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Jesse Arnelle: A Catalyst for Change in 1968

Jesse Arnelle’s career as a student-athlete at Penn State was remarkable. He earned All-American honorable mentions as a football player, became Penn State’s only All-American basketball player (he led the team to its only Final Four appearance in 1954), held the scoring record for fifty-six years with 2,138 points, and continues to hold the career record for rebounds. He was so athletic that when he graduated in 1955, teams in both the NFL and NBA drafted him. He would choose the latter and played in 31 professional games. He even played on the Harlem Globetrotters for a time.

Athletics aside, Arnelle was an outstanding student and member of the Penn State community. As a junior, he was elected as the first black student government president to serve at a major white university — months before Brown v. Board of Education was handed down. His time spent as a student earned him respect among the Penn State community, but it wasn’t until after graduation that Arnelle’s role in shaping the community would truly come to fruition.

After attaining his undergraduate degree Arnelle went on to serve in the Air Force before enrolling in the Dickinson School of Law, where he graduated in 1962. He went on to take the bar exam in California and entered into a law firm with William Hastie in San Francisco. The two men then created the firm Arnelle & Hastie, which the magazine Black Enterprise named one of the top twelve black law firms in the country in 1987.

With a deep concern for the community and extensive legal training, Arnelle was more than prepared to play a major role in the Civil Rights Movement, specifically, as it pertained to Penn State University. His actions as an alumnus reciprocated the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement in the South; he addressed civil rights at Penn State with the mentality that a little was not enough—that the momentum of change should not be squandered.

This mentality emerged in 1968 when he addressed Penn State Football’s Awards Banquet. As he approached the podium in the HUB ballroom, coaches and players from past and present sat anxious, anticipating a spirited sports discussion, but Arnelle took the crowd by surprise when he decided not to talk about sports at all. Instead, he decided to address the racial issues that persisted throughout the University. He called for drastic changes in policies, and moreover, the attitudes of the entire Penn State community. In his speech, that lasted well over the 25 minutes he was allotted, he articulated his view on the current state of the University, as well as on the changes he wished to see at his alma mater. This was made especially clear when he said,

“The Pennsylvania State University must become a principal player on the field of social and educational change … Isolated as it is from the teeming, sprawling, urban jungle; insulated from filth, stench, and the sodden pock-marked ugliness of the black ghetto, the University in splendidly contrasting surroundings while grown bigger in size, student enrollment, and resources has grown ratably smaller in commitment to social change and largely insensitive to the frustrated aspirations and daily indignities of the “Other America,” which James Baldwin, Kenneth Clark and Claude Browne have written so movingly [about].” (“Jesse Arnelle: A Love”)



A common misconception concerning the Civil Rights Movement is that racial inequality was restricted to southern states. The inequalities that Blacks faced in the South may have been more egregious, but the North still presented inequalities in many facets of everyday living. These problems were of a social and economic variety (rather than legal, like in the South) and some of the many problems that Blacks in the North faced were inequalities that permeated the academic atmosphere. Unfortunately — despite the forward thinking shown by electing Jesse Arnelle student-body president in 1955 — Penn State was not blameless in these problems of racial inequalities.

General assumptions regarding the student population’s attitude on civil rights can be drawn from dialogues in the Daily Collegian archives. Though the majority of articles in The Collegian discussed the heavily protested Vietnam War, it seemed that the student body was more concerned with the racial tensions that persisted on campus. In the early months of 1968, nearly every issue of the newspaper contained a “black vs. white” argument in the Letter to the Editor. It escalated to the point that the section became a continuous back and forth argument between races; the callous arguments routinely disregarded the circumstance of the opposite race and did more to expand the racial gap than to bridge it.

On Valentine’s Day in 1968, three members of Penn State’s black community responded to an article saying that the writer was a, “poor, brainwashed individual (a white person, we presume) who actually thinks that this bastion of white, fascist, racist imperialism is great.” Two days later, another student wrote back with an lettered titled Shape Up or Ship Out, “if this country is all the things that you say, why do you live here? I’m sure that the country could do well without people who think as you do!”

Credit: Nittany Anthology

Later that year, another student wrote to The Daily Collegian criticizing a production of “A Day in the Life,” that was sponsored by the Douglass Association. Joseph Englander accused the Douglass Association of  “acting as an association of hate” saying that the play was discriminatory against white citizens and “was nothing but the fostering agent of hatred prejudice and discontent.” Dan Butler, a member of the trio who penned the Valentine’s Day article, responded to Englander’s claims with the familiar taunt that he was nothing more than “another brainwashed white individual who believes ‘if it ain’t white, it ain’t right.’”

In February, The Collegian published an article that openly accused the Greek system of de facto segregation. The article quoted John W. Haas, a professor of sociology at Penn State, saying, “In light of the radical changes taking place right now in our society, the fraternity system as it is organized here is anachronistic.” His son, at the time a student at Penn State, reiterated the statement in a letter of his own, “At this campus, some of our Greek organizations are particularly vulnerable to claims of discrimination. They have removed restrictive clauses in their charters, but they have not changed their practices.”

