Remembering 50th anniversary of civil rights push by ECU students

Published: Jul. 30, 2019 at 4:37 PM EDT
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1969 was a tumultuous and historic year in the U.S. with many 50th anniversaries being observed this year and summer.

Earlier this month we marked the moon landing, and next month marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

1969 was also a turning point for the civil rights movement, and it was playing out on college campuses, including ECU.

The faded pages and the black and white pictures of the East Carolinian from 1969 tell the story of the push for equality. They are memories that are still vivid for Thomas Enoch, one of only about 100 African-American students at ECU at the time.

Enoch says, "It was agitating but it wasn't no racial violence, ya know."

Carl Davis was also a student back then. He says, "The mood of campus was stirred up for lack of a better term."

Not satisfied with the progress, a group of African-American students, including Enoch, marched to President Leo Jenkins home on 5th Street.

ECU Historian Dr. John Tucker says, "He was completely taken by surprise, but rather than retreat, rather than stay inside his house and call the authorities to restore order, he goes out and speaks to the students."

Enoch says, "We were totally non-violent, we just wanted to make some inroads and we had a list of demands."

One of the demands was ending the playing of the song Dixie at sporting events. The issue went to a referendum and students indeed voted to ban it.

To address other issues like hiring black instructors, creating a black studies program, and recruiting black students, Dr. Jenkins called a campus wide gathering of all students and faculty. He talked about the need for restraint and moderation, and said changes would come through established university channels.

Tucker says, "And it's there that you have a group of students, primarily African-American students, walking out when they heard Jenkins' remarks."

Patrick Cash, Assistant University Archivist says, "There's really an entire month period where they're fighting with administration. They're going into meetings. They're meeting directly with President Jenkins, the school officials, and they refuse to back down."

Davis says what was happening at ECU was really a reflection of America. He says, "We saw a lot of things on television, whether it was civil rights, or Martin Luther King, or Kennedy assassination a year before that, a lot of those things were played out on television and I think we focused on that. We reacted to that."

1969 was certainly a year of change at ECU. It was even acknowledged in a letter from President Nixon to the graduating class that year.

In it, he writes to the students, what you do, "Will help determine the shape of the future of your nation and the world."

Cash says, "It really kind of fits in saying yes, you're moving this country forward, you're making this country better for everyone when they really did."

And while it did take time, over the years, more and more of the demands were met. Tucker says, "You do see major changes occurring at East Carolina."

It was a time in history that had a lasting impact on ECU and the students.

Davis, who became a broadcast engineer and served on many ECU boards, said of his years at ECU, They taught me more about people and relationships and those sorts of things than I ever learned in a classroom."

Enoch says his time at ECU, "Opened my eyes to a lot of stuff and then I became kind of active, but it was all peaceful."

There was an incident where Enoch and three other students were charged with assault. Newspaper reports say they were arrested at a demonstration. Enoch said they were trying to stop an assault on an African-American soldier.

The charges were dropped, but the students were expelled from ECU. Enoch did go on to a junior college and then became a police officer in Washington D.C.

To read more about the list of demands the students made you can click on the related link. you can also read the entire letter from President Nixon.