Notes From Frost: Amherst Uprising, Five Years On

Notes From Frost: Amherst Uprising, Five Years On

This past November marked the fifth anniversary of Amherst Uprising, a multi-day sit-in of Frost Library led by students who demanded attention and change surrounding racism on campus. Yet, for many, the Uprising didn’t begin — or end — in the confines of the library foyer five years ago. Rather, it marked just a moment in a centuries-long struggle for racial justice and Black equality within the institution.

The activism bred by Amherst Uprising was not new or unprecedented but embodied traditions set by Amherst students in the decades prior to the 2015 sit-in. In the spring of 1969, for instance, the college experienced two moratoriums on classes — one initiated by the college to reflect on the Vietnam War, civil rights and coeducation in light of uprisings at Columbia and UC Berkeley; and another staged by Amherst’s Afro-American Society to address the role of racism on campus. With these moratoria came the college’s Black studies department, which was approved by the faculty that spring and officially founded two years later in 1971. Or take the divestment movement of the late 1970s, in which Amherst students pressed the college to pull investments from systems of apartheid in South Africa. Students succeeded, and the college fully divested in 1985. The 2015 sit-in was not an isolated moment — Uprising has continually happened at the college, and will continue to happen. 

“It’s about the future, as much as the past.”

— Ellis Phillips-Gallucci ’23, historian of the Black Student Union (BSU)

By now, the history of Amherst Uprising is one that has been told and re-told so many times that the story of the solidarity-turned-personal-storytelling-event has become deeply embedded in the psyche of the institution and its students. Our role is not to retell that story. Rather, The Student strives to highlight the roots of the uprising, the legacy of its demands and what they represent five years later.   

Hundreds of students gather on the quad outside of Converse in 1969 as part of the college’s moratorium that halted classes to address the role of racism on campus

“In Amherst Uprising, to me, there wasn’t anything super radical or revolutionary being asked. I think they were very baseline demands … If you look at Uprising’s demands, at Integrate Amherst’s demands, at Reclaim Amherst —, if you look at all of those movements, A lot of what’s being asked on behalf of the administration are the same things that were asked [in the]1980s. I think that it can be a little bit disheartening when you see the same things being asked for almost 50 years later.”

— Joelle Crichlow ’22, former BSU chair

Uprising produced a list of concrete demands as the product of the sit-in. Read the full list of demands on Uprising’s website. In brief, they asked: 

  1. President Biddy Martin & Cullen Murphy ’74, the then-chairman of the board of trustees, to each apologize for the harms brought upon students from the college’s “institutional legacy of white supremacy.” Martin to apologize to faculty, staff and administrators of color and allies, who were not “provided a safe space for them to thrive.”  
    • Update: This past summer, in 2020, Martin issued an official apology for the harms and violence that Black students and students of color experience while attending a predominantly white institution. 
  2. The Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) to commit to protect and refrain from violence in connection with the protest.
    • Update: This summer’s protests against police violence sparked a petition to disarm the college police force, which circulated widely. Current AAS President Jeremy Thomas ’21 and other executive members of the BSU met with Chief of Police John Carter. Thomas recalled that while Carter was receptive to listening, he ultimately resisted the demand to disarm ACPD. Still, conversations on the topic are scheduled to continue. A proposal to reimagine the role of ACPD is being developed by senior staff and will likely become available for comment from appropriate parties in the coming semester. Final decisions on the proposal are expected no later than the May 2021 board meeting. 
  3. Martin to denounce “All Lives Matter” and “Free Speech” posters hung around campus and to alert the responsible students that they may face disciplinary action including racial and cultural competency training.
  4. A commitment to revise the Honor Code to include a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech
    • Update: On December 15, 2020 faculty voted to revise the college’s statement of academic freedom to address hate speech. Check out The Student’s reporting on the vote here.
  5. The college to condemn the Lord Jeff mascot and commit to its phase-out.
    • Update: As nearly anyone in the Amherst community could tell you, the mascot began its phase out in the fall of 2016 and now has been fully replaced by the beloved Mammoth.
  6. Amnesty for students who missed class and work shifts to attend the sit-in and for faculty, staff and administrators who indicate support. 
  7. Communication with alumni regarding the events of the Uprising and a condemnation of racist responses to the events. 
  8. Space to discuss the Uprising in classroom settings. 

Martin, as Murphy described in a 2016 letter, “declined to consider the original demands item by item. She explained that issuing apologies would be ‘misleading, if not downright dishonest’ and that reacting to ultimatums would represent ‘a failure to take our students seriously.’ Rather, Martin said, she chose to respond to the spirit of what students were trying to achieve.” 

