BSU Elders Offer Tribute to EOP Beginnings
By Dianne Anderson
Not a moment goes by that Ahmed Saafir doesn’t reflect on just how many students have made it through college and onto successful careers because of his good friend, the late Dr. Joseph L. White, the founder of the state’s Educational Opportunity Program.
For the past 15 years, the Black Student Union Elders Association has taken their traveling exhibit on the road with community presentations to pay tribute to Dr. White, who started EOP at Cal State University Long Beach over 50 years ago.
He said BSU is dedicated to preserving the history of the original man on a mission to make education available for so many underserved Black and Latinos students.
Dr. White, a well-noted psychologist, and former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, crafted the legislation to bring equity to education.
“We have the original legislation that he and Willie Brown put together back then to get the EOP legislation passed. He conceived the EOP that still exists,” Saafir said. “It’s been uphill, but we have historical documents and pictures, and an opportunity to present it.”
Saafir came on with the BSU one year after it formed, and has been passionate about it ever since. He recommended forming the BSU Elders Association 15 years ago when he was able to gather a long list of the early members.
“These are the folks that got the ball rolling from the beginning. They put together the Black Studies Department at CSULB in 1967,” he said.
The traveling exhibit features powerful happenings in the historical BSU archive, photos and contributions of that day. Some early memorabilia spans the campus to the far reaches of Norway to Africa.
Saafir was set to present the tribute to Dr. White, curated by the BSU Elders Association, at a March 21 ribbon-cutting ceremony that was to be held at Burnett Library with an unveiling of the new African American Resource Center. That event was canceled until further notice due to COVID 19.
Whether visiting the African American Resource Center with its extensive selection of Black history material, or the kinds of exhibits presented by the BSU Elders, Saafir emphasized that it is critically important to preserve the material for future generations.
A lot of what they present also reflects how much some things have sadly stayed the same over the past 50 years. Back in 1969, there were 3.8% Black student population when he was on campus. Today, it’s only 4.0, he said.
“The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon, an Algerian activist in the 60’s, became the foundation for the Black political movement that underscored the historic and cultural devastation of European expansionism and neo-colonialism.
Saafir clearly remembers Algeria in 1969 while attending the first Pan African Cultural Festival there.
“Fanon added insight into the big picture,” he said. “It was mandatory reading for all BSU.”
Other fond early memories include catching up with Eldridge Cleaver, Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael in Norway, where they had dinner together, talked politics and enjoyed a great getaway.
By the time he flew back, a surprise awaited. The FBI had been tracking them. “They were in my house the next day, which meant from then on I couldn’t get a secret clearance to work at Douglas or Boeing. I was on a list. I had already served in the Navy,” he said.
Later in 1973, he set off to Tanzania, invited to speak at the university there. Students were going out to Ujamaa village. He was part of an effort to help clear out trees in the area to accommodate the growing villages.
One of the elders heard him speak and recognized him.
“She just raised up, [saying] Slave! Slave! She started crying. She was old enough to have seen her relatives dragged off,” he said.
When they left that village, they went to the slave ships that were still sitting in the water. “They took us out to the auction blocks that were already there. You talk about a feeling that goes over you. I can still feel it,” he said.
Glenda Williams, director of library services for Long Beach, said many people in the community are still unaware of the dynamic collection of Black authors that line the shelves at the Burnett library.
Some are first edition copies from African American authors, a collection that inspired the late Indira Hale Tucker, who often spoke to the Long Beach Leader about flying out to other countries when needed to buy a new rare African American book.
Williams said Hale Tucker and Doris Topsy Elvord became the driving force behind the African American Resource Center, and the collection that has grown significantly since then. Not long ago, the library supervisor at Burnett noticed the space was too small to contain the expanding assortment of resources.
“We’re hoping that people will realize the resource that’s available to them,” Williams said, adding that the Burnett Library is unique, and wants to see more in the community come out to take advantage of all that it offers. The library is located at 560 E. Hill Street in Long Beach.
“I don’t think that it is used as much as it could be, but I’m hoping that with the visible space and the new location within the resource center, it should draw more attention to the collection,” she said.
Her libraries are also participating in helping the community with the Census. At least one computer will be available at each location, and they are partnering with Cal State Long Beach interns who will assist with the process.
“We are working with the city’s technology innovation department, we’ve got a whole city and community effort around the Census,” she said. “It’s a big deal focused on those hard to reach in the community.”