On January 18, 1980, Dr. Howard Aldmon, vice chancellor of student affairs, announced that Black Cultural Center director Dennie Littlejohn would be transferred to the personnel office as coordinator of community personnel relations because of “differences with” Dean William Byas involving fund mismanagement, unethical practices, insubordination, and misleading students—none of which was substantiated in response to Littlejohn’s filing a grievance. Byas had been appointed in August to the new position of dean of special student services and appointed January 18 also as director of the Black Cultural Center.
Shortly after the announcement, a group of about 100 students began picketing the center, and 11 students refused to leave the building at the facility’s closing hour. About 40 more students joined the 11 students the next morning. Negotiations with the students occupying the building began, attended by Chancellor Reese, Vice Chancellor Aldmon, Dean Byas, and others. Students demanded the reinstatement of Littlejohn; separate funding for the AASLF and the Black Cultural Center; the abolition of the BCC Programming Committee; and establishment of a new committee with cooperation among students, administrators, and the BCC. Byas, who was leading the negotiations, collapsed during negotiations Sunday afternoon (January 20), was treated and released from UT hospital, and then went on medical leave.
Agreements reached at the Sunday meeting were deemed “null and void” when students continued to occupy the building after 8:00 a.m. on Monday. Students occupying the building, however, refused to leave until Littlejohn was reinstated and other demands were met. After advising the 18 students still occupying the facility that police would be called to clear the building and offering immunity from UT and civil authority punishment if they left peaceably by midnight, Reese called police, who arrested the 18 in the early hours of January 22 for criminal trespassing. Administrators then closed the Black Cultural Center and boarded up its windows.
Two hundred students then marched across campus from the University Center Auditorium to Andy Holt Tower, demanding to see Chancellor Reese and demanding that the Black Cultural Center be reopened. Reese said it would be reopened when Byas “feels that it can be operated in an orderly manner.” Reese also announced that a committee would be formed to discuss issues. Byas announced that the center would reopen on January 28 and that he would form a committee to aid in operation of the center. Congressman Harold Ford (D-Memphis) talked with Reese about the situation and then spoke to students massed outside Andy Holt Tower. The Daily Beacon reported that he told the students to return to classes and asked the students not to create problems for UT “although this institution has created problems for all of us.” Ford criticized UT for boarding up the building.
Seventeen of the students were indicted by the Knox County Grand Jury in May 1980, fifteen of whom had already faced charges by the UT Student Conduct Office of violating university regulations. Of the fifteen who had already undergone judicial board review, nine were found innocent. Six had been found guilty, were placed on probation, and had appealed to the Student Tribunal. One of the eighteen students arrested was not indicted because she pled guilty in a preliminary hearing in general sessions court and accepted placement on a nine-month pretrial diversion. On July 10, 1981, the charges against the students were dismissed by Criminal Court Judge John J. “Jimmy” Duncan. Chancellor Jack Reese worked with the assistant district attorney and, at the request of Attorney General Ron Webster, wrote a letter requesting the dismissal. Webster then moved for dismissal.