As students discussed with administrators and each other to define the “spirit” of the movement, they continued to refine and evolve their goals — even from their onset, the asks of Amherst Uprising have been iterative. This later version of goals outlined the need for programs like cultural competency training, a Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies and an Asian Languages and Civilizations Studies major and more faculty, staff and administrators of color across departments. 

Two of the largest changes born out of the Uprising and subsequent collaboration with administration were: 

  1. the institution of the Mammoth as the new mascot
  2. the creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (now the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and the hiring of Chief Norm Jones to lead that office. 

Below are additional demands made in the aftermath of the Uprising, along with their updates five years later.

  • Demand: Create a Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies major
    • Update: In April 2017, a committee of Latin American studies professors submitted a proposal for a Latinx and Latin American studies major (LLAS). The major was approved soon after, with the program debuting that fall
  • Demand: Expand and reform the Asian Languages and Civilizations Studies (ASLC) major
    • Update: The Asian American Studies Working Group (AASWG) has amped up its calls for an Asian American studies major, noting its distinction from ASLC. “The need for a robust civil society, attentive to contemporary issues, and committed to public service has never been greater. Continuing to neglect AAS would do a disservice both to Amherst students and the larger American public,” the AASWG wrote in an op-ed in The Student.
  • Demand: Ensure that the varsity recruitment process reflects and retains the intersectional diversity of the campus
    • Update: The Council of Amherst College Student Athletes of Color (CACSAC) has worked with the Office of Financial Aid to provide financial aid pre-reads to prospective student athletes. 
    • Demand: Extend resources to undocumented, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and international students
    • Update: In recent years, the college has founded two resource centers: the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership (CDSL), dedicated to undocumented/DACA students, first generation students, low-income students and student veterans; and the Center for International Student Engagement (CISE), dedicated to international students. This past semester, the college also announced the establishment of the Office of Immigration Services, headed by former CISE director Hanna Bliss.  
  • Demand: Commit to increasing the number of staff and administrators of color in the Counseling Center, Office of Financial Aid, Office of Alumni and Parent Programs, Health Center, Career Center and Writing Center, and faculty of color within all academic departments; Hire more faculty of color on tenure track lines within all departments
    • Though the college has committed to hiring more faculty of color, challenges with retention and tenure remain, reports Shawna Chen ’20. As of Fall 2020, there were 48 tenure-track faculty of color, or about 23 percent. Of those 48, 12 are Black, 12 are Latinx, 19 are Asian American and 5 are multi-racial. For context, there were 137 white, non-Hispanic tenure-track professors. Initiatives to hire more staff of color have moved more slowly, Martin said in an Uprising oral history.

Some of the change Uprising ushered in cannot be quantified in a list. In an oral history compilation on the Amherst Uprising website, students expressed that part of the power in the movement came from simply having the space to discuss experiences shaped by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and socio-economic identities in a setting larger than a friend group or online group chat, to an audience that included white peers. While the change is slow, students do notice a shift, that the openness of conversation experienced at Uprising has persisted.

“I definitely reap the privilege of being able to speak freely in a way that past generations weren’t.  I’m very critical of the institution and I say it. And yeah, I feel like I’ve never really been impeded in the classroom and administrative spaces, [when] speaking my mind, and I’m very thankful for that privilege, because I do know, unfortunately, that that is a privilege at a private institution like Amherst.”

— Ayodele Lewis ’21, Chair of the Black Student Union (BSU) 

Yet, even with some progress, students and alumni still know the college is still far from realizing the extent of Uprising’s asks: 

Ayodele Lewis:  “That the actual concrete goals of Amherst Uprising weren’t really met in these past few years.” 

“I think that Amherst Uprising, and the immediate aftermath kind of allowed the school a complacency, especially coming in in 2017 as we saw racism across the country grow. The school was able to say, ‘Oh, well, we formed the Student Committee on Diversity and bolstered [the Office of Diversity and Inclusion] (OD&I).’ And yeah, those things don’t — didn’t — really make a difference in the daily life of Black students.” 

“I think most importantly, what [Amherst Uprising] did was teach this generation of Amherst, students, alumni and community members that the work is not done  — similar to what happened in 2020, in terms of racial justice in the country. I just think it was a good sort of reminder and accountability factor, just for the whole community to say ‘Yes we’ve made strides from 1821, 1901, 1965, 1998, and we’ve made strides in terms of racial equity and inclusion among the students, staff and faculty but we’re not quite there.’”

