A Retrospective: College Campus Activism 1968-1970

by on December 11, 2007 · 0 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Organizing, War and Peace

1968-1970: COLLEGE CAMPUSES SIMMER, THEN EXPLODE

From 1968 through the Spring of 1970, college campuses simmered and then exploded across the nation – as well as worldwide – as young students were standing up to the American government’s involvement in Vietnam, and standing up to those perceived — and rightly so – as the government’s corporate and university collaborators. The draft of young men into military service was very active, as a hundred young Americans were coming home each week in body-bags and coffins from Vietnam. Perceiving the draft as a direct threat, many young men resisted, as thousands went to Canada, some went into hiding, and many more went to college in hopes of a deferment. Because of the draft, the anti-war movement was alive and periodically re-freshened with young men and their supporters, who increasingly viewed the way to get out of the draft was to end the war. (A few years later, when the draft ended as the US was winding down its presence in Southeast Asia, the mass nature of the anti-war movement collapsed.)

Actually preceding the galvanizing anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, symbolized by Martin Luther King, had by the late sixties changed into a Black Power movement, symbolized and led by such groups as the Black Panthers, an Oakland-based militant organization. The Panthers had a chapter here in San Diego, but it was so ruthlessly suppressed by local police that it had to close up shop. The new surge in the Black community also included such groups as the US organization, centered around Ron Karenga, a local Black nationalist. Across the country, among white students, support for civil rights morphed into solidarity with the Panthers.

Over this period of time, enrollment in SDS meetings and rallies skyrocketed, especially in the Fall of 1968 after the police riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, as meetings went from a handful of people to dozens – often there was standing-room only. And students from the various UC campuses, the State colleges and local universities — like Cal Western — had been in the forefront of the various campaigns to end the war.

Historic moments in San Diego’s late-sixties story occurred during this period: students from a wide variety of campuses joined up with city folk and staged the very first anti-war march up Broadway in the Spring of 1969. The city’s conservative establishment was shocked when they saw a massive crowd of 10,000 parade through the middle of the city and rally in Balboa Park, calling for an end to the war.

San Diego students opposed to the war also had joined a “National Moratorium to End the War” – an effort by national anti-war, religious, and civil rights groups to stage monthly massive protests. And for three months in a row during the Fall of 1969, local campuses provided the ground troops for a series of ever-increasing militant demonstrations. The third and final local action — in December 1969 — was a march down the center of Oceanside, the little city that sits next to Camp Pendleton. Out in front were several hundred military personnel leading the procession of thousands all the way to the beach. A militant group of vets, called Movement for a Democratic Military (MDM), was intensely involved in mobilizing people still in uniform.

On the national level, a highly-visible and militant cabal of known activists against the war had been targeted by the Nixon administration. Known as “the Chicago 8″, most had been leaders at the mass demonstrations attacked by police during the Chicago convention – and witnessed by the entire world. These included such well-known activists as Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale of the Panthers, Dave Dellinger. As their trial gained instantaneous and national attention, they were greeted by thousands wherever they traveled during breaks in the proceedings. Their unjust persecution — being singled out for being responsible for the turmoil during the convention while the official governmental commission (“The Skolnich Commission Report”) had concluded that there had been “a police riot” – that is the riot – which had been viewed live on TV by millions – was instigated by the Chicago police, — this persecution was itself stirring up the young, as thousands of identified with the these activists.

The Late Sixties Brings a Confluence of Great Movements to the College Campus

Since the assassination of King, African-American communities were undergoing big changes, and many Black youth were looking for ways to express their outrage at the system, and were taking on more-and-more militant stances, joining groups like the Black Panthers. In recognition of their growing importance, however, a systematic campaign stemming from the White House itself was geared up against the Panthers, resulting in numerous raids, shoot-outs, and killings across the country. Here in San Diego, despite the heroic efforts by defense lawyer Ted Bumer, and his assistant, pony-tailed Alex Landon, and others, the Panthers were so squelched that they folded up their offices and simply stopped being public.

