Movement 68: Historical Overview

On October 21, 1968, Middle Tennessee State University’s student newspaper, Sidelines, published a guest column from Sylvester Brooks, a black student from Memphis, Tennessee. Titled “Dixie: What Does It Mean?” Brooks asked the white student body why they continued to wave Confederate flags, sang the Dixie fight song, and paid homage to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. He addressed how these activities alienated black students and, therefore, “should be banned and abolished.” He challenged white students to move forward with a New South that included everybody, which meant ridding the campus of Confederate symbols. As Brooks said, “You cannot seek a newer world while clinging so passionately to the relics of days long given to the past.”[1]

Sylvester Brooks and Robert Rucker

Brooks’ column caused contentious debate among the MTSU community. Sidelines published a series of letters from students and faculty that directly responded to Brooks’ arguments against the usage of Confederate symbols on campus.[2] For every person in support of Brooks’ ideas, there were just as many people against them. Over the next few years, black students protested the university’s relationship with the Confederacy and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The students’ persistence resulted in a couple of changes, including a new mascot and fight song at sporting events.[3]

Amber Perkins standing in front of Forrest HallSince 1968, MTSU students have continued to protest against Confederate symbolism on campus. In the 1989-1990 academic year, the university’s NAACP student chapter succeeded in persuading the administration to remove the 600-pound bronze plaque of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the outside wall of Keathley University Center.[4] In 2006, black students protested the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall (the ROTC building). The students, particularly protest leader Amber Perkins, received guidance from Sylvester Brooks on how to handle the backlash from Murfreesboro’s white community and the university’s administration.[5] The university kept the building’s name until a new wave of activism began during the 2015-2016 academic year, which finally resulted in the administration’s decision to seek approval for a name change from Tennessee government entities.

On February 16, 2018, after hours of cross examination, the Tennessee Historical Commission decided in a final vote to deny MTSU's request to rename Forrest Hall. The university can appeal this decision, but it is unknown whether administration will move forward with such action. Thus, students continue to protest and demonstrate their frustrations about white supremacy on campus.

[1] Sylvester Patrick Brooks, “’Dixie’: What Does It Mean?” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 21, 1968.

[2] “I’ll Take My Stand in Dixieland,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 24, 1968.

[3] Josh Howard, “A Confederate on Campus: Nathan Bedford Forrest as MTSU’s Mascot,” Sport in American History (blog), August 24, 2015, https://ussporthistory.com/2015/08/24/nathan-bedford-forrest-and-mtsu/.

[4] Rusty Gerbman, “ASB Asks for Vote on Forrest Statue,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Feb. 22, 1990.

[5] Sarah Lavery, “Amber Perkins Won’t Back Down,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Mar. 26, 2007.

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