Adam Daniel Beittel was a distinguished educator and administrator who played a key role in the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on 19 December 1898, Beittel graduated from the University of Findlay in 1922 and earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1929. After serving in numerous teaching and administrative positions, Beittel became the president of Tougaloo College, near Jackson, Mississippi, on 1 September 1960. That post became the greatest professional and personal challenge in his long and illustrious career. Tougaloo, a private institution governed by a board of trustees in New York, had long demonstrated a commitment to civil and human rights that earned the school the enmity of Mississippi’s white power structure, and Beittel assumed his post with no intention of changing the controversial culture or climate of the often embattled college.
Beittel arrived in Jackson just months after black collegians in North Carolina had begun an assault on Jim Crow via direct action protests—sit-ins. The movement quickly spread to other black colleges across the South, and on 27 March 1961 nine Tougaloo students entered the downtown branch of the Jackson Public Library to protest its policies regarding segregation. Their actions placed Tougaloo squarely in the crosshairs of Mississippi’s white supremacist culture, but Beittel backed the students and refused to expel them. Over the next three years, Beittel’s administration encouraged Tougaloo students to pursue both academic achievement and active involvement in the growing civil rights movement.
In response, the State of Mississippi repeatedly tried and failed to strip Tougaloo of its accreditation. In 1964, however, Brown University and Tougaloo College entered into an academic partnership, and representatives of the Rhode Island school criticized Beittel’s work and described him as an obstacle to the partnership’s future success. Some Brown faculty members who served as Tougaloo College trustees discussed Beittel with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
Tougaloo’s board of trustees decided to replace Beittel with the school’s first black president, George Owens, who had previously served as its business manager. During Owens’s inauguration, the president of Brown University, Barnaby Keeney, noted that the true academic environment was no place for the promotion of social activism, a thinly veiled attack on Tougaloo’s traditions and on Beittel’s administration. Beittel later relocated to California, where he died on 26 July 1988.
- Adam Daniel Beittel Papers, Tougaloo College Archives
- Clarice T. Campbell and Oscar Allen Rogers, Mississippi: The View from Tougaloo (1979)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Erle Johnston, Mississippi’s Defiant Years, 1955–1973 (1990)