Led by Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers had forced the plight of the mainly Mexican farm-workers onto the American landscape in the late sixties with successful national boycotts of lettuce and grapes. Parallel to and encouraged by the stirrings in the African-American communities, Chicanos and Mexican-Americans began to assert themselves throughout America’s Southwest. Local groups like the Brown Berets de Aztlan and the Chicano Rights Committee became visible. Pressures mounted to install Chicano Studies on campuses and to employ more Latinos in governmental and corporate offices and workplaces. The Chicano Moratoriums — a series of massive marches and protests in East LA – served to focus attention on the region and drew support from San Diegans.

The Women’s Movement, likewise, swept into public consciousness during the late sixties. Militant feminists and middle-class housewives opened up a tsunami of consciousness raising — forming new ways to think and act with gender sensitivity. Gender roles were drastically undergoing big changes, as more and more women refused to accept the traditional role society had laid out for them; they were becoming educated and taking on trades and professions usually dominated by men. Many feminist leaders came out of the early new left political formations and were themselves veterans of these college-based cutting-edge campaigns, in support of various causes.

All these stirrings had a very direct and definite impact on college campuses, over a wide-range of consequences – from new departments being opened like Black Studies, Womens Studies, to universal acknowledgment that the colleges were underserving minority communities, to massive numbers of students taking up causes and getting involved on their own campuses. Finally, the confluence of all these movements and causes and issues came to a head with the political development of thousands, hundreds of thousands of young people, and it meant the political, philosophical and moral maturation of an entire generation of college students. For thousands, the man behind the curtain had been exposed.

Since the beginning of the decade – the beginning of the infamous sixties – college students had been involved in a wide-range of political activities: electoral campaigns of idealistic-sounding candidates, the civil-rights campaigns to rid the country of the last vestiges of Jim Crow Segregation, voter registration drives in the South, lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate businesses, freedom bus rides; some kids got harassed, arrested, beaten, even murdered. But, significantly they witnessed first hand historical changes transforming the South and the rest of the country. (Locally, our own House of Representative Bob Filner, cut his political teeth on one of those bus rides and ended up being arrested. Today, he is one of the most liberal members of Congress.)

Many of the idealistic veterans of the early civil rights battles returned to their campuses and began applying the lessons from all those scars to their own college arenas. These turned into skirmishes with campus administrators over authoritarian campus policies, such as dorm restrictions, to such events as the “Free Speech” fight at UC Berkeley in 1964. There, in the culmination of a local campaign to force campus administrators to allow – literally – free speech for students on the campus, thousands of students non-violently blocked administrators and campus police from arresting student leaders of the campaign.

Students for a Democratic Society

SDS had developed, and had hundreds of chapters nation-wide, and despite its unraveling in late 1969, it had provided a much needed forum for the development of a political and effective student movement. Very importantly, however, SDS had constructed a national center for a student-based anti-war movement with strong connections throughout the country. Local chapters were able to coordinate their efforts, their demos and campaigns, share infor and tactics with each other, and develop their critique of American society through a convergence of local, regional, national, and ultimately, international connections and experiences. Yet something new was becoming all too apparent on many college campuses. (The differences within SDS which led to its breakup – hardly a proper subject here – can be viewed from afar as differences in emphasis and importance on thirdword solidarity – including with the Vietnamese and the Black Panthers, for example – with workplace and working class organizing.)

Due to the on-going Vietnam war and the draft, the anti-war movement on campus was the foci of the new politics. Many were being affected by the spread of the counter-culture, its values being integrated into the movement. But activists were finding no matter what they did, no matter how large the protests, no matter how many people came out against the war, it still dragged on. Nightly TV news spilled the bloody fighting out over dinner tables across America, as the increasingly gloomy forecasts and news accounts forbode the eventual defeat and departure. The American people were turning against the war, but it kept going on. The sight of flag-draped coffins — allowed to be viewed and even photographed in those days – was a constant occurrence. Frustrations and anxiety over the direction of the country and its war policies- shared by many simultaneously – were mounting.

