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Plaques were long overdue

By Frank Shyong

May 27, 2010 9:00 p.m.

I’ve walked by Campbell Hall hundreds of times on the way to class, but incredibly, I’d never heard the names of Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Jerome Huggins Jr. until a few weeks ago.

Carter and Huggins were UCLA students and leaders in the Black Panther Party. On Jan. 17, 1969, they were shot to death in Campbell Hall by an unknown assailant. It’s not information they give out on the official tour and the university has avoided any sort of official recognition of their deaths for 41 years.

The students of Professor Mary Corey’s seminar, the Memory Project, have been trying to right this wrong this past quarter as a class project. They funded the two plaques with money from their own pockets, negotiated with university officials and organized the event.

On Tuesday, the plaques were presented in a ceremony on the steps of Campbell Hall with the families and friends of the two murdered students in the audience, which also included many former Black Panthers. The plaques will eventually be hung in two locations ““ on Campbell Hall’s facade, and the other outside of the room where Huggins and Carter were shot.

I think I speak for a large part of this campus when I say this: finally.

The plaques represent the recognition of the historical significance of Carter’s and Huggins’ deaths. We’ve given them shape and form in the plaques, incorporated them into our built environment and, in doing so, made them an integrated part of our university’s history and our collective social consciousness. This is not an endorsement of their politics or methods, but of their significance in the larger context of a long struggle for civil rights ““ one of the most significant social movements of the 20th century.

Carter and Huggins, though controversial, were vital beacons in that movement. Whatever you think of their methods and politics, the Black Panthers sparked social movements for Chicano rights and womens’ rights, and are a constitutive part of the academic study of race and identity in universities all over the world today.

I attended the event alongside family members of the murdered students and many former Black Panthers. The mood was celebratory and decidedly uncontroversial. When the plaques were displayed, I saw peaceful expressions on the faces of many in attendance. A line of young black men and women stood clad in black fatigues with their fists raised in the air, and there was a conspicuous lack of a significant university presence.

I left with a lot of questions: Why did an event of this importance take 41 years to occur? And why was there no significant university presence beyond that of Charles J. Alexander, director of the Academic Advancement Program?

An event of such historical significance on the campus demands the presence of Chancellor Gene Block, or at the very least, a university official directly beneath him.

I recognize that the Black Panthers had political ideas and methods so controversial that the mere mention of their name was political poison. But it’s been 41 years, and controversy doesn’t give us license to deny history. Although the Vietnam War was arguably as controversial and supported by less than half the nation at one point, we erected the memorial five years after its end.

When image and politics become more important than recognition of history and acknowledgment of tragedy, corporate rationality has overcome intellectual responsibility. A university doesn’t exist to perpetuate itself, to rise in the U.S. News and World Report rankings and get positive headlines in newspapers. It should be responsive to our passions, our ideals and our history.

As students, we cannot just attend this university. We should not be passive participants in the corporate vision that is UCLA. What we feel, think and are should be reflected by the university.

Although there is a constant dialectic, a push and pull that determines our university’s identity, Bunchy Carter and John Jerome Huggins were UCLA students and the university has a responsibility to recognize that.

I want my university to be a place that can neutrally integrate controversial ideologies such as those of the Black Panthers and recognize their historical importance, just as the University of California at Berkeley embraces its contentious past of activism. This is but the first step.

Now, when the official tour for prospective students passes Campbell Hall, the tour guides may not say anything about Carter and Huggins. But at least one prospective student will see their names on the plaque on the facade of the building, and when they do, I hope they’ll start asking some questions.

E-mail Shyong at [email protected]

Send general comments to [email protected]

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