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Violence Isn’t New for Black People Trying to Get an Education

After bomb threats at HBCUs nationwide, professors discuss past and present dangers.

Howard University campus
On February 1, at least 14 HBCUs received bomb threats. The FBI identified six people suspected of making the threats, which authorities are investigating as hate crimes. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Black educators are on edge amid a flurry of political attacks and violent threats on the institutions, curricula, and books at the center of their work. From the bomb threats on Black college campuses to the legislative bans on teaching “critical race theory,” the assaults on Black learning are raising uncomfortable ghosts of historical efforts to obstruct Black people’s access to knowledge.

On the first day of Black History Month, Spelman College was one of at least 14 HBCUs that received a bomb threat. It was the second one at the school in a month. The Federal Bureau of Investigation identified six people suspected of making the threats, which authorities are investigating as hate crimes.

The threats come as across the country, lawmakers introduce legislation aimed at cracking down on critical race theory, a high-level academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in American policies and legal systems that is primarily taught in law schools. 

Adrienne Brown, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, said it’s not unreasonable to link the bomb threats with the discussion of race in schools being limited by lawmakers across the country.

“The tension and the tenor of potential violence, I think, has risen significantly,” Brown said. “This can get so much worse.”

 The FBI found no evidence of explosives on the targeted campuses. Despite that, the threat brought Anthony Jackson, a professor at Bowie State University in Maryland – one of the schools threatened – nearly to tears. 

“When you think of a bomb, you think of the potential to cause catastrophic destruction,” he said. “I think that is the sentiment that continues to echo when people hear ‘bomb.’ The potential to cause catastrophic destruction.”

Some HBCU professors say they can’t help but note the historical significance of using bombs to threaten Black life. Explosives have been used in instances of white supremacist violence against Black establishments from the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma, to the MOVE group bombing at the hands of the Philadelphia Police Department. 

On Sept. 15, 1963, just 11 days after a federal order to integrate Alabama’s racially segregated schools, a bomb detonated under the girl’s bathroom at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. The church was a meeting place of the civil rights movement where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders would meet. A known member of the Ku Klux Klan was charged with murders and initially received a six month sentence and a $100 fine. A further FBI investigation found that three more men were responsible for the bomb – one of them didn’t get charged and sentenced until 2000. 

“1963 wasn’t that long ago,” said Zoe Spencer, a professor of sociology at Virginia State University, an HBCU in Petersburg, Virginia. She is also an alumna of Howard University, which was a target of the threats. 

 As more information becomes known, Spencer said she believes it’s best to remain vigilant. 

“I think it’s dangerous, as a whole, to view the threats as nonthreatening because it is an act of racial terror,” Spencer said. “What happens when you do so many and then people put their guard down and then there is a bombing, right? We all assume that it’s not going to happen to us. But it has happened many, many times before, from bombing Black Wall Street to bombing the Birmingham church.” 

Spencer said the disruption of education at a Black college, which stands as a symbol of resistance to white supremacy, is enough.

“Even if there are no bombings, even if no bombs go off, every time you call in a bomb threat, you’re disrupting the educational process of the students,” she continued. “So the university has to close down. People are not able to go to class and so people are missing out on valuable class time.” 

Considering the integral role students at HBCUs played during the civil rights era, it makes the threat of a bomb even more alarming. At the Atlanta University Center in the 1960s, the Atlanta Student Movement marched, boycotted and conducted sit-ins to express frustration at the city’s slow pace of integration. 

The tradition of activism continued during the Black Lives Matter movement, with groups like AUC Shut it Down, who protested former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s arrival at Clark Atlanta University in 2015 during her second run for president. The group demanded Clinton address the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying she had previously failed to do so adequately.

As more Black students choose HBCUs over predominantly white institutions, Brown wonders if the latest developments will deter them from doing so in the future. 

“Fear of violence, I think, does make people self-regulate,” Brown said. “‘OK, so maybe I won’t vote. OK, so maybe I won’t try to go to this institution. Or another, because I won’t be welcomed there. And maybe it’s extremely dangerous for me.’” 

But violence is nothing new for students at HBCUs who are trying to get an education. In 1970 at Jackson State University in Mississippi, one of the schools recently threatened, two Black people were shot by white police officers. It happened in the wake of protests on May 14, 1970, as students were protesting the Nixon administration’s extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. After falsely claiming they saw a sniper, police opened fire, killing pre-law major Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, high school student James Earl Green, and injuring nearly a dozen more. 

Philosophical threats

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing protests for racial justice, conservative lawmakers across the country have introduced bills or passed laws aimed at limiting discussion about racism in grades K-12, sometimes even invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name while doing so. In Georgia, lawmakers introduced House Bill 888, which would penalize schools for teaching about race. CRT is used by proponents of these measures as a catch-all to describe a range of topics — from America’s history of racism to racial underpinnings of current events. 

“The point of critical race theory is not to be divisive, the point of critical race theory is to investigate the idea that people are experiencing particular things because of our history of racial discrimination,” Brown said. “And that it pervades.” 

The HBCU is one of the last standing institutions rooted in anti-racist education. Schools saw enrollment growth following nationwide protests in the wake of Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. For some, the bomb threats are seen as a response to racial progress following the movement. 

“HBCUs are anchor institutions that are designed to build up the Black community,” Jackson said. “We are the intellectual helm.” 

Jackson also calls the HBCU, “an apparatus of higher learning that is steeped in revolutionary, transformative culture that promotes social justice and activism, and critiques institutions, systems, and structures that benefit from whiteness from the ideology of white supremacy.” 

The discussions around CRT, Spencer said, were never about the legal theory as much as it is about progressive gains made in education, like statewide efforts for culturally responsive teaching and funding for more counselors across the country, sparked by the George Floyd movement. 

“When you’re talking about the bomb threats, it’s not really a matter of CRT, but it’s a matter of the misinterpretation and the reason why they misinterpreted CRT,” she said. “The propaganda around CRT is really about disrupting diversity, equity, [and] inclusion work, anti-racism work, work against resisting white supremacy. That’s what the threat is to the power structure.”

She also added that CRT is “interwoven” into curriculums at many HBCUs because, “the HBCU is really the center of anti-racism work.”

It’s why Jackson, a former student of Spencer’s at Virginia State, chose to continue his education at Black colleges. 

“My people need to continuously be built up by people that really look like me,” Jackson said. “[People] that are going to show up even when things are difficult… and show them what resilience looks like, even though they know it all too well.”