Contested Histories in Public Spaces

The IHJR Contested Histories in Public Spaces examines responses by governments, corporations and academic institutions to complex historic legacies with the intent of identifying best practices and potential guidelines.

In August 2016, the IHJR initiated a global survey of protest movements related to slavery and colonial-era legacies at institutions of higher education. The survey outlines the general parameters for analysis of these movements, focusing on their performativity- parallels and discontinuities within the broader phenomenon – in order to permit a nuanced evaluation of their collective potency as a loosely affiliated global movement.

The survey examines the globalizing role of digital and new media in facilitating this pattern of development. At the same time, it underscores several discontinuities that disrupt the common held view that these protests are (1) a new phenomenon, (2) an expression of left-wing student radicalism, and (3) a global phenomenon.

Drawn from media reports and university websites, the survey reviews recent student protests in the UK and US campuses related to their respective universities legacy to exploitation of slaves, colonialism and/or segregation. In some cases protests targeted statues, symbols, naming of buildings, or more general administrative policies considered by the students to exemplify racism. The survey is not meant to be exhaustive but simply illustrative of recent developments related to student activism on this topic and responses by university administrations. A series of illustrative case studies will be developed based on the survey findings.

Max Harris opening the conference on Christopher Codrington in the Old Library at All Souls College, Oxford. Harris and co-organizer, Arthur Asseraf (left) are Examination Fellows at All Souls.

Preliminary Conclusions
A New Phenomenon?

On the 9th of March 2015, Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), a student-led protest movement, erupted on the campus of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, as students demanded removal of a statue that commemorated the business magnate and ardent support of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Since then, the RMF has expanded to the United Kingdom, with similar movements against historical and racial injustice both in Europe and North America.

In The United States, student protests at institutions of higher education have resulted in demands for the decolonization of curricula,institutional acknowledgement of complicity for past historical injustices, removal of symbols and signage associated with historical wrongs, and greater advocacy for minority welfare and representation on campus.

Contrary to common opinion, issues of colonial legacies and historical injustices had not been absent from student campuses before RMF or RMFO. In University College London, for example, the “Why Is My University White?” (WIMUW) movement was a largely successful campaign to diversify the student body and the curriculum waged in 2014, a year before RMF erupted in South Africa. The UCL campaign had substantial institutional backing and manifested in a new MA program tailored specifically to the issue. WIMUW subsequently spread to other UK universities including LSE and Warwick. In Bristol, grassroots movement to confront the city’s colonial legacies had emerged in 2014 as well. RMF’s contribution has been rather to bring these issues to the forefront of media attention, which has energized formerly latent activists in Europe and America. In the United States, the University of Texas has worked for several decades to overcome its history as a segregated university. In March 2015 the student government voted to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy and a slave owner, prominently placed in the center of campus and relocate it to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

On April 9, 2015, a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the campus of Capetown University following student protests related to colonial-era legacies.

Student Radicalism?

A common misconception is that the movement is a manifestation of radical leftist student activists.

Movements that have been successful on the contrary have resource-pooled with members of the faculty and other important figures to lobby the administration. In the University of Missouri, the breaking point was when the college football team, with permission of the football coach, refused to practice until the demands of the student on hunger striker was met. Similarly, in the case of Harvard Law School, it was the combined effort of a committee that included faculty and students, which contributed to the logo change.

Image used in the student protest against slavery-related iconography on the Harvard Law School escutcheon

A Global Phenomenon?

Splinter movements of RMF in South Africa have made attempts to draw legitimacy from the movement by borrowing its language, iconography, terminology, and method of agitation. Attempts have also been made to draw connections to other Social Justice movements relating to minority interests such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. These leverage on similar themes such as Black Nationalism and Liberal demands of diversity. For instance, protesters of RMF Oxford have chanted: mandlaawethuthe rallying cry of blacks during the Apartheid movement. The influence of RMF South Africa is reflective of the degree to which its subject and thematic considerations have resonated beyond. In a diversifying British student body, international students from former colonized territories have facilitated bringing issues of colonial injustice and legacies to the fore. They have received considerable support from the political left on their campuses. In the US, a former colony itself, the discourse of colonial legacies have been appropriated by activists protesting similar forms of injustices such as slavery, which is more unique to the North American historical experience.

The Asian Absence: A First World Problem?

There is little to suggest from the preliminary survey that movements relating to historical and racial injustices have caught on in Asia. Generally speaking, the prominent movements on Asian campuses are more concerned with limiting government overreach and asserting civil liberties. This was certainly the case in Hong Kong and India. In the former, students protested as part of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, demanding free and fair elections in Hong Kong. In 2016, students form Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protested against what they conceived was a state-driven affront of their civil liberties, after a student leader was charged with sedition for his activism against Indian activity in Kashmir. In Singapore, protests on campuses are illegal.

Report prepared by Winston Toh Ghee Wei, Columbia University