Students at the nation’s historically black colleges are using the outcry that emerged from Ferguson Monday night to push for a unified front to address systemic racism. The announcement that a St. Louis County grand jury would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting death of Michael Brown was met with outrage and disappointment on many of the campuses, along with a resolve to take action.

Nearly 200 students attended a vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr. international chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta Monday night. In Washington, students from Howard University, along with those from other local schools, gathered in front of the White House to protest the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson for fatally shooting the unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9.

“Students are very frustrated," said Leighton Watson, president of Howard's student government association. "The general consensus is that everyone wants to do something.” 

The grand jury decision was emotional for many students given that Brown was only 18 when he was killed. “I was in shock, I was in disbelief," said Mary Pickard, president of the student government association at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta. "I put trust in a system that I don't feel like is protecting me and my community… We are filled with anger and rage, and finally, I think, we are fed up."

As much grief and rage as the decision inspired, Pickard said it will also help to catalyze much-needed action from historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs. “You are really going to see HBCUs coming together as a collective," she said. "This is a time when we need to show that we're not going to be passive and idle, to show that we stand in solidarity.”


Historically black colleges and universities are higher education institutions established before 1964, during segregation, whose primary mission is the education of African-American students. An estimated 9 percent of all African-American college students attend HBCUs, according to the Thurgood Marshall Fund.

The historic responsibility of these institutions to form black leaders and bring about change is not one that students take lightly, said Camille Henderson, a senior at Spelman. “To be able to come to these institutions, we realize that we have a responsibility to go back to where we come from to combat issues like the unequal distribution of justice," she said. "We will be sure to take matters into our own hands.”

HBCUs have already shown that they can make a contribution to activism, said Watson. “We’ve seen that movements can originate from our campuses that can affect campuses across the nation,” he said, pointing to a recent photo of Howard students posing with their hands raised, a reference to the stance that Brown assumed, according to some witness reports. The photo went viral in August when it was posted, becoming a symbol of solidarity after Brown’s shooting, according to USA Today.



Building solidarity is a particularly pronounced theme among students at the moment, said Pickard. “I have spoken to other presidents at other HBCUs and we have taken on this mantra: ‘If my brother is in jail, I'm in jail. If my brother is not free, I'm not free.’"

Watson said student leaders at all of the major HBCUs are staying closely in touch through the use of messaging apps like GroupMe to strategize their response going forward. “The conventional methods of response are not going to be enough in this case. This doesn’t mean we need more extreme methods, just different ones,” he said. 

One idea that has been proposed is a boycott of Black Friday by the black community, a proposal Watson said is getting mixed responses from activists at Howard. “We're still deciding if that's the direction we want to go in,” he said. “We have to look at the funding streams for the institutions that are failing us and figure out how to hit these institutions where they hurt.”

It’s not just students who are thinking of ways to make a difference. The administration at Harris Stowe State University, a historically black school in Missouri, is creating a social justice institute, according to St. Louis Public Radio. It's aimed at addressing underlying issues of racism, an important step in helping to deal with the different forms of discrimination that exist, said university President Dwaun Warmack.

“We don't have a legal system to fall back on as a black community, so we have to lift each other up as a community,” said Pickard. “Though we might not have seen justice yesterday, as a community we are not going to let Michael Brown die in vain.”