The Onyx Society
The year 1968 was a tumultuous time in United States history. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April, and just a few months later, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was assassinated as well. To many members of the Black Community, this felt like the end of the Civil Rights Movement—which had been characterized by the use of nonviolent direct action in protest for equal rights. After the assassination of King, riots broke out across the country. Every step forward seemed to be accompanied by two steps backwards. In wake of the riots, Black people continued to band together to demand social change, with the goal of eliminating segregation.
In the previous decade, the Black community overcame legislative segregation. However, a change in the law does not always mean a change in people’s hearts. Even with the victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, people of color were still experiencing a form of social segregation better known as de facto segregation. De facto segregation means that people are segregated by conditions, rather than by an imposed legal code. The most well known example of de facto segregation was in the 1960s and ‘70s when many people in the white community “fled” to suburbs to be away from the members of the black community moving into the cities.
Anderson College wanted to ensure that it was not inadvertently imposing de facto segregation. So, after serious discussions with Black pastors in the Church of God movement, AC initiated steps to make the campus and its programs more inclusive. In June of 1968, President Robert Reardon made a commitment to increase interracial presence on campus with these six goals:
- Two Black college representatives will be on the field among Black congregations to recruit Black students this summer.
- Our goal is to double the number of Black students within two years.
- Anderson College will offer a second course, taught by a black professor, on Negro history and culture - Fall 1968.
- Anderson College will work toward the employment of Black faculty beginning with the Fall of 1968.
- Anderson College will, through the Martin Luther King Student Aid Fund, undergrid the Negro student with increased financial aid.
- Anderson College will, through the Summer Seminar Workshop, aid Negro students who have a deficiency in their academic background.¹
In the Fall of 1968, changes on campus were beginning to take place. By the early spring of 1969, a group of students felt a need to form a Black Student Union to meet the needs of the Black students who felt that the Student Union was not doing so. No draft of the original constitution is extant, but letters indicate that Article III restricted membership to only Black students.²
President Reardon felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he recognized the value of an organization directed to the needs of Black students. On the other hand, he was concerned about the repercussions of restricting membership along racial lines. He was also concerned that the college’s federal assistance program would be jeopardized due to running afoul of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In late March, the BSU was recognized by the Student Government Association and was awaiting approval from the college administration. Frustrated by what they perceived to be resistance on the administration’s part, a group of students staged a chapel walkout and wrote letters to the Andersonian, the college’s student-run newspaper.
In response to the actions of the students, Reardon promised to take the BSU under further review. He reached out to many of his friends and colleagues who were Black pastors or other leaders of color in the Church of God movement. From the letters, it can be inferred that President Reardon wanted to ensure that he understood the situation properly, and was not making a decision based on his own race and background. However, the consensus of the letters revealed that many Black pastors and leaders did not agree with the BSU being a group due to its inclusion being based on racial identification. Many believed that the goals that the BSU wanted to achieve could be better attained as an integrated social group. Many also spoke out on their dislike of the name of the social group, afraid that it would be perceived as a self-segregated group—as well as the potential implication that the official Student Union itself was actually a “white Student Union.”³
In April of 1969, President Reardon wrote a letter to the organizers of the Black Student Union reaffirming his support for enhancing Black students' social, spiritual, and educational experience, but he refused to recognize the BSU until they made three key changes to their constitution. The first change was to lift the restrictions of membership and open it to every student on campus. Second, the statement of purpose needed to be rewritten to remove racist connotations and align with the Christian college community. Finally, to avoid being exploited by outside groups, the constitution must be more specific in the process of elections and leadership positions. Another requirement was a name change, leading the BSU to adopt the name the Onyx Society.⁴
After a few revisions to the constitution the Onyx Society was recognized as an official club. Throughout their existence the members of the club were dedicated to pushing social norms, as evidenced by their one publication PAMOJA. In the publication, they explained this name came from the Swahili word meaning "together." The essence of the publication is captured by its dedication to Malcolm X. It is a fiery publication that calls out moderate whites and pushes for Black liberation.
Scholar and author Rufus Burrow rounds out the publication with an essay called “Change, Change, Change.” Here, he defines the problem of Black equality not being a southern problem, but a human problem. He says: “I do not have to go to the red hills of Mississippi or Memphis, Tennessee to find the problem; the problem is right here.” He continues by arguing that “the only way the problem can be solved is through a revolution.”⁵ The distributional reach of PAMOJA is unknown, and the campus response is unclear. However, it is clear that it was a controversial publication with the intention of uniting people in a revolution for change.
Like many campus clubs, the Onyx Society faded not long after the founders graduated. However, the Onyx Society set the foundation for the current cultural clubs at Anderson University. Now, students of all ethnicities are encouraged to get connected with the Cultural Resource Center (CRC) to make connections with students of similar backgrounds. The CRC also focuses on helping minority students financially, and has a general goal similar to that of the Onyx Society: to help equal the playing field for minority students.
To learn more about the Onyx Society, and life on campus in the ‘60s and ‘70s—for minority students and majority students alike—click the arrow for the following page. The Library Resources page provides more in depth sources for digging deeper into this topic.
1. Reardon, Robert. Letter to Black ministers on AC steps to be more inclusive. 3 June, 1968. Robert Reardon Papers. AC 167, File 5. Anderson University and Church of God Archives, Nicholson Library, Anderson, IN.