North Carolina’s HBCU students are leaders in building a democracy for all

RALEIGH – One of the crown jewels of North Carolina is our world-class system of higher education. Among these stellar institutions are our Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

We are one of the top states for HBCU enrollment, with 10 schools serving 40,000 students. These HBCUs are essential to the strength of North Carolina, producing outstanding engineers, attorneys, educators, artists, entrepreneurs and leaders who help shape the destiny of our country.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we recall the rich legacy of brave student activists, of past and present, at North Carolina’s HBCUs who have played a crucial part in the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, championing equality and justice for all.

An early example came in February of 1960, when four freshmen at NC A&T State University sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro to defy segregation. Their courageous act sparked a student-led, nationwide sit-in movement that challenged the evils of white supremacy.

That same year, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded on the campus of another North Carolina HBCU, Shaw University in Raleigh. The organization would play a central role in engaging young people in the cause of civil rights.

In these and countless other examples, HBCU students have changed the course of history. The torch is now in the hands of today’s generation. We wish the battle against systemic racism and oppression were things of the past, but we know they are not. We’ve seen repeated attempts at voter suppression in recent years, and new threats loom.

In 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a core part of the Voting Rights Act, the Republican-controlled NC General Assembly rammed through a bill that rolled back voting access in our state. A federal judge later noted that the proposal targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Thanks to a broad coalition of grassroots advocacy groups, students and everyday people standing up and fighting back, that voter suppression scheme was overturned in court.

In 2016, the GOP-led legislature once again gerrymandered our state’s voting maps. In doing so, lawmakers split the campus of NC A&T State University – the nation’s largest HBCU – into two different congressional districts, fracturing the voting power of that predominantly Black community. Students at NC A&T spoke out, organized and joined the effort to strike down the discriminatory district lines. In 2019, a state court case resulted in the maps being redrawn, and the NC A&T campus was reunited into a single congressional district.

Time and again, HBCU students have been at the forefront of defending democracy, but the work is not done. The former president and his most radical supporters continue to spread destructive lies about the 2020 election as a pretense to undercut ballot access for Black and brown Americans.

We must act now to protect voting rights and our Constitution. In North Carolina, we must demand that legislators reject efforts to enact barriers to the ballot box.

At the federal level, Congress should immediately pass the For the People Act. This is a transformative and comprehensive bill that addresses voting rights and election administration, money in politics, government transparency and ethics. The For the People Act includes provisions for automatic voter registration, strengthening ballot access and establishing independent redistricting commissions to end racial and partisan gerrymandering.

The eyes of history are upon us. We must carry on the legacy of standing against suppression and pursuing justice. Together, we can build a democracy that so many dreamed of and worked for – a democracy for us all.

Michael Spencer is the College Outreach Program Manager with Common Cause NC, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.