What was happening was that an entire generation of college students were growing up together. There was, significantly, the development of a solidarity with other students, either in cities across the country or over in France and other countries. There was also a growing understanding that middle-class white students didn’t suffer the same societal conditions as people of color or the massive numbers of working people. Along with this, was a sense, however, that the battles on campuses were connected to the fights of other peoples on the globe. And, finally, there was a growing realization that there was an entire array of establishment institutions blocking young people from developing their new sense of freedoms and resisting their attempts at dismantling the old-fashioned social, sexual, racial, class and cultural restrictions. There was a very real sense and understanding — shared by many — that “the establishment” had to be overturned, throw out, dismantled. And, it wouldn’t necessarily go willingly.

It was a sense of militancy and confrontation. The new political maturation of a generation of campus activists had forged a posturing that hadn’t been seen in such massive numbers on the American political landscape since the thirties. More than just speaking their minds, young people were putting themselves in front of the repressive institutions of the establishment, confronting university administrators, confronting military and war-profiteering corporate recruiters, refusing to simply blindly obey authorities. Since the Free Speech fight in Berkeley, students were extolled “to place their body in the machine” in order to change it.

As the decade rushed to its conclusion like a runaway locomotive, militancy and confrontational politics were becoming the order de’jour on the campuses. From doing research on connections between the universities and war profiteers, to holding mass rallies, teach-in’s, marches, sit-ins, the confrontations noted, to physical skirmishes with campus police and local authorities, the campuses had been tinderboxes ready to be torched.

PRESIDENT NIXON WIDENS THE WAR AND STUDENTS RESPOND

When President Richard Nixon announced his invasion of Cambodia in the early spring of 1970, these tinderboxes went off. Middle-of-the-road students joined with their more militant cousins and in May 1970 brought the American educational system to a screeching halt. Thousands of campuses were shut down by student strikes or by mass demonstrations and sit-ins. When four students were shot down by National Guardsmen on May 4th, at Kent State, Ohio, all hell broke loose. It continued across the country, and escalated when more students were killed at Jackson State in Mississippi a week later. The true nature and extent of what happened in this country during May of 1970 has never been fully and sufficiently told. But the country — this country — was near civil war. Or so many students thought.

Listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in “Ohio”:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

San Diego Campuses Explode

San Diego university and college campuses were no exception to the explosive nature of protest at this point. San Diego State was shut down. At UCSD, a widely-supported student strike had rendered the La Jolla campus quiet except for the hub-bub of strike activities, leafleting, teach-ins, rallies, bonfires at night…

In early May striking students from college campuses all around San Diego county wanted to show their unity in opposing the war; the idea was to stage one joint action to protest the widening US involvement by targeting one prime military facility. At the planning meeting attended by hundreds of students from SDSU, UCSD, Cal-Western, City College, the community colleges, a few high schools, various ideas were thrown about, until almost by universal acclamation, the target was decided: the Naval Electronics Laboratory up in Point Loma.

So, one early weekday morning in mid-May, 3,000 students converged at the entrance of the Lab along Catalina Boulevard –in the usually sedate and conservative neighborhood of Point Loma. The entrance to the military facility was effectively blocked by the sheer numbers of students walking across the boulevard, bringing business at the Lab to a halt for several hours. No disrespect was shown drivers, there was no violence, no arrests were made, — just a solemn slow-moving mass of people circulating in front of the entrance — San Diego Police officers hung back, their numbers entirely dwarfed by those of the protesters.

A week into the student strike, California Governor Ronald Reagan — who could not appear at a college campus without causing a disturbance — signed an order closing all the state university and college campuses. This gubernatorial decree effectively ended — for awhile at least – the college bases of the anti-war movement in California.

[For more, go to the “1st OB Rag” page.]

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