Recalling the Founding of the ‘Journal of Black Studies’ a Half Century Ago
A few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, two Black social scientists in Southern California approached a fledgling academic publisher with a unique proposition: let us launch a journal for another fledgling — the discipline of Black studies.
The two scholars – Robert Singleton, a onetime Freedom Rider who was founding director of the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a younger man, born under the name Arthur Lee Smith but now universally known as Molefi Kete Asante – approached the founder of SAGE Publications certain that the fullness of time presaged their pitch.
The Civil Rights movement in the United States blossomed throughout the 1960s through both protest and policy. Much of the former involved college students, who noticed their universities’ scholarship never seemed to advance beyond the white male experience and outlook. Increasingly, these students called for ethnic and gender studies integrated into the university curriculum. The year 1968 would prove a watershed year for these calls, especially in California, with seismic events such as the murder of King adding impetus.
At San Francisco State University, a consortium of student groups — the Black Student Union, Latin American Students Organization, Asian American Political Alliance, Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, and Native American Students Union – initiated a student-body strike to demand the university establish a school of ethnic studies. After the longest student strike in U.S. history, the first College of Ethnic Studies in the United States opened its doors, at San Francisco State, on March 20, 1969. Meanwhile, 13 days earlier and across San Francisco Bay, the University of California, Berkeley debuted the first ethnic studies department following that school’s own lengthy strike.
The impact of these announcements resonated well beyond the Bay Area, especially with Asante and Singleton. “We got this idea that we should start a journal because the Black studies movement had just started and San Francisco State had created the [College] of Black studies,” Asante explained earlier this year in a Social Science Bites podcast.
Asante, in an editorial last year, connected the journal’s establishment following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968 to the reflection and ferment that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. “The Journal of Black Studies was born out of the last great public call for equality, justice and nonviolence after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. … Hence the original idea of JBS was a comprehensive response to all conceivable social issues in society.” The first issue published in September of 1970 and the first full volume was completed 50 years ago in September 1971.
“Seldom in the history of academic disciplines,” Asante would write in the journal’s first issue, “has an area of study been born with so much pain and anguish as Black Studies, also called Afro-American Studies. Discussions initiated, for the most part by university students, produced significant reevaluations of curricula, research, and pedagogy. But the sustained intellectual development of this area, as in all areas, cannot be based upon awakening rhetoric; it is time that we be about the work of Alain Locke, Carter A. Woodson, W. E. B. DuBois, Melville Herskovits, and a host of others who have labored to tell the truth about people of African descent.”
“I must say,” Asante recalled in a 2002 interview with historian Diane D. Turner, “the initial idea for the journal was Robert Singleton’s idea—Robert Singleton, who was the interim director for one year at the Center for African American Studies at UCLA before I took over as the permanent director. He had come to me and said, ‘Look, you are a scholar, you’re young, bright, intellectual. You just got your degree and you’ve written a book. Really, you ought to edit this journal, and we ought to have this journal.’”
By 1968 Singleton was a major figure in the Southern California civil rights movement. Born in Philadelphia, as a young man he joined the U.S. Army (and encountered his first “whites-only” sign while stationed in Georgia) and then used his veteran’s benefits to study economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD.
As a student, Singleton actively fought for racial justice, whether heading the university chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving on the Chancellor’s Committee on Discrimination, and organizing sit-ins and investigations in the Los Angeles area. In 1961, as part of the Freedom Rider movement to highlight the by-now unconstitutional segregation still official policy in the South, he, his wife Helen and 12 volunteers went to Jackson, Mississippi by public bus. Both Singletons would be arrested and locked up in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Singleton continued his work with the Congress for Racial Equality (which had organized the Freedom Rides) in the South before returning to complete his studies at UCLA. Back on campus, the NAACP chapter had been booted off campus, so a new group sponsored by the Congress for Racial Equality replaced it, with Singleton at its head.
After receiving his doctorate, Singleton served as an economist at the California State Assembly Office of Research before returning to UCLA as an assistant professor of labor economics. As his bio on the UCLA website explains, “During his first semester, two students were killed in a dispute over who would be named founding director of the proposed Center for African American Studies. The surviving students asked the chancellor to appoint Singleton founding director, and he worked in that position for two years.”
The young man Singleton urged to lead this proposed new journal on Black studies was in 1968 a rising academic just graduated from UCLA. Born in the Southern city of Valdosta, Georgia as one of 16 children, Asante grew up in the Deep South. (He took his African name in 1973, becoming Molefi Kete Asante. “I don’t look like an Arthur Lee Smith,” he later reflected, “and probably don’t act like an Arthur Lee Smith.) He earned a bachelor’s at Oklahoma Christian College in 1964 and a master’s at Pepperdine University in 1965 before he started at UCLA. At UCLA he was president of the campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which with the Congress for Racial Equality were the two great workhorses of the Civil Rights movement.
