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Movie On Brian Gittens ’89 Highlights His Activism

T.Wei/The Phillipian

In 1989, Gittens protested on the steps of Samuel Phillips Hall because Andover did not cancel classes for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

On January 16, 1989, Brian Gittens ’89 spent ten hours on the steps of Samuel Phillips Hall, equipped with signs and a boombox blaring Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in protest of the school’s decision to hold classes on M.L.K. Day.

His actions that day changed how Andover currently observes M.L.K. Day. The school now has a “day on” by hosting a speaker for a special two-hour long All-School Meeting (ASM) and having students both lead and engage in workshops throughout the day.

This past Sunday, a film by Jack McGovern ’15 entitled “The Story of Brian Gittens,” was shown in Kemper Auditorium, followed by a conversation with Gittens himself. The film told of Gittens’ struggle to facilitate change within the Andover community and of a broader struggle to raise awareness around multiculturalism at Andover.

Gittens said in an interview with The Phillipian, “Maybe [the school] thought they were doing enough [for M.L.K. Day]. When you don’t have another voice to counteract that, there’s no reason to change the status quo. They felt like they’d checked that box. Why do anything different, until people came and stirred the pot and made the status quo no longer eternal?”

Gittens settled on the idea for his protest after discussing ideas with friends. He had made plans to meet with other students in the morning to make signs, but they never showed up.

Gittens said in the movie, “[At the time, I thought,] worst case scenario, I’m out there by myself. And that worst case scenario became the reality.”

But slowly, other students and faculty began joining him.

According to an article published by The Phillipian on January 20, 1989, “Reactions from faculty, administration, and students were generally supportive. Instructors in English Seth Bardo and Maria Valentine brought their classes to join Gittens.”

Andover students and faculty did not talk about race often at the time, according to Cathy Royal, who served as Dean of the Community and Multicultural Department from 1988-1992.

Royal said in the movie, “There was no place [on campus at the time] where you gathered and had conversations about home and culture and ethnicity and race and racism. It’s almost as if the campus did not allow it. You could not have that conversation with any authenticity.”

Former Head of School Don McNemar, who was also interviewed in the movie, said in the film, “A black student [in 1989] felt like a guest at a white school when they came to Andover.”

By standing on the steps of Sam Phil, Gittens was working to change that culture.

Jane Park ’22 said, “One of my biggest takeaways from this talk was that social change is never-ending. There is always room for progress and growth. We students have the power to change, as long as we act upon the differences we want to see in the world. It was really inspiring to see how one student made such a tremendous change to this school.”

Gittens said that although Andover failed to adequately address race on campus, the very education that Andover gave him also allowed him to stand up to the institution.

“They created this monster themselves, through education and empowerment. They allowed me to put a mirror up to the very institution that armed me with this wonderful knowledge and conviction,” Gittens said in the movie.

According to an issue of The Phillipian published on January 20, 1989, Gittens repeated the following words more than 15 times during his protest:

“It is easy for a person on the outside to say that I just wanted to get out of class. It is easy to accept things as they are and not challenge them. That’s not what Dr. King wanted or stood for…I believe that this community, this school, this part of our lives, should be changed. Dr. King stood for the advancement of black people and all people everywhere. I feel a responsibility to honor him on Martin Luther King Day. It is the very least I can do.”

These words still carry weight at Andover 30 years later.

Gittens said in the movie, “History has a way of romanticizing things. Change oftentimes is messy. And that’s okay. What I wanted to do was spark a conversation, and that’s what happened.”