Ed Whitfield (1949–)

Edward Leroy Whitfield was a leader in one of the most notable civil rights protests of the 1960s, a takeover by Black students of the student union at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He has spent his life as a civil rights and labor activist and teacher.

Ed Whitfield was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on June 25, 1949, to Robert Ellis Whitfield Sr. and Winifred McLemore Whitfield. His father was a janitor, then mail handler, at the Federal Building in Little Rock. His mother was a schoolteacher and part-time administrator at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Whitfield was the youngest of four children, having two brothers, Robert Jr. and Richard, and one sister, Winifred.

Whitfield’s paternal great-grandfather, Wiley Whitfield, who was born in slavery, became one of the most prosperous Black men in Scottsboro, Alabama. Wiley Whitfield’s son, John Walden Whitfield, moved to Little Rock to attend Philander Smith College in the 1880s. He married Roberta Winston, and they lived in a house at 10th and Chester streets, one of the city’s finest homes resided in by African Americans. John Walden Whitfield died of tuberculosis when Whitfield’s father was an infant, crippling the family financially. Whitfield’s maternal grandfather worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He drove the trains at the repair yard and even taught some white engineers how to drive them. As a Black man, however, he was not allowed to become an engineer.

Whitfield’s first teacher was his father, who worked the night shift and was home most mornings; he taught his son the basics of reading and math. Whitfield was a member of at least six achievement-related school clubs at Central High School and was a three-year letterman in track as a shot-putter. He was so knowledgeable on nuclear physics that his teacher let him instruct that section in physics class. He was one of only 121 students nationwide, and the only Black student from Arkansas, named in 1967 as a Presidential Scholar, an award that recognizes seniors for outstanding academic success, leadership, and service. He was the first Black delegate ever selected for Arkansas’s Boys State, a week-long immersion in civic education.

But Whitfield was not allowed in Central’s school play because there was “no role for a negro.” He was not allowed to participate in a weeklong student exchange with a high school in Wisconsin because there was no Black student on the other side, and Central’s administration could not envision a “mixed” exchange.

The Cornell occupation in 1969, his sophomore year, was a seminal and controversial event during a time of racial and social unrest in America. Black Power advocates were becoming more vocal, and anti–Vietnam War protests were disrupting some college campuses. At Cornell, Black students were protesting racism in the general Ithaca community, repeated racist incidents on campus, and the lack of Black-related studies. On parents’ weekend, April 19, 1969, more than eighty members of the school’s Afro-American Society, which Whitfield headed, took over the student union. The protest was initially peaceful, but Black students armed themselves after fighting off members of a white fraternity who tried to throw them out of the building.

Occupiers reached an agreement with the administration the next day, and the students were allowed to leave with their guns, which had been unloaded. Whitfield was one of several Black students featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine on May 5, 1969, under the headline “Universities Under the Gun: Militants at Cornell.” The headline and Pulitzer Prize–winning photo by Steve Starr rattled white America.

Whitfield’s father was approached where he worked at the Federal Building in Little Rock by a white Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who told him that his son was in over his head for taking a gun to the occupation. “I wish he’d had two guns,” his father told the agent. The Whitfield family had been schooled in the use of weapons in response to the 1927 white lynching of a Black man, John Carter, when Whitfield’s father was eighteen years old; growing up, Whitfield heard from his father that armed Black residents had “dissuaded” the white lynch mob from taking their violence from West Ninth Street into Black residential areas on the eastern end of town.

Supporters of the Cornell protest cited the successful outcome as a pivotal moment in which college administrations began to listen to the concerns of minority students about campus racism and white-only academic studies. Opponents cited the outcome as capitulation to radicalism and threats of violence. Whitfield wrote that their goal was to obtain a relevant education “that was rooted in its connection to our communities and the struggle of the people there to survive, to transform and to transcend those communities.” Part of the accord was for Cornell to create an Africana Studies and Research Center, which it did in the fall of 1969; the first center was destroyed by arson in 1970.

Whitfield left Cornell a few months before his scheduled graduation because he decided he did not want a degree from the school. He taught at Malcom X Liberation University in Greensboro, North Carolina, until it closed in 1973. He helped organize employees at tobacco companies and worked as a machinist, electronics technician, and electronics specialist at a union shop, retiring after thirty years. He traveled to Spain to study worker cooperatives, went to Africa to study land development deals, and was part of Greensboro’s Truth and Reconciliation process that, in 2004, detailed police involvement in a massacre perpetrated by white supremacists in 1979. He also taught mathematics, science, machine shop, welding, and political economy at various times.

From 2007 to 2020 he worked with a friend on the Fund for Democratic Communities to develop local economic development cooperatives. A lifelong musician who plays several instruments, primarily the flute, Whitfield also designs and builds instruments, including electric guitars and bass guitars. Living in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town considered the home of the blues, he began creating a manufacturing workers’ cooperative to build and market instruments for local blues musicians and the blues tourism market.

Whitfield formed a philosophy professing that self-reliance is a way for people to express their full humanity and that people should be intentional about building their own community rather than diffusing into another community. He writes of “liberated zones” that provide sustainable food, well-developed citizenry, the making of meaning, and self-defense. “Even in a global village, it is OK to develop your own hut,” he writes. “No one else will develop your hut for you.” If people fail to develop their own huts, “the entire global village suffers.” He supports improved neighborhood schools rather than forced busing, because Black children are usually the ones sent miles away into unfamiliar, often hostile environments.

In his view, cooperative economics is the key to ensuring that people are adequately rewarded for their labor, whether a white coal miner in Kentucky or a Black agricultural worker in Mississippi. “Demand whatever is fair to everyone,” Whitfield said. “Don’t just support your group, support all groups.”

Whitfield has been married three times and has two children: a daughter, Nandi, and a son, Mzilikazi.

For additional information:
Lowery, George. “A Campus Takeover That Symbolized an Era of Change.” Cornell Chronicle, April 16, 2009. https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2009/04/campus-takeover-symbolized-era-change (accessed April 19, 2023).

Whitfield, Ed. “What Must We Do to Be Free? On the Building of Liberated Zones.” Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality 1, vol. 2 (November 2018): 45–58. Online at https://prabuddha.us/index.php/pjse/article/view/23 (accessed April 19, 2023).

Whitfield, Edward L. “Diversity: What Schools Leave Out.” Jubilee Institute Pre-Print Series No. 3. Greensboro, NC: January 2004. http://www.educationanddemocracy.org/Resources/Ed_Whitfield.pdf (accessed April 19, 2023).

Collins Hemingway
Bend, Oregon


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