Baltimore Sun

Bowie State students made history the day King died

Bowie State students pass through a line of state troopers at the Maryland State House on April 4, 1968. The students staged a sit-in to protest conditions at the school.  When they refused to leave, they were arrested, marched peacefully to waiting buses and were taken to jail.

The country remembers April 4, 1968, as the day civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a tragedy that touched off riots in major cities throughout the United States.

For a group of more than 200 Bowie State College students, though, King’s assassination was just one part of a day that made more personal history.


The students were engaged in their own protest, coming to Annapolis to push for a change in the poor learning and living conditions at their college. They’d staged a peaceful demonstration at the State House and been arrested — following the spirit of King’s own crusades for equality.

It wasn’t until later that night, while they awaited release from the Anne Arundel County Detention Center on Jennifer Road, that they learned of King’s murder.


“I can remember just sliding down against the wall, slumping my head between my legs and weeping,” said Al Pindell, 70, an Arundel High graduate and then a sophomore at what is now called Bowie State University.

“It’s indelibly marked in my mind. I’ll never forget that day.”

The anger over poor conditions at Bowie State had been festering for some time. Students were upset about the dilapidated buildings where they lived and attended class. They were tired of having their school left out when budget allocations were made and frustrated by deficiencies in the curriculum.

They’d boycotted classes during the last week of March 1968. At one point, they took over several of the school’s buildings — sleeping in the hallways overnight — in an attempt to force school and state officials to address their concerns.

“What we were really protesting was the lack of curriculum and facilities, Pindell said.

“You could go to Frostburg, you could go to Towson, you could go to Salisbury and the curricula and the facilities were better and there were more of them. These were state schools and we really couldn't understand why we were getting shortchanged — other than the fact that we were a predominantly black institution. ”

On Thursday, April 4, Bowie State students took their complaints to then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. They didn’t expect to meet with Agnew, and figured they’d get arrested in the bargain. But they wanted to make a point.


“I’m sure a lot of us were scared, but we knew we had to stick together,” said Arlene Creek, then a sophomore protester and now an athletic administrator at the university.

The 228 students — almost half the school’s enrollment at the time — staged a sit-in at the State House that afternoon, seeking an audience with Agnew to discuss their grievances. They arrived about 1:15 p.m., and waited quietly as Maryland State Police troopers blocked the steps leading to Agnew’s office on the second floor.

As it turned out, Agnew wasn’t even in Annapolis that day.

When the building closed at 5 p.m., the students refused to leave. Eventually, they were arrested and marched out to a fleet of school buses that took them to the detention center. They were charged with trespassing and released.

At about the same time the students learned of King’s murder, Agnew ordered the campus closed.

Keeping it open, Agnew said at the time, given the volatile atmosphere throughout black communities all over the country after King’s killing, constituted “a clear and present danger to the public health, safety and general welfare.”


Bowie State remained closed for almost two weeks. It finally reopened on April 16, the end of Easter recess. By that time, the Board of Trustees of Maryland’s State Colleges approved a $355,000 emergency allocation to address some of the poor conditions.

Creek, who was from Pennsylvania, didn’t own a car and had no way to get back home during the break. She and some of her classmates wound up spending those 12 days with a family in Bowie — a family they didn’t know — who volunteered to take in some of the stranded students. Several other families did the same thing.

“Those families from Bowie came to our rescue,” she recalled.