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Conklin Hall “Liberator” Returns to Rutgers-Newark to Teach a New Generation of Activists

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Vickie Donaldson

One of the Conklin Hall “liberators” returns to Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N) to teach a new fall 2019 undergraduate course in the same building she helped takeover with other African-American student activists more than 50 years ago. “Race, Poverty and Protest” is a historical and contemporary overview of the issues of race, its impacts on poverty, and its manifestations of protest in contemporary America. RU-N has selected no better person to teach the new course than Vickie Donaldson given the course’s close examination of the 1969 nonviolent student takeover of Conklin Hall to challenge the institutional racism then prevalent at Rutgers University.

Fittingly, the class convenes in Conklin Hall, Room 346, just a short distance from the hub of the 1969 takeover. The course is being offered by both the Federated Department of History and the Department of African American and African Studies of the School of Arts and Sciences–Newark.

Donaldson is an alumna of the College of Arts and Sciences–Newark and Rutgers Law School. She and 15 other members of the Black Organization of Students (BOS) took control of Conklin Hall in February 1969 to protest nonviolently RU-N’s scarcity of African-American students and faculty, and dearth of diverse academic programs.

“Our main demand was for Rutgers-Newark to admit more black students. Back then, black students had to be overly qualified to earn admission,” stated Donaldson.

Case in point, in 1968, Donaldson and other African-American students at Rutgers-Newark actively recruited black students from local high schools to disprove Rutgers’s contention that black students were underrepresented at the university because they lacked college-readiness. According to Donaldson, of the students she helped to recruit and get admitted, more than 25 percent made Phi Beta Kappa.

BOS decided to take control of Conklin Hall only after the university shunned their attempts at achieving fairness and equity through written demands.

“Our position was simple: if black students could not attend the state university, then no students should be allowed to attend the university.”

The standoff lasted more than 72 hours and is credited as the impetus for RU-N’s current status as the most racially and ethnically diverse national university in the country for the past 22 consecutive years, according to U.S. News & World Report.

A product of the South during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, Donaldson’s activism took root at an early age, training her efforts on the voting rights of disenfranchised African Americans. Fearless, she mustered the courage as a teenager to register voters even in the face of shotgun-wielding antagonists.

With Donaldson’s harrowing experiences, however, came some bright moments and encounters.

“I sang in the Freedom Choir for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Donaldson recalled fondly.

With the activist seed firmly planted, Donaldson has spent her entire adult life in advocacy and service to others in one capacity or another. She has been a director for homeless programs in Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Los Angeles (Watts), California. Donaldson also served as the first woman general counsel for Newark Public Schools; executive director of Newark Mini Surgi Site, New Jersey’s first licensed free-standing ambulatory surgical center; and program director and deputy legal counsel for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national civil rights organization. She currently operates an independent consultancy for social services programs.

Donaldson’s vast experiences inform the curriculum for “Race, Poverty and Protest.” According to the syllabus, in addition to the exploration of the Conklin Hall takeover, the course outcomes include an understanding of:

  • the definitions of public policy and race and their operation in American politics, economics, and social systems;
  • how race shapes core values in American politics and their manifestation in legal, political, and social systems;
  • poverty as a manifestation of American public policy;
  • protest movements in American history and how they emanated from American social, economic, and political public policy; and
  • protest organization and strategy with a close examination of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement.

“The course is really about public policy and is an exercise in critical thinking,” shared Donaldson. “I look forward to facilitating discussions on the equitable distribution of limited resources among the haves and the have nots, and how public policy drives all of these issues.”