To investigate the issue, the IFC created a committee to study the role of black fraternities at Penn State. Soon after, The Collegian published an article titled; “IFC Study Draws Criticism” which insisted that the Greek fraternities were still racist and that the resulting study was discriminatory as well. In this article, Gene Young, a member of the black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, went as far as calling the study of black fraternities a joke in that not a single member of his fraternity had been interviewed. With only three black fraternities at the university, missing one was inexcusable and excluded roughly one third of the studies demographic.

While the Letters to the Editor provide insight to the student body’s general feelings towards civil rights, the undersigned names are fairly repetitive, particularly on the letters defending the black community. This is less surprising when one considers that there were only 200 black undergraduates — roughly one percent of the student population — enrolled at Penn State. Moreover, there were only 35 graduate students enrolled (less than one percent of the graduate population) and only ten black student-athletes, which puts Arnelle’s accomplishments into a startlingly more impressive perspective. The fact that Penn State employed only three black professors added to the problem and made it clear that the environment was not conducive to black students.

Years of talks gave way to physical protest immediately following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. On April 5, the day after the assassination, members of the Douglass Association (with a contingent of white students) used a crowbar to break the lock mechanisms and forcefully lowered the flags in front of Old Main to honor King.  As the flags were lowered, an argument and physical skirmish erupted between students, bystanders, and campus police until the university administration announced that the President of the United States ordered all flags to be flown at half-mast.

The idea of keeping King’s dream alive was sweeping the nation and Penn State was no exception. Influenced by the administrative takeover at Howard University the Douglass Association decided to stage a takeover of its own. On May 13, just days before Arnelle’s address, 100 black students (half of the black student population) entered the Old Main building without warning and confronted Vice President for Student Affairs Charles L. Lewis. After entering around 4:30 p.m., the Douglas Association presented Lewis with a list of twelve demands, most of which went beyond Lewis’s power. The demands were:

  • Greater enrollment of black undergraduates.
  • A building be named after and dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • That a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship fund be established.
  • That a course in black history be made a permanent part of the curriculum.
  • More black professors.
  • More black graduate students.
  • That a section of Pattee Library be devoted exclusively to black authors.
  • That there be a reevaluation of the athletic recruiting program with regard to black athletes.
  • More black athletes.
  • The inclusion of black coaches for athletic teams.
  • More black literature offered in the University English courses.
  • The introduction of an African culture study program.

The Douglass Association president, Wilbert Manley, told Lewis that if action was not taken immediately to begin implementing the twelve demands, he believed it would “become necessary to sit in or even take more drastic action.” The Douglass Association left Old Main three hours after entering, leaving Lewis “visibly shaken.”

Three days later Lewis would join two other school officials on a commission created to discuss the demands with eleven members of the Douglass Association. After a lengthy meeting, a compromise was reached, and three steps would be taken by university officials to make changes: the Douglass Association would appoint black students to work with the University Admissions Office to ensure the enrollment of a greater number of black students; the faculty committee would recommend details of a scholarship fund named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and lastly, the Pattee Library would add to its collection of books by black authors after students determined which books were most needed.

Douglass Association sit-in in the lobby of Old Main. (Credit:
Douglass Association sit-in in the lobby of Old Main. (Credit:

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the compromise was a step in the right direction. However, the student body was not so accepting. Once again, the Letter to the Editor section of The Collegian was filled with complaints. One anonymous student wrote in saying, “Admission authorities should not be coerced into discrimination against white students my making special exceptions for poorly qualified black students. This would violate the very right of equality which the Negro holds so dearly.” It became common for white students to submit parodies of the Douglass demands to The Collegian. The demands were, as can be expected, essentially the exact opposite, asking for “less black undergraduates, less black professors,” etc. Fully illustrating the racial divide that was present at Penn State, even after the Douglass compromise, one letter ended saying, “If these demands are not met, we will riot, siege, and loot as is the black custom.”

The administration’s compromise proved that change was happening, though not at the pace that civil rights activists would have wished. It was with this in mind that Jesse Arnelle approached the podium on May 18.

The Speech

On May 18, 1968, Jesse Arnelle was the guest of honor at the Penn State Football Awards Banquet. Those in attendance were shocked when Arnelle, who was there to receive the first Annual Alumni award, chose not to talk about football. Instead, he opened his speech saying:

“Rather than embroider further the “sweet smell of success,” which is the obvious theme of tonight’s occasion, I have had to reluctantly decide to go at a variance with precedence. Forego the pleasure of polite banality and not give into what would be very heavy nostalgia, but use the time instead to speak of our monumental and historical failures; the things that bring dishonor instead of glory to the University; issues pivotal to our time, heavy on my conscience and lay uncomfortably on the hearts of most Americans.”

Arnelle went on to express that, despite loving the university and owing it for his success, his relationship could be characterized as a “love-wait affair.” After years of waiting for change, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. urged him to change his attitude, convincing him that “further delay served only to prolong my disenchantment.”

In the first few minutes of the speech Arnelle acknowledged the recent changes concerning race relations at Penn State but said that, “legislation through assassination and scholarship in the name of sacrifices cannot be the accepted pattern for social and educational progress in America.” He challenged the university to become “a principal player on the field of social and education change” saying that it had been a spectator for far too long.

