Black Left Student Radicalism of the 1970s: The February First Movement

By Richard D. Benson II | AAIHS

During the 1970s, Black student radicalism in the United States, which began in the 1960s with organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), continued to evolve. Student activists began to look to China and Cuba for inspiration. This influenced student activists to examine the political doctrine of global revolutionary movements and acquire an affinity for Marxist-Leninism.

These men and women were drawn to the Left for a variety of reasons including their own ideological maturation and the ability of Marxists to draw explicit connections between imperialism in Vietnam and other parts of the globe with the conditions in the United States. Many Black students were looking to develop more complex and scientific methods of engaging the struggle. By the mid 1970s, Black students all across nation were rallying for an anti-imperialist and global Black student movement. Their increased political awareness resulted in the creation of collectives such as the February First Movement (FFM).

As an ode to the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in on February 1, 1960, which sparked the student movement, the FFM was formed at Princeton University in December 1974 as a Black Marxist anti-imperialist student organization. The organization was comprised of students formerly associated with the North Carolina-based National Save and Change Black Schools Project, the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU)–formerly the Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU)–of Greensboro, the Black Student Collective at Harvard University, the Harambee Organization of New Jersey, and the Peoples College from Nashville, Tennessee, as well as independent progressive Black students.

The FFM was created during the historical nexus of global anti-imperialist struggles and increased domestic protest activity – the U.S. military suffered from defeat in Vietnam and a number of successful anti-imperialist struggles were being waged on the African continent. United by the mantra, “Now is the time to Unite All Black Students in the Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism and National Oppression,” the FFM organized under two significant points: the FFM would operate under a renewed spirit of militancy that characterized the struggles of the 1960s and through political and historical education; and the FFM would study and learn from the student movement of the 1960s to avoid making the same mistakes.

With chapters located mainly in Texas and Kansas, the FFM inherited the African World news organ from the former SOBU-YOBU collective and used its readership to recruit Black students seeking to engage in activist work. The FFM’s objectives were organized around the following central themes:

  • Building support for struggles to ensure Black people have the right to a quality education

  • Building support for the struggles of workers

  • Building support for community struggles

  • Building support for anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America.

  • Conducting ongoing political education amongst Black students

  • Building support for struggles of other oppressed nationalities

  • Building support for the struggle of women.1

As an organization designed to address a number of societal ills during the mid 1970s, the FFM galvanized members for protest activity and political education on a number of issues that significantly affected Black America. By 1973, the nation suffered from financial recession and gas prices were significantly affected by the oil embargo of the Middle East.  The economic downturn of the 1970s also caused job layoffs after factories closed across the country and tuition hikes in higher education marked the greatest increase for a college education in the nation’s history.

These conditions impacted many Black communities in the United States. The FFM was determined to establish a proactive organizational stance to increase awareness of these prevailing social ills. Along with the Peoples College, the FFM played a significant role in organizing and coordinating the 1975 National Planning Conference for the “Pull the Covers Off Imperialism Project” held at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. A wide range of participants, including Black scholars, workers, student activists and journalists assembled together at this historic meeting of the New Left. With conference participants and organizers, the FFM was at the helm of the student organizing that led to the conference’s declaration to fight against imperialism in all its forms.

The FFM became instrumental in organizing anti-cutback protests and waging demonstrations on college campuses in various cities. In Nashville, for example, the group protested against the electric power board for exploiting poor families by increasing their electricity bills.In May 1975, members of the FFM met at Federal City College (FCC) in Washington D.C. to protest against the nearly one-million-dollar budget and operational cuts that would largely impact Black students. As a result of the protest demonstrations, an FFM chapter was developed at FCC, dedicated to unifying the student body to advocate and protect the rights of Black students at the college.

While working in an concerted effort to support Black women, the FFM met in Detroit on January 25, 1975 along with over five hundred activists–including members from the Congress of African People, the Black Workers Congress, Pan-African Students Organization of the Americas, and the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party–to sponsor and plan the development of a Black Women’s United Front. Later that fall, the FFM worked to expand programmatic efforts when they formed an alliance with the Puerto Rican Student Union at Brooklyn College to promote political education for all students.2

One of the FFM’s most significant protest-led activities resulted in the establishment of the W.E.B. Dubois Institute at Harvard University. On May 2, 1975, the DuBois Institute Student Coalition, which included several groups, including the FFM, the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students, and the Organization for the Solidarity of Third World Students, called for a sit-in to ensure the establishment of the DuBois Institute. Since the university had been delaying communication and breaking promises, the coalition felt that non-violent direct protest action was warranted. The involvement of the FFM in the coalition not only ensured regional support but also increased pressure on the university due to effectiveness of the FFM’s United Front’s objectives and their ability to actualize their programmatic areas of work in the struggle.3

By the latter part of 1976, the FFM endured the fate of many other New Left Black organizations of the period. Similar to the Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU), the FFM began to suffer largely from ultra leftist political perspectives. The FFM’s extremist ideological leftist positions fostered infighting and sectarianism, which resulted in decreased efforts to organize around issues on college campuses. As the FFM increasingly inflated the value of workplace organizing above the overall contributions of student work, the organization eventually collapsed in 1977.4

Though short-lived, the FFM’s existence provides a significant lesson for current day Black student-youth led organizations such as Black Lives Matter. Just as the FFM intended to accomplish its goals from studying and building on the political strategies of their predecessors, today’s Black youth who are organizing and protesting should voraciously study and learn from the mistakes of those before them–so as not to repeat them.

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