The year was 1968 and Ulysses Doss remembers it well – the war in Vietnam, the Black Panthers and campus unrest. The day’s segregation remains a fresh memory, along with Richard Nixon’s election and the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. – a man Doss knew personally.
The nation was frail, bewildered and frightened, Doss said Friday when reflecting on the past. But from the turmoil, something magical happened, and he played an integral role in making it possible.
“I worked with King in Chicago and Saul Alinsky in Chicago, and I worked with Monsignor John Egan,” he said. “I came from a background where you could do it, so I felt we could do it here.”
Doss and the founding members and first students of the Black Studies Program launched in 1968 at the University of Montana gathered Friday to kick off their reunion, celebrating the successes they achieved in an unlikely place and to award the first ever Ulysses S. Doss Scholarship.
The civil rights movement found Montana the year the program was born. As Doss tells it, UM students marched into the office of President Robert Pantzer to demand a black faculty member. Doss happened to be on campus at the time, and when Pantzer offered him a job, he reluctantly accepted.
“It was obvious President Pantzer was under great pressure, and he didn’t quite know what to do with me,” said Doss. “He suggested I could be coach of the football team or instructor of humanities. I posted on my door that very day, ‘Director of Black Studies.’ ”
The program’s serendipitous start in 1968 made it the second black studies program established west of the Mississippi River. It seemed an implausible task, and recruiting students for class would become a full-time job, along with growing the program.
Doss also would need to fend off attacks from locals who weren’t happy with his goals.
“It didn’t take long before I was attacked by a radio announcer saying Missoula and UM didn’t need a Black Panther or a writhe maker in their midst,” Doss said. “I knew I couldn’t answer his lies, so I offered night classes to the public, offering the same lectures I gave in my classes.”
Attendance at the evening classes soared, as did understanding of black issues. And while the classes served to ease the community’s angst, it also helped supporters network, linking those with similar dreams of integration, equality and a more peaceful world.
Doss found early support in Judy McBride, who signed on to help grow the Black Studies Program. As Doss recruited black students from Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago, McBride worked to find them financial aid, work opportunities and places to live in Missoula.
“It truly was life changing to be surrounded by these bright, beautiful, wonderful African-American students who came from all over the U.S., not only to study here, but also to change the lives and hearts of those of us in Montana,” McBride said Friday.
Doss and McBride also received the support of John Nelson, the UM Lutheran campus minister, and his wife Juni, who served on the housing committee established for the task of finding the students places to live.
When the students arrived to look at a property, they were often told it was no longer available. The housing committee wasn’t pleased and members hatched a plan; they sent a white student to the same apartment, and when he returned with the rental receipt, the committee filed a charge against the landlord.
“He had to pay for the ad in the paper for the next two or three years saying it was illegal to discriminate in a rental,” Juni said to applause. “You students were brave and you were strong and you helped us see the way.”
While the students got an education at UM, Juni added, the state of Montana got an education on diversity and tolerance. The state was isolated, she said, and the civil rights movement – the turmoil and advances of 1968 – was happening somewhere else.
Doss and the students arriving for the Black Studies Program changed that, Juni said.
“I see you students as true pioneers, being willing to leave the inner city of Chicago, South Florida or Alabama, and come to Montana,” she said. “It’s the greatest favor they could have done for our state and our individual families. You made it possible for us to join your world.”
Many of those students attended Friday’s reunion, including Carl Franklin, who arrived at UM in 1970 from south central Los Angeles, and Frances McBurrows, who came to Missoula in 1969.
McBurrows had known Doss in Chicago – he’d been the pastor at her church. He recruited her and other students to UM.
“I was a little shocked when I got here,” McBurrows said. “People hadn’t really seen a black person. But it was a nice experience. We got to do some things I would not have been able to do back in Chicago.”
Among them, McBurrows went on to become UM’s first black homecoming queen. As for Franklin, he too learned the importance of diversity and tolerance.
“It’s an education you don’t get in an inner city,” he said. “You don’t experience the diversity and you don’t understand how to interact with those from different educational levels, backgrounds and ethnic groups. It was the best experience I ever had, just the experience of going to college.”
Forty-five years later, the Black Studies Program – now known as African-American Studies – continues to thrive at UM, surviving in a racially homogenous environment; thriving, Director of African-American Studies Tobin Shearer said, in place it shouldn’t.
Yet as the nation remembers the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington for jobs and freedom and the murder of four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Shearer said the program remains relevant in today’s world.
He said children in the black community continue to be denied the full promise of freedom from oppression, the promise of freedom from racism, and the promise of freedom from violence.
“We carry the promise and grief as we move forward,” Shearer said. “We explore the past that led to the promise, and the contemporary reality that continues to so often deny it. We will thrive as long as that promise remains unfulfilled.”
Doss listened quietly as the speakers talked about the program’s genesis so long ago, and its relevance in today’s world. When asked what he made of the programs success and the changes he brought, he grinned and reflected on it all, but said the work remains unfinished.
“Those 45 years, the biggest difference has been that we now have an African-American president,” said Doss. “No one would even consider that in my day. But I can’t say things are the way I would like them to be.”
“I couldn’t do it again today – I wouldn’t even consider it,” Doss added. “I wouldn’t consider the task. It was too big, but I was young.”