Arnelle expressed disbelief that a graduate from Penn State — then the 16th largest university in America — would have hardly any historical perspective or insight of black Americans, even if the graduate studied American history. He also echoed the Douglass Association’s discontent with the lack of black staff at Penn State and said that his experiences as a freshman had given him hope for Penn State’s social progress but that:

“Today, more than a decade later, in spite of all that has transpired in America, despite broad public acceptance of formerly unrelieved truths, Penn State in the interim of my graduation as yet to come to grips with contemporary moral and social consciousness. Somehow she seemed to have lost the way. For it is now more than a century since the commencement of this land grant college and there has never been a black American on the faculty, with tenure, holding the rank of a full professor of anything.”

Arnelle’s next topic was what he referred to as the “unwavering one percent.” He cited the university’s demographics during the early fifties, when undergraduate enrollment was between 9,000 and 12,000 students, and the demographics of 1968, when the university had nearly 42,000 undergraduates. In both eras the black population stood at a minuscule one percent, despite a huge influx of black high school graduates in Pennsylvania. Arnelle argued that the admissions process for black students must be changed so that it didn’t reflect the old adage, “…the white man don’t care how close we get just so we don’t get too high.”

As the speech neared its conclusion Arnelle articulated a simple message reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr’s first speech at Birmingham: More can be done. Arnelle didn’t restrict the scope of his message to changes in the immediate vicinity of the university. He believed that if they put their minds to it, the many gifted scholars of Penn State could have an impact on civil rights that reverberated throughout the nation. The university scholars could, among other things, “design low cost, attractive and comfortable housing to replace…the ghettos; [the University] could…devise alternatives to the hopeless failure…the current welfare system” but the easiest change, and one that was close to home, the university must change its “artificial admission standards which favor middle-class backgrounds over the ghetto poor…and create a climate of sincerity in making the black brother welcomed.”

And finally, in an acknowledged homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., Arnelle finished his speech saying:

“Let no one doubt that I love this Pennsylvania State University deeply, but freedom is dearer to me. So in the words of Martin Luther King, let freedom ring; Let freedom ring from the top of Mount Nittany; let freedom ring from the bell in Old Main; Let freedom ring from the chairs of every Dean and Department head of every faculty. Let freedom ring! Let freedom ring from the Office of the President of the University; from the meeting room of the Board of Trustees; from the Governor’s oak desk in Harrisburg, and when the day dawns on freedom at my beloved Penn State and all its commonwealth campuses then I will come back and join hands, and we will sing together the prophetic words

Free at last.

Free at last

Great God Almighty we’re

Free at last.”

The Aftermath

Immediately after Arnelle’s speech, the Penn State Alumni Association President, Ridge Riley, presented Arnelle with the first annual alumni award as a “token of our thanks.” Riley went on to say, on behalf of the Alumni Association, “We are proud of your achievements and of your dedication to the great problems of our time.”

In an act that spoke as a true testament to Arnelle’s resolve (or stubbornness) to Penn State’s issues, he turned down the award, saying, “I am deeply honored with appreciation, but I decline to take it with me now. I will come back for it when freedom is here, when I can accept it with gratitude, affection, and extreme humility.”

Riley was quoted saying he was, “surprised and a little disappointed” by the decision but that he did not resent Arnelle’s choice. Another Penn State legend — Joe Paterno — was quoted as saying he resented the decision, though the quote makes it clear that he actually sympathized with Arnelle’s decision.

“I resent you not accepting the award because it comes from friends. I hope Penn State does all those things you said, and I’m sure they will,” said Paterno. “I love the University and I hope to be here until I die. But I hope you will accept this award.”

Despite his former coach’s plea, Arnelle left that night without the award.

Though the decision to decline the award was not completely accepted by all those in attendance at the banquet, his attempt to reach the student body was successful. One letter to the editor praised Arnelle saying, “It would certainly be a better world if more of us would sacrifice personal gain for what we believed in, as [Arnelle] did. I agree with everything which Mr. Arnelle was reported to have said and can only feel sorry for those who did not or could not understand.”

It’s impossible to determine how much emphasis can be placed on Arnelle’s speech as a catalyst for change, but the following year was certainly different. On May 29, just 11 days after Arnelle’s speech ten black students from Harrisburg were admitted into Penn State. Known as “The Harrisburg Ten” they were accepted despite the fact that they did not meet the normal academic requirements. The rationale behind the acceptance was that individual determination must be factored as a predictor of college success for poor black students. The success of The Harrisburg Ten would lead to the establishment of the Educational Opportunity Program in 1969. 1969 would also see Penn State’s first Black Arts Festival and the first black homecoming queen—Almaria Eberhardt.

In June of 1969 Jesse Arnelle was elected by the Alumni to serve on the Penn State Board of Trustees. He has been re-elected an additional 12 times since and played a role in shaping Penn State as it exists now — a major university with a minority population of over fifteen percent.

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About the Author

Mitchell Wilston

I apologize in advance.


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