Gittens ’89 Looks Back on Student Protest for MLK Day Recognition

On the morning of Monday, January 16, 1989, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” reverberated across campus from the steps of Samuel Phillips Hall. Accompanied by his boombox and posterboard, Brian Gittens ’89 was perched on the steps to protest what he saw as an inadequate observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day.

One by one, students began to join Gittens’s public demonstration. By the time about 30 students had gathered, Gittens was reciting a short speech he had written the night before, encouraging students to stand up for what they believed in just like King had. What had started out as one student’s initiative to spark change soon erupted into a passionate crowd of 100. Gittens’s bold decision to engage in a personal act of civil disobedience would come to establish Andover’s first annual day-long MLK Day celebration a year later.

As Andover celebrated its 25th annual MLK Day celebration this Monday, Gittens returned to his alma mater to discuss the inspirations that led him to the steps of SamPhil. Speaking to a packed Cochran Chapel during Monday’s All-School Meeting (ASM), Gittens reflected on his successful attempt to fix Andover’s limited recognition of MLK Day as a national holiday.

“At Andover, we would celebrate the program after the school day was over, and I remember during my Upper year thinking there was something amiss. Not celebrating MLK day as a national holiday and conducting business as usual was symbolic of Andover’s limited commitment to its students of color,” said Gittens during the ASM.

Gittens grew up in Baltimore, MD., as the son of a nursing assistant and an electrician. “When people ask me where I’m from or how I grew up, I usually provide the HBO series, ‘The Wire,’ as a frame of reference,” said Gittens.

Gittens recalled the protests during his childhood that advocated MLK Day as a national holiday, in which supporters were encouraged to boycott business and schools. Growing up at the center of social activism, in addition to mainstream media, Gittens learned about King and his impact as a civil rights leader at a young age.

“I was often reminded by teachers and mentors of our indebtedness to those who came before us… how we should not take for granted the freedoms and the paths to success that were carved by the courage, blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us,” said Gittens.

Although he immediately fell in love with the place that was nothing like “The Wire,” Gittens described his relationship with Andover as a complicated one.

“[At Andover], I struggled with finding a self that I could be here and take home. I struggled finding my voice among the noise of who I was supposed to be or expected to act. While I discovered many beautiful things at Andover, I also discovered the depths of my differences from those around me,” said Gittens.

Gittens said that, although Andover had been focusing on getting more minority students on campus, the notion of inclusiveness was still a work in progress at that time. However, over the course of the next two years, Gittens said that he finally discovered and became comfortable with his own self.

Gittens said that he finally found his voice on the day he decided to lead the student protest 25 years ago.

“This only became possible when I stopped caring so much about the opinions of others and focused rather on being the best me that I could be. I also learned to love Andover, and it became my school — my Andover,” he said.

Gittens added that his actions were not only his protest but, rather, a movement shared by many in the Andover community.

“Your takeaways, reflection, critical thinking and developing a genuine concern for others is your challenge as emerging leaders. There will be a time when you will have your critical moment… My hope for you is that in that critical moment when you are called upon to make a stand, that you show courage in the face of adversity, that you will not take the easy way out, but rather find your true voice and exercise authentic leadership,” he said.

Upon graduating from Andover, Gittens served in the Marine Core for 13 years and earned a Bachelor’s in Communication as well as a Master’s in Public Administration from Virginia Tech. Gittens earned his doctorate in Higher Education Administration from George Washington University.