— Kyndall Ashe ’18 
An editorial from The Amherst Student during the 1969 moratorium mirrors the language of the 2015 Uprising, writing: “The moratorium will both define and resolve issues as they arise. But to be effective, the moratorium must permit an honest representation by all involved of their concerns… This moratorium is the result of a lack of discussion; what is called for now is an enactment of the remedy. The moratorium is merely a structure; it requires active and open participation by all to be effective.”

“It’s important to continue to not be complacent, to celebrate the past as we move forward and to honor and respect those who have given their all in carrying this torch and, as you take the torch yourself, to remember them.”

— Ayodele Lewis 

“I hope [Uprising was] not a stand-alone event, but it surely won’t be a stand-alone event, if we don’t make changes. The purpose of it wasn’t like ‘oh let’s do this fun little sit-in and tell Biddy we want these things.’ Students are suffering. The number of Black students going on leave who don’t come back is too high; the number of Black students that don’t graduate compared to whites, it is too high; the violence against Black students in certain subfields is too high. These problems really persist, and there’s nothing else we can think about doing. We’ve sat down in meetings, we sat down as a BSU, with different administrators, different students have come forward and whatever other bureaucratic ways, and none of those worked. So we were compelled to literally take over a building. That’s not flowers and sunshine and rainbows thing, and no protest is.”

— Kyndall Ashe

Learn more about those rates of academic leave and dismissal here.

Now, students take that legacy forward. 

Relay Race of Change

“It’s really a relay race: Someone ran their lap, they pass you the baton. You got to run your lap, be a good teammate, make sure that you don’t lose your lead and that you pass the baton off smoothly to that next person. We’re all running this race together.”

—Ayodele Lewis 

Understanding Uprising requires looking back just as much as it requires facing forward. 

“The most important thing that we need to understand is just the historical context. I think just understanding the current moment can only be made sense of through the past moments, first of all. And so I think that to move forward, we need to first make sure we understand what came first, where we are right now.” 

— Ellis Phillips-Gallucci

The short institutional memory of colleges — where students, their historical knowledge and their lessons learned move on from the institution by the time they’ve learned them — has long been an obstacle to this focus on using the past to inform the future. Today’s students are making strides to correct that.

“For the most part, whatever effort you put in in four years you’re either going to see the rewards or not. If you don’t, you’re out and by the time you’re out, who knows if the students who follow you are carrying on the same [efforts]. I think that little cycle has really allowed for there to be significantly less progress in terms of racial equity than maybe we all want to believe.”  

— Joelle Crichlow ’22, former BSU chair

To Lewis, correcting that means setting the stage and preparing the next generation of BSU members to continue carrying the torch. It also means strengthening alumni relations and inviting Black alumni back to meet and know current students. 

“It will be our job, now that we have freshmen within the leadership of BSU, to share these stories, to be candid and open with them so that they can know these stories and share them with the freshmen when they’re seniors — the freshmen that come in in 2025 — so that these stories can be passed down and remembered, so that the [relay] race can continue.”

— Ayodele Lewis

“I see my friends that are sophomores, sort of as role models to me… I would say that the biggest reason why I’m so involved with BSU or [the Association of Amherst Students (AAS)] is because they are. To see them actively move towards the change that they want to see [is influential]… Being able to see older students — or at least students that are a year ahead of me — really work towards the change that they want to see is very inspiring for me to work towards the change I want to see. I want to be able to do that for the students as I get older.”

— Blair Chase ’24, Junior Chair of BSU Black Men’s Group and AAS senator  

Even with the vast challenges and hardship Covid has brought — to America’s Black population especially — it has also forced an opening for closeness among the students who are on campus: “It’s given us an opportunity, especially as sophomores… we’ve had to almost single-handedly (there are some people on campus who are upperclassmen, of course) take on the Black population of freshman, and we had to look after them — or not look out for them but, you know, help them understand their place and show them the ropes.”

— Ellis Phillips-Gallucci 

“I want to make sure I’m recognizing what’s happening now, and connecting it back to what has happened in the past because if anything, we [alumni] can help not reinvent the wheel.”“I really hope that no one ever forgets what [Uprising] felt like. But I do at the same time, recognize it’s important to continue to learn about what’s happening today and the pieces that we can pull from that, that are going to resonate with students today. I think moving forward you don’t want to lose the next generation. I don’t want to ever ignore what’s happening in Senate or in BSU or with current students.”   

