for African Americans, you know? It’s a way for four years of your life to be in the majority, for four years of your life, maybe, just maybe, to be away from the racism and the racially charged atmosphere that’s so prevalent in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to your latest film, Attica, that’s streaming free on YouTube for Black History Month, that was just nominated for an Academy Award, your first, Stanley Nelson, leading documentarian. Stay with us.