The Dudley/A&T Uprising of May 1969: A Uniquely American Story of Oppression and Resistance

The history of America and its development as a “Democracy” is a story of oppression and resistance. America was created through armed resistance to tyranny and oppression. The birth of America represents a victory over the exploitation of man by man from feudalism and monarchy. American Democracy, however, does have several significant contradictions: at the same time the Founders declared, “all men are created equal,” in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Founders also organized the systematic extermination of the Native Americans, the theft of their land and most remarkably, the imposition modern slavery. The more perfect union envisioned by the Founders and so nobly articulated in the US Constitution of 1787 did not include rights for the Native Americans, Blacks, Women or Poor whites. Guerrilla warfare by the Native Americans stopped their extermination, slave rebellions and the victory of the North over the South in the American Civil War ended the practice of chattel slavery, and sustained protest brought women political rights and the franchise. One of the most important lessons one can learn from an examination of American History is: the expansion American Democracy, civil liberties and civil rights is possible as a result of social struggle and political conflict between those who represent the status quo and those who work for social change. This struggle is never fully terminated and there are many missing pages in the history of social struggle in America.

One of the forgotten battles in the struggle to expand democracy and civil rights in America is the Dudley/A&T Uprising of May 1969. A simple student council election at a segregated public high school would be the catalyst to spark the black community of Greensboro, North Carolina, to resist racism, class exploitation and the denial of basic rights. While the 1960 Greensboro Sit-Ins at the Woolworth Lunch Counter are well know and recognized as a critical component of the struggle to eliminate Jim Crow segregation in the south, the sit-ins did not challenge the basic configuration of power nor did the sit-ins challenge the cultural assumptions under-girding racial inequality. Not surprisingly, racial discrimination in employment, housing, public education and public affairs continued in new ways.

The Black Power Movement evolved out of the black community’s effort to continue to fight racial exploitation. New leaders such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, Leroy Jones and Howard Fuller captured the imagination of young black people across the country. The ideology of black power was more strident, demanding and impatient with the pace of social change. Young people wanted their freedom right away and not in the distant future. This sea change in ideological perspective helps to explain why the later part of the 60s and 70s witnessed more than 750 major urban and student rebellions.

The Dudley/A&T Uprising is a part of the wave of black student revolt that swept the country in the 60s and early 70s. Students from all black James B. Dudley High School challenged the results of a student council election that denied ballot access to their preferred candidate. The administration did not want and did not allow Claude Barnes name on the ballot because he was considered a militant and sympathetic to the views of organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP). Disappointed students decided to peacefully protest the school administration’s refusal to honor the wishes of the students. Unfortunately the actions of the students were met with official indifference, tear gas, police brutality, arrest, court injunctions and character assassination. Students continued their protest for weeks and were stopped by excessive use of force by local law enforcement. When the high school students sought assistance by walking over to the local HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University, they were embraced by their older brothers and sisters. It seemed as if no one else would listen to the concerns of the high school students but the older students. North Carolina A&T Students as well as black leaders attending the founding conference of the Student Organization of Black Unity (SOBU) came to the aid of the high school students and the protests escalated to include the concerns of the black community of Greensboro. Demands of the protesters now included the issues of community control of local institutions, the absence of black studies in the public schools and in the universities, the destruction of black neighborhoods by official redevelopment policies, the lack of affordable housing, the lack of good job opportunities and the lack of effective political representation. As the protests continued the city was placed under a curfew, one A&T student, Willie Ernest Grimes was killed and more than 650 North Carolina National Guard Troops were called in by the city officials to restore order.

Walls That Bleed: The Story of the Dudley/A&T Uprising is the first documentary to bring the story of the Dudley/A&T Uprising out of the dust bin of history. The actions of student and activists of this era continued the paved the way for black people seeking public office at every level today. The opportunities and rights available to the current generation of young people were made possible through the blood, sweat, tears, protests and sacrifice of people who were young forty years ago. One of the key objectives of the documentary is to begin to fill in the missing pages of the Civil Rights Movement and recover the untold stories of unsung heroes and heroines.

-Claude W. Barnes, Ph.D.

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