The AAS department was created in the spirit of revolutionary thinking. Syracuse students were among the first in the United States to rebel against institutionalized injustices in education in the 1960s. When Ernie Davis became the first Black football player to win the Heisman trophy in 1961, it was a major landmark for progress for African Americans in higher education. Syracuse alumnus Joe Biden noted in a tribute speech in 2011, that Ernie Davis "gave a whole group of people hope". Subsequently, racial discord in the football program began to be highlighted, which resulted in an increase in racial tension. This tension began in 1969 when a group known as the "Syracuse 8" highlighted the discrimination they faced in football by coach Floyd "Ben" Schwartzwalder. By the opening pre-game of the season, tensions were so high that they resulted in a confrontation between nearly 100 policemen and at least 400 students at the football stadium at Syracuse University.
Due to increasing racial tension and in response to the civil rights movement, in 1968, Black students at Syracuse University staged a protest outside of S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, demanding that the university offer Black Studies classes that highlighted and included the intellectual, historical and cultural contributions of African Americans. The administration at Syracuse University subsequently began to make concessions by offering Black Studies classes as an elective. African American Studies (AAS) began as a program in 1972 and then became a department as part of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1979. The 1960s student protests also resulted in an Afro-American Cultural center and marked the beginning of the MLK library collection. The first conference on Critical Issues in Afro-American and African Studies was held at Syracuse University in 1976.
During the 1980s, Syracuse students again advocated the administration to widen the pool of African American faculty applicants, hire a department chairperson and in order to increase the staff in the AAS department. The department has stayed without a chair and other key positions for more than a year. Members of the Syracuse African-American Students Association (SAS) were at the forefront of this movement.
In 1989, 120 SAS member students confronted Chancellor Melvin Eggers at a round table meeting in order to air their grievances. The group's efforts led to a 400-student protest in 1990 led by SAS President Quentin Stith. The students also advocated for a program that allowed all students (not just those of African-American descent) to learn about the contribution of African Americans in American history. The students were concerned with preserving Black identity and saw their dedication towards African studies as a collective struggle. Throughout the 1980s, students continued to play an active role on the university campus.