These first two lines of a song sung to the tune of “Down by the Riverside” by Howard University student protestors during a 1968 campus uprising capture the spirit of civic activism that has consistently defined a segment of the university’s student body.
Founded by an act of Congress in 1867 as the District's first institution of higher education to welcome African Americans, Howard students and professors have long engaged in political protests both on and off campus. Individually and collectively, their actions have contributed to the desegregation of public and private facilities in the city. In 1925, Howard's Glee Club and Choral Society walked out of a downtown theater upon discovering that the audience was segregated by race. Twelve years later, demands by the Howard community led to Marian Anderson's famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1934, Howard students staged a protest outside a national conference on crime after learning that lynching—the most serious criminal justice issue facing the country—was not to be addressed. Professors and students also waged a six-month campaign that year to desegregate the restaurants within the US Capitol building, where African Americans had once been welcome. After Ralph Bunche and history professor Charles Wesley were turned away, and a Howard junior was fired from his job as a waiter for serving a fellow student, he and others rallied a group of students to demand entrance to one of the Capitol's whites-only cafes. Police assaulted and arrested the students, while Congressional Democrats tarred them as communists and as a "a mob of toughs and hoodlums." The dining rooms would remain segregated until the early 1950s.
In 1943, law students Pauli Murray and Ruth Powell organized students to protest the segregation of commercial establishments, clinching a short-lived victory at Thompson’s Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW before Howard’s president Mordecai Johnson demanded an end to student sit-ins and picketing. In 1950, political science department chair Ralph Bunche and the Howard Teachers Union threatened to picket the National Theatre for barring African Americans, winning a temporary victory before the theater went back to its whites-only policy.
A 25-year old Howard divinity student named Laurence Henry led a group of Howard students, the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), in picketing the US Capitol in March 1960 to demand passage of a federal civil rights bill. Henry went on to lead successful sit-ins at restaurants and lunch counters in northern Virginia, Rockville, and Bethesda, where he sustained a picket line for 100 hours straight. Henry also initiated the campaign to desegregate Glen Echo, an amusement park in Montgomery County, Maryland. After being beaten and arrested there by police in early August 1960, he was released from jail after waging a hunger strike. When Glen Echo's owners continued to bar black patrons, Henry led a 12-hour overnight march to Baltimore, where NAG demanded a federal court injunction against the park. It finally desegregated the following spring.
Henry went on to work with another Howard student, Stokely Carmichael, to demand federal government support for integrated schools, voting rights, non-discrimination by entities with federal contracts, and removing Congressional barriers to the passage of civil rights laws.