“He is a thinker, but he is also a doer. He is a truth teller. He is a quintessential disrupter.”
For Renee Alexander Ph.D. ’74, associate dean of students, there was no better way to introduce Ed Whitfield ’70 — a key player in the Willard Straight Hall takeover of 1969 — to those gathered on Friday evening at the opening ceremony of Black History Month.
Whitfield’s presence was even more significant as it came less than six months after hundreds of black students marched into Willard Straight Hall and occupied the building for several hours.
Black Students United at Cornell is hosting a series of events to commemorate Black History Month. The events that will be interspersed throughout the month offer a chance to “integrate black life on the Hill,” according to BSU co-chair Delmar Fears ’19.
“The month is a celebration of our uniqueness, our beauty, our majesty and our power,” Fears said. “It is about the legacy to fight for our freedom and the trials that our ancestors had to face to give us the resources to succeed.”
Alexander also brought up how salient the month was for the black community and the importance of Whitfield’s presence. “When I came to Cornell one year after the takeover there were certain names that lived in infamy, and Ed Whitfield was one of them,” Alexander said. “He is a part of the legacy of black history at Cornell.”
In the early 1960s, then President James Perkins initiated the Committee on Special Education Projects to provide more black students access to Cornell. Whitfield was one of many African-Americans who came to East Hill as a result of the program.
Whitfield began by talking about how he was made to realize the importance of the opportunity that had been presented with on one of his first few days at the University.
“I was told by John Garner — a senior at the time — you probably think you’re here at Cornell because you’re real smart and work really hard, but I’ll tell you the real reason you’re here at Cornell. It’s because your grandparents were dragged over to this country in chains.”
This realization made a great impact on Whitfield and spurred him to work toward giving back to his community. Whitfield is currently the co-founder and co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities and has been involved with community organizing and peace work since he left the University.
Whitfield was even involved in the anti-war movement during his high school days. At a conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, during that time, he introduced a resolution to make civil rights workers exempt from being drafted for the war in Vietnam.
“I didn’t see why they had to go halfway around the world to fight for democracy when they were doing so right at home,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield’s resolution didn’t pass, but he felt that it was important that he took a stand against the majority opinion in the country.
“I couldn’t make an attempt to fit in,” he said. “Not at the expense of my morality.”
During his speech, Whitfield talked about how he believes that no one is ever too young to make a difference. Recalling the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins of 1960, he told the audience that he hopes they too would be like the four freshmen who took a stand and helped shape the Civil Rights movement.
For Whitfield that was the most important message of the night. He hoped he had inspired people in the audience to work against the inequality and corruption in the system.
“We’re all sacred people and you can be employed as a tool of the system irrespective of your color. I hope like the freshmen in Greensboro you make the effort to change the world,” Whitfield said. “You’re never too young to change the system.”