From radical student to retiring professor

(Chris Juhn/MSR News) Prof. John S. Wright speaking to attendees

The 50-year career of U of M’s Dr. John S. Wright

For Dr. John S. Wright, change has been a long time coming. Nearly five decades ago, he helped make history as an antagonist for civil rights and racial equity at the University of Minnesota (UM). He went on to teach African American & African Studies — a department he helped create and shape — and English for 35 years.

Now the U of M professor is ready to hang up his teaching hat from the school where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.

As a student, Wright was a key figure in a group that brought Martin Luther King to campus in 1967. In the aftermath of King’s assassination the following year, Wright and the student-led Afro-American Action Committee’s (AAAC) protest demands pushed the university to establish an African American Studies program.

“Stokely Carmichael came in 1967 to Williams Arena,” said Wright. “That event is largely forgotten.”

That, said Wright, is what the university’s administration hoped Black students and everyone else would do after enough time passed following King’s death and the subsequent outpouring of emotion.

“King’s assassination was on a Friday,” Wright recalled. “That weekend over 100 American cities were under flames.”

Wright said he and other young Black people were influenced by what was happening nationally. With the AAAC, they protested alongside the rest of the country. “Radical organizations were part of our worldview,” said Wright.

Following the protests, the university formed a task force to study the best way to move forward. One month passed, then three months, then five. The task force study hit the eight-month mark with “little to show for their efforts,” said Wright.

And so the Black student group escalated their measures. On a January day in 1969, some 70 students crowded into Morrill Hall, the school’s administrative building. The “Morrill Hall Takeover” demanded the school treat Black students better and start a department for studying Blackness.

The protest, which lasted 24 hours, paid off. The group’s efforts led to special advising and counseling for Black students and the establishment of the African American Studies program.

The department started offering classes in 1970, which is also when the school created its Martin Luther King, Jr. Program supporting underrepresented communities. Wright directed the MLK program for three years as a graduate student.

He soon left for Carleton College, which recruited him to create the African American & African Studies Department, serve as its chair, and work in the English Department. In 1984, Wright returned to the U of M and the African American program he first started.

A few other of Wright’s professional bright spots in a constellation of glittering scholarly success include his nomination as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow by novelist Ralph Ellison, and receiving the U of M’s Horace T. Morse Award, the highest honor for undergraduate teaching at the school.

Even nearing the end of his tenure, Wright’s activist spirit intensely burned. Wright worked on the 2017 exhibit “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anticommunists, Racism and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota 1930-1942,” which demonstrated that university administrators deliberately segregated student housing and oversaw surveillance of Jewish students.

Wright spoke during the presentation, recommending the school change the names of few buildings named after the racist administrators and also commit to changes that go beyond the names of buildings.

Many of the issues displayed in the exhibit remain. Considering lingering issues over race at the university, Wright said work by him and others at the school is “at one level, a success story.”

Between 1965 and 1980, over 800 Black programs sprung up around the U.S. “Two-thirds no longer exist,” said Wright. “We survived the winnowing process.”

Yet, as he prepares to leave, Wright feels the African American Studies program he helped start decades ago is still not adequately staffed and funded, and not responsive enough to cultural shifts as the years go on. “Historical changes require changes in strategy and philosophy,” said Wright.

As well as continuing to inch the U of M and the greater community toward racial respect, Wright also has an eye for the arts. The professor created the first nationally touring exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance and created a jazz and poetry ensemble. As a spoken-word performer and producer, Wright performed nationally “The Langston Hughes Project-Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz” for a decade.

Locally — outside of Prince, of course — Wright said there have been many artistic “outgrowths.” He pointed in particular to the birth of Penumbra Theater and Gary Hine’s musical ensemble Sounds of Blackness.

A legacy of Black excellence

Wright is a local himself, born in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood to an immigrant mother who’d come to the Twin Cities from Barbados a little before World War II, and a third-generation Minnesotan father who came from Kentucky at the end of the 19th century.

Wright also comes from a long line of civic-minded people, though he never really thought of his family and himself as such before his young adulthood at the U. “As a kid in the periphery, adults don’t always tell you everything that’s going on,” said Wright.  

Wright’s paternal grandmother was intensely active in the community. His grandfather helped organized the 1902 National Afro American Council convention in St. Paul. His aunt Martha graduated valedictorian from North High “at a time when there were only a handful of Blacks at North,” said Wright.

Martha went on to be the only Black student in the U of M’s school of science. As president of the Council of Negro Students, she also protested against university administrators who prohibited Blacks from living in dorms.

 “I intend to stay very active,” said Wright, who is retiring as professor but will stay on as professor emeritus and continue chasing an “array” of scholarly projects, both on campus and in the community.

“I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.”