Marcus Manselle was a Weaver High senior from Hartford who published the student newspaper The People’s Press. He was first to report that faculty and students began a picketing campaign at the Hartford Chamber of Commerce on February 7, 1969. The Chamber had proposed $3.5 million cut in the Board of Education budget. The Hartford Courant had to rely on Manselle’s reporting to figure out what all the commotion was about.
May 3rd marks World Press Freedom Day, first designated by the UN General Assembly in 1993. Across the globe, students have played a critical role in using and maintaining unrestricted media to promote democracy and justice. Witness, for example, the value of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook during the Arab Spring in 2011, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police brutality.
Two decades before the UN declaration, local African American high school students decided to teach elected officials about freedom of the press.
The Weaver High “underground” newspaper was written and printed by Manselle, Louise Billie and Cliff Hankton at their own expense. Distribution took place on school property, without official approval. Hartford’s Corporation Counsel ruled that the paper was “hate literature,” filled with “racist” and “obscene” language. In fact, the students were speaking out about student rights, irrelevant education, and their alienation from school and society.
The city’s attorney seemed to be proving their point. The Weaver administration informed Manselle, Billie and Hankton that they had to stop handing out the paper or suffer the consequences. They refused. The Board of Education suspended the three on February 21st without bothering to engage the students in a discussion about their activity. Manselle was forced into “home instruction” during his suspension. Even after the other two students were allowed to return to school, Manselle’s discipline continued.
The newspaper did not stop publishing. It surfaced again in April with more support than ever: students, teachers, and the Ebony Businessmen’s League all spoke out for Manselle and criticized the students’ suspensions. The 120-member Weaver Student Senate backed Manselle and raised many of the demands that he had championed. Parents and alumni met to support the cause. The University of Hartford’s student newspaper UH News /Liberated Press followed the story, published his essays, and listed Manselle as a staff member.
A state judge refused to issue an injunction on Manselle’s discipline, despite a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of Iowa students to wear black armbands after Martin Luther King’s assassination. On May 1st, another issue of The People’s Press was ready for distribution, this time on the Blue Hills Avenue sidewalk in front of Weaver High. Students also leafleted at City Hall and urged Mayor Ann Uccello to support their fight. She replied that the issue was not within her jurisdiction. The Weaver student senate took the controversy to the Board of Education office, calling for Manselle’s reinstatement and the establishment of a student court that could review and overturn disciplines.
On May 27, after being stonewalled by every level of city government, 500 Weaver students went on strike for three days. Strikers urged those still inside the school to join them, and more students left class. They marched to the Board office on High Street. They tried to join a Board-faculty meeting but were refused entrance. “I want nothing more to do with you,” said the exasperated Board president Alfred Rogers.
The fight continued into June. Finally, with the help of local NAACP president Wilber Smith, a working group of students, parents, school officials and Board members hammered out a resolution. The proposal would allow on-campus distribution of independent publications as long as it did not “inflame or incite” students or interfere with normal school business. Marcus Manselle’s suspension continued, however. He did not graduate with his class.
Weaver High School was renovated in 1976 and rechristened the Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary school. It was Dr. King, speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, who told the crowd “Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” The keynote speaker at the Hartford school’s rededication was Dr. King’s niece, Alberta King Neale, an Atlanta journalist.