— Kyndall Ashe

Moving Forward

2020 saw the next generation of anti-racism come to a head. In the wake of on-campus hate speech in March and national protests surrounding police brutality in June, students and alumni launched Integrate Amherst and Reclaim Amherst, respectively. Both campaigns outline steps for the college to become a more equitable, anti-racist institution. The goals of each echoed many seen just five years earlier in Amherst Uprising, and many — like the ask for a formal apology from the administration for the harms of attending a white institution or the inclusion of an explicit condemnation of hate speech in the Honor Code — have only now been realized, with the additional push of these movements.

We can only understand [Reclaim] in the context of a post Uprising time as well. I think the really important thing about Uprising is that there’s always a level of dissatisfaction, and people will always feel they want things to change, but making that into real, concrete action is something, which I think is much more revolutionary. It’s a statement, a verbal commitment to it… Just the moment itself has potential, and Reclaim itself. I think that if everyone were on campus in the fall, I think that Reclaim is a different moment. But, just the fact that it arose as an idea and [became]  concrete was something, and a historical marker. As a historian, I have to ask ‘Why reclaim, and I’m always going to have to look at Uprising first to understand that.”

— Ellis Phillips-Gallucci 

In August, the administration published a comprehensive, 17-point anti-racism plan responding to the vision outlined by Reclaim Amherst, with built-in accountability metrics like a timeline and public community updates on the plan’s status, which has been updated since it was initially published. Key to the process of instituting those proposed changes, two new committees have been put in place: a faculty leadership committee as well as a student advisory group.

While the formation of committees and task forces is an essential first step in opening communication and creating spaces to discuss policy changes, it must go hand-in-hand with tangible actions, as many student activists, working to make Amherst more equitable, have expressed. 

“Okay so what’s the next step? We have this committee; it’s great to be able to talk about these things, but like where is the tangible change coming from?” 

“My question still is: I’ve served on the committee for a semester, so now, what is coming out of this? We’ve been able to meet with different people; we’ve been able to voice concerns; we’ve been able to tell President Martin ‘This is something you should look into.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll follow up on that.’ But like at the end of the day, what additional steps are being taken with the information that President Martin now has, that the administration has. Whoever has it — what is being done with it?”

— Joelle Crichlow 

Yet now with the anti-racism policy plans unfurling according to its timeline, there is a moment to shift away from advocacy and focus more on implementation. 

“I think, for me, the first thing that I’ll kind of want to see, or the thing that I want to see come June is just for Amherst itself, as the institution, to follow through, even just on some of the 

Reclaim policies: Black faculty, Black student admissions, etc. I think we just want to see where the college is willing to bend and stuff like this, because we don’t want them to just co-opt our grammar; we don’t want them to give us concessions. We just want them to act, to act in a concrete way.    I think then we can see where the college is at, in terms of listening to students and listening to its faculty, and in its willingness to hear the voices of the students. Everything regarding the pivot will really be there because if they don’t act, and we don’t see this follow through, I think we’re gonna continue to see this kind of a pent-up compulsion to feel frustrated with the school. If they do act, then I think there also will be a change. It depends if they do it to kind of satiate the students and say, ‘Okay, here’s your thing. We’re not going to make any more real changes,’ or if they do it, and then students continue to press.”

— Ellis Phillips-Gallucci

Outside of the tangible policy changes to come, many students are now focusing on the student-to-student community building work that itself can lead to change, however abstract that may be. 

“I just [want] to make sure that every student is afforded the same amount of care from the administration but also from their peers” 

“My overall mission [as junior chair of the Black men’s group] is to make sure that Black students — Black men, in particular — can feel as comfortable on Amherst’s campus as possible….. [I hope to] be a bit of a friendly face for Black men on campus, and to offer support in any way I can… So to have a group that focuses specifically on Black students, I think is integral [for progress].”  

— Blair Chase 

Social media, like BSU’s own instagram page or @BlackAmherstSpeaks, which took off this summer as students shared their personal stories of experiencing racism at the college, has proven an invaluable tool in bridging community when physical interactions cannot.

Sirus Wheaton ’23 runs the BSU social media: “I think that really is the point of the BSU, and the BSU Instagram — the basic idea of account is to connect people to make people know this is a space where we all can feel welcome and things like that.” 

“I want to emphasize that sense of community that we still have even though we may be separate.”

— Sirus Wheaton ’23

To many, the staying power of Reclaim and Integrate Amherst was in this cross-demographic community building that gave rise to it. Part of what allowed for such broad sign-ons in support of both Integrate Amherst’s and Reclaim Amherst’s letters of demands was that everything happened virtually, as students stayed remote during the early onset of coronavirus. 

