1940 October 19

NYU Students Protest University Discrimination Against its Own Player


New York University students on this day protested the decision by NYU administrators to not let Leonard (“Lenny”) Bates travel with the football team for a game against the University of Missouri on November 2nd. Bates, the first-string fullback, was African-American, and the University of Missouri was racially segregated.

The university responded by disciplining the seven protesters, suspending them for three months.

The protest and disciplinary actions had a fascinating impact on the history of science. One of protesters was the future Dr. Evelyn M. Witkin (her married name), who became a “towering figure” in the history of genetics, according to the New York Times (December 15, 2015).The future Mrs. Witkin simply went uptown to Columbia University, introduced herself to the noted Professor Theodosius Dobzhansky, and asked if she could be his student. He said yes (she became his first female student), and thus was born a distinguished career in science.

The NYU incident recalled a similar one on October 20, 1934 when the University of Michigan refused to let its star Willis Ward play against the University of Georgia because Georgia refused to play against an African-American. The difference, however, was that it was a home game in Ann Arbor. Michigan could have refused to agree to Georgia’s demands and forced them to either play a racially integrated game or forfeit the game. One of Michigan’s star players was Gerald Ford, future president of the United States, who was embarrassed and remembered the incident for the rest of his life.

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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