Growing up as a young black man in the segregated South, James Dennis quickly realized what it meant to cross the line. In July of 1961 he was arrested for trespassing onto the white side of a train station in Jackson, Mississippi.His risky move was part of a movement that he participated in called the Freedom Rides. Under great pressure he realized what it took for a black man to fight for his rights.
“For men, you had to,” The 70-year-old said, as he spoke with his thick southern accent.
Thirty-nine days in jail and 45 years later the Texas native and retired CSUN professor says that the Jackson experience is what pushed him to get an education
“It changed my life because in September, I went back to school.”
Dennis said he realized there was only one thing a black man living in a racially discriminated society could be – an educated black man.
“That was the only way I could keep my livelihood going,” Dennis said.
By the end of 1961 Dennis earned a degree in Government at Los Angeles State College, now Cal State Los Angeles. As news spread about a Pan-African Studies Department opening up at CSUN, the tenacious activist, with an educational background in political science saw an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.
“I came in and submitted my application because they formed that department,” Dennis said, as he recalled receiving his first teaching job at CSUN. “I was able to be considered because of my civil rights experience.”
After 33 years of teaching, Dennis is now honored with the title of professor Emeritus. Dennis said he tries to devote as much of his time to the department where he once stood as chair from 1980 to 1986. Even before he started with the department back in 1969, Dennis said he wanted to embed knowledge into the minds of black students; knowledge of the black experience.
“We [the black studies professors] are the only people who’ve been trained and who’ve studied the experience. We’ve looked at issues from all different directions so that we can now come up with a liberated ideology,” Dennis said.
The emotional scars of his past still haunt him.
There was “real terror living in the South, ” Dennis said, as his voice trembled. “I wanted to do something about that terror.” He remembers vividly the mistreatment of blacks in the South. “Black people weren’t even worth a quarter, especially men,” Dennis said.
Dennis wanted to take those experiences and bring them into the classroom. He began to teach classes that focused on the historical and political experience of the African American people.
As much as Dennis made his classroom a place for knowledge enthusiasts he also utilized the opportunity to encourage his students to become leaders.
“What we’ve been doing over the last 30 years or so is training the young people to become leaders. They need leadership to learn and do the kinds of things that will make African Americans competitive within this society.”
He wanted to influence and inspire his students.
“You can’t be ignorant and provide leadership to take you out of the situation that is negative and into a positive one, so that’s what the black studies is all about.”
Dennis said students should feel obligated to know about the real black history to make up for the generations before them that did not have that oppurtunity.
“They owe it to their mamas and their daddys. They owe it their ancestors.”
As a professor in the Pan African-Studies department, Dennis held a number of debates over issues pertaining to the black community.
“We had one on separation or integration,” the inspired activist said as he described the difference between the terms segregation and separation.
“Segregation means that somebody forces you into a situation where your group is put together,” Dennis said. “Separation is when you want to be separated.”
He feels the significance and existence of the PAS department is crucial to black students.
“To go to college, it’s basically a study of the European people,” he said. “It’s the sociology of the European, their psychology, their music, and their dance.” The department can offer to black students what no other department can, he said.
“Being educated and quite experienced is of no value to black folks. We have more Phd’s and MA’s than ever before but the black community is in the worst shape than it has been since slavery because their education is not relevant to the black experience.” His message is clear. The white community has to recognize black people as being human.
“Most African Americans had to be recognized by white folks for being human. When slavery came into existence and really reduced (black) americans to animals black men had no more rights than a horse.”
Dennis said he feels the PAS department needs to take the measures neccesary to better serve the black community. “That is what the department and their students and graduates have to do in order to make black folks really human,” Dennis said.
Former student and friend Leroy Geter remembers Dennis’ devotion to his teaching. “I consider him to be a very astute political scientist in his own right,” Geter said. “He’s very learned. He not only brought to the class relevant issues and current events but also a sense of community and how events would affect the community, particularly the African-American community.” Geter, now VP of transfer services and academic affairs at CSUN, attributes much of his own knowledge and skills to his former professor and mentor.
“I always sought opportunities to work alongside of him; to develop my skills in awareness of community needs and certainly the needs of our students here on campus.”
Dennis offered life learning tips and advisement to his students as former student Robert Black Burn remembers. “He helped me get into CSUN. He was a mentor towards me by helping me to develop my cognitive and analytical abilities,” Burn said.
Dennis’s continual pursuit in the fight for civil rights led him to the Congress of Racial Equality Core. He was an active member from 1961 to 1972 where he served as president of the civil rights organization and then remained a board member.
Chair of the Pan-African Studies Department, Dr. Tom Spencer-Walters, has known Dennis for nearly 22 years. He greatly respects Dennis’s passion and commitment to the department. “He was a very committed black activist. One who still cares deeply about the department and its future,” he said.
Spencer-Walters also remembers Dennis’ political contributions distinctly “Dennis was an executive member of the Black Political Association,” Spencer-Walters said. “It’s a very significant organization because they not only meet to talk about issues they also plan visions for black studies program across the country,” he said.
Dennis hopes to form an alumni group together with the black studies professors in February. For now, he hopes the department will maintain the credibility it has had over the years and that it continues to prepare black students to become better members of their group.
“In 2006, we have the ability to do anything as humanly as possible, but we are not a group. We don’t love one another,” he said. “All other groups are together and they know who they are.”
Dennis spoke with expressiveness and he appeared concerned as he described what he thinks is the way to strengthen the black community.
“We got to create a new (black) person who loves themselves first and is willing to devote life and energy to create a community that can self sustain as much as possible.”
When presented with the question of how long he plans to stay in touch with the department, he replied firmly.
“As long as they’ll let me.”
Nia Guleyon can be reached at