“I think that was part of what made Integrate Amherst and even Reclaim Amherst so effective. They pulled from so many sources, both ways. So it’s kind of impossible to be ignored [when] you have alumns, you have parents, you have students. All of those people are pushing on the school to do something, It’s not just 50 students who are upset; it’s not just 200 students who are upset. It’s the whole community right now [that] is upset and hurting, so how are we going to resolve that and right that.”

— Joelle Crichlow 

A New Era of Activism 

As activism across both the school and the nation takes on an interdisciplinary and intersectional tenor, students at Amherst are working across activist groups to see the goals of Reclaim Amherst — and the goals of more justice and equity more broadly — realized. Amherst’s Sunrise chapter, whose founding was inspired by BlackAmherstSpeaks, Reclaim Amherst and other recent on-campus movements, has been a particularly close partner with BSU and activists to coordinate each of their projects with interlocking goals. The college’s new chapter has been dedicated to environmental justice and has primarily focused on addressing that through its campaign for the college to divest from fossil fuels and private prisons.

Sunrise is not the first recent divestment movement at the college — a testament to the idea that Uprising is always happening. The Direct Action Coordinating Committee (DACC), for example, had hosted a three-day climate camp in 2017 pushing for the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels and private prisons. But the creation of Sunrise reflects both a continuation of repeated demands to the college and an era of new partnerships with the BSU, La Causa and other affinity groups across campus, demonstrating how no issue at the college exists in isolation from another.

“A lot of things were happening during the summer, not only like [Black Lives Matter] (BLM), but also things like BlackAmherstSpeaks through Instagram and Reclaim Amherst. The series of posts and demands that they did… I was heavily inspired by that, and it really made me reflect on the things that I had seen during my first year on campus. So I saw Sunrise as a vehicle to address these issues, but like in a different way taking solidarity.”

— Jeanyna Garcia ’23, Amherst Sunrise co-founder

“We’ve just been trying to make sure that climate change and the divestment movement is not isolated from other issues that go along with the way that investment practices happen at Amherst and just in the country as a whole. We wanted to make sure that we are not only painting divestment from fossil fuels as a racial justice issue and a global warming issue, but also that we were talking about other investments that we take issue with Amherst, including the prison industrial complex.”

— Claire Taylor ’23

Sunrise’s efforts also mark the most recent example of direct action work on campus. Last November, at the tail end of the fall semester, Sunrise published an op-ed in The Student calling on the college to divest from fossil fuels, in addition to hanging “DIVEST” banners on buildings around campus—a time warp between the college’s divestment movements of the 70s and 80s and more recent conversations about the disproportionate environmental impacts on people of color.  

“We felt that at Amherst, we were sort of missing opportunities to have spaces to do direct action work, and to kind of build kind of an activist like. We didn’t feel like there were a lot of activist communities on campus.”

— Meenakshi Jani ’23, Amherst Sunrise co-founder

Since the op-ed, Sunrise has coordinated with other affinity groups on campus and met with Martin and the Board of Trustees. Balancing direct action with institutional change, however, has its challenges. 

(Alt text: Students and faculty protest the college’s investments in the South African apartheid in 1977, carrying signs that read: “Amherst Trustees Divest”; “End Apartheid in South Africa”; “Boycott Multinational Corproations in South Africa”; “Sell the Stocks Now!”)

“I’ve seen this play out over time, it seems like [the college] always reacts to what students are doing and then it changes, but [what would it be like] for it to be something that a body that works in tandem with students to create these changes.”

— Jeanyna Garcia

On activism during the pandemic:

“There’s also limitations in terms of how we can connect with others, and especially during the pandemic when we’re literally in a bubble. We’re not always able to forge those connections with other communities. But I think at the same time, the pandemic — in terms [ of things like] virtual events and Zoom events — is offering a lot of opportunities to connect with people outside of our institution.”

— Caelen McQuilken ’23

“Even during a pandemic when it feels like nothing can be done and we’re just stuck in our little bubbles, if we all unite to tackle this issue that we all want to and do something to change our campus, we can. We definitely can. We just have to be creative, and tackle the way that we are approaching it. Of course, doing a sit-in at the library can’t be exactly feasible during these circumstances, but hanging up banners is definitely doable. Creating a social media campaign is definitely doable.”

— Jeanyna Garcia

Tough Love

“One thing that I want to reiterate over and over and over again, is that all of this comes from a place of love, a place of wanting to see the institution be the best institution it can be … It’s wanting to see Amherst. continue on for the next 200 years. That’s why we’re so critical … It’s tough love, people. But it definitely comes from a place of genuine love and respect for the community.”

— Ayodele Lewis

“[I always return to this] James Baldwin quote [because that’s how I feel about Amherst]: ‘I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’” 

— Kyndall Ashe