Book cover of Washington State Rising by Marc Arsell Robinson

Marc Arsell Robinson ’12 PhD Amer. Stud.

New York University Press: 2023


Fifty-four Black high schoolers from Seattle visited Washington State University in May 1968 through Project 408, an initiative of the 1965 National Higher Education Act that aimed to increase college enrollment of academically capable low-income students, “and the prejudicial treatment soon began as they checked into their assigned dormitories,” writes Marc Arsell Robinson, assistant professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino.

The slights culminated at Stephenson Hall “for what they had been told would be a dance in their honor. However, when they arrived, they were rudely turned away.” The teens “could apparently see that Stephenson’s Residence Center appeared to be set up for a dance, with lights dimmed, furniture pushed aside, and music playing from the jukebox.”

They suspected the dance had been abruptly canceled due to racial bias. “Upset and disappointed, the group initially refused to leave, but after about forty-five minutes they were persuaded by their chaperones to return to their respective rooms.” On the walk back to Orton Hall, “white students proceeded to yell insults at (some of the male teens) from their dorm windows…and threw pebbles, paper trash, and cigarette butts on the Black students’ heads. They also threw a glass bottle that hit the ground near the adolescents.”

At 2:30 a.m., just eight and a half hours after arriving in Pullman, the contingent cut short their campus visit. Fifty-five years ago, Robinson writes, “The experience of the Project 408 students and their sudden departure set off a chain of reactions, which eventually marked a turning point in race relations at Washington State University. Both the Black Student Union (BSU) and the campus administration were compelled to take action.”

Robinson explores late 1960s Black student activism in his urban hometown of Seattle and rural college town of Pullman in this well-researched look at the origins and influence of the Black Student Union in Washington state. The politicized student organization played a prominent role in the Black Power Movement, including protests at the University of Washington and WSU⁠—two places not typically associated with the movement or previously well documented in association with the movement.

Yet, Robinson writes, “Washington featured highly active civil rights and Black Power campaigns. Moreover, the presence of both in a heretofore understudied part of the country brings into focus the wide impact and transferability of both movements.”

His scholarly monograph broadens understanding of Jim Crow North, or “policies and practices that mirrored the racial climate of the South,” as well as activism “led by everyday people, college students without elite backgrounds or powerful connections, that can inspire and provide strategies for future protest campaigns.”

Engaging interviews with former BSU members enhance the narrative, which spans 1967 to 1970 and draws on reports from the Daily Evergreen as well as regional newspapers. Key research help was also provided by WSU archivist Mark O’English. Robinson also thanks his WSU dissertation committee: David J. Leonard, Lisa Guerrero, and Thabiti Lewis.