Asante’s first professorship was at Purdue University in Indiana, but in 1969 he returned to UCLA, and was tabbed to become the first permanent director of the Center for Afro-American Studies that Singleton was overseeing.
These were the two men who called on SAGE – which itself had been founded but four years before – and presented a plan for the Journal of Black Studies.
Asante had just published his first academic book, The Rhetoric of Black Revolution, with another publisher when one of his students mentioned a new company in town publishing social science. Asante and Singleton visited SAGE’s Beverly Hills offices to make a pitch to the company’s founder, Sara Miller McCune. “We go up to SAGE’s office and we meet Sara, and we tell her our vision. There was such a charisma of risk taking she had that was so incredible. She was a visionary in the sense of being able to see the value of African American studies.”
As later related in the book Black Pioneers in Communication Research, “In the tradition of Black radical activism, Asante and Singleton authoritatively stated, ‘Look, you don’t have any Black journals. You have 12 to 14 journals and there is nothing in Black people. We want you to publish this journal and give us full editorial rights.’”
As Asante explained in the podcast, “To the credit of SAGE, and I always give SAGE credit, Sara Miller McCune said, ‘Let us think about it.’ They thought about and they came back in a couple of days and said, yes, they would publish the Journal of Black Studies.” Asante was to be the editor in chief, a position he still holds, and Singleton the first chairman of the advisory board.
“I went out and got a board of some of the top figures,” Asante said. “At that time we didn’t have people in Black studies per se, with the exception of San Francisco State, but I got a lot of people who were in history and anthropology, and brought those people onto the board of the journal.”
Among the key influences on the journal during its early years were editorial board members Vincent Harding of the Institute of the Black World; C. Eric Lincoln of Union Theological Seminary; E.U. Essien-Udom of the University of Ibadan; Clyde Taylor of UCLA; Lerone Bennett, senior editor of Ebony; Orlando Taylor of the Center for Applied Linguistics; Charles Hamilton of Columbia University; Harold Cruse of the University of Michigan; and Henry McGee of UCLA. By the end of the first year, new scholars were attracted to the editorial board, including Jack Daniel of the University of Pittsburgh, Carlton Molette of Spelman College, Roy Simon Bryce-LaPorte of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Edward Isibor of Cleveland State University.
For her part, Miller McCune credits the journal and Asante with jumpstarting SAGE’s own efforts in building up scholarly work on ethnic studies. “The years that we have spent in building a strong list of materials, both journals and books, on ethnic studies and understanding the cultures and beliefs of others, in an interdisciplinary and very open-minded way, go back to that meeting with that professor. I am grateful that he put his trust in me, just as we … put our trust in him and his wonderful editorial board. They were pioneers, they deserve great praise.”
Just as the journal’s advisory board could not simply draw from a list of scholars in Black studies, neither could the editors go there for researchers. “The first authors came from a variety of disciplines and put their academic skills and resources to the analysis of historical, rhetorical, and sociological concerns,” Asante explains in the 2020 editorial in the journal. “With the publication of JBS in September 1970 the academy and the field of social sciences had opened a new door into the lived experiences of Africans in America and indeed throughout the African diaspora. This was not to be a field defined simply by the discipline of history but we sought to ‘sustain a full analytical’ treatment of African people. No wonder those who published early and frequently during those first years were both activist and intellectual leaders in the field of Black studies. … Our authors were often considered “militant” or “revolutionary” though these terms were definitely overused; it would have been better to call our writers during those times nascent Afrocentrists in the sense that they were examining the various nuances, often missed by other scholars, of the sites for African American cultural agency.”
Asante left UCLA in 1973 for the State University of New York at Buffalo and then in 1984 decamped to Temple University as chair of the Department of African American Studies, where among other things he created the nation’s first PH.D. program in African American studies. Robert Singleton currently serves as faculty emeritus in the Department of Economics at Loyola Marymount University.
This year, to celebrate the first half century of both the Journal of Black Studies and Asante’s continuous editorship of the journal, SAGE is endowing Temple’s College of Liberal Arts with a $100,000 African American Studies graduate research scholarship. The prize will be known as the SAGE Asante Award.
Asante’s contribution as a scholar and with the journal, noted Blaise Simqu, SAGE’s CEO, proved a turning point in a vital larger struggle. “It made me realize how important all of your work was and what a risk everybody felt they were taking at that time. But it wasn’t a risk; it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
“In a perfect world”, Asante reflected in that Social Science Bites podcast, “a utopia without discrimination, “there would be no role for the Journal of Black Studies. There would a role for a Journal of Human Studies. The principles of the Journal of Black Studies will have succeeded so well that we will have created such a world.” But, added, “I don’t see it in my lifetime, so the Journal of Black Studies will be around a little longer.”