The May 1970 National Student Strike

by on May 4, 2018 · 7 comments

in History, Peace Movement

Many of us are aware of the tragic and fatal events that came down 48 years ago at Kent State University in Ohio during protests against the Vietnam war and president Nixon’s expansion of it with his invasion into Cambodia. On May 4, four students were shot dead and eleven wounded by National Guardsmen who had been called in to quell the unruly protests. Many of us have seen the photos …

The famous photo from May 4, 1970 Kent State.

What many of us don’t know, however, is what came before the Kent State shootings and what came afterwards.

On April 30, Nixon announced the invasion into Vietnam’s neighbor, despite his pledges to bring “peace” to Southeast Asia. In response, campuses nationwide exploded into demonstrations – which evolved into a national student strike – for the month of May. And certainly San Diego campuses were no  exception. San Diego State and UCSD both were rocked by protests and strikes. Thousands of San Diego students from all over the county massed in front of the Navy research facility out on Point Loma (then called NEL) and prevented traffic from entering the base.

[Here’s OB’s connection with Kent State. Also see “I was in a sit-in at UCSD when we heard about Kent State”.]

Here, then are excerpts from the introduction to “On Strike! Shut it down! A Report on the First National Student Strike in U.S. History” which was published in 1970 by the Urban Research Corp. This 133 page compilation and summary of the protests that occurred on American college campuses during May 1970 lists each campus by state and the demonstrations that unfolded on them.

Seattle, May 5, 1970

No More Business as Usual

At least 760 campuses, or 30 percent of all the colleges and universities in the country, participated in some way in the first national student strike in U. S. history. The war in Indochina was the central issue. During the two years prior to the strike, war-related issues were involved in only 22 percent of all student protests.

President Nixon’s April 30 announcement that U.S. troops were being sent to Cambodia sparked an unprecedented unification of student dissenters that was to escalate to historic proportions after the student deaths at Kent State.

Within 45 minutes after the President’s announcement, Princeton University students had organized a protest. Students at Oberlin College sat-in in the administration building that evening, demanding that the faculty meet to discuss Cambodia. Marches, demonstrations and rallies were organized on a number of campuses. At Yale, the May Day gathering, called in support of the Black Panthers on trial in New Haven, adjourned with a plan for a national student strike and three major demands:

1)    Immediate unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia

2)    Release of all political prisoners (e.g. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale)

3)    End to university complicity with war-related efforts

Campuses throughout the country quickly demonstrated support for the strike by boycotting classes and conducting anti-war activities. What gave the period from May 1 – May 15 its unique intensity and agony, however, was the killing of four students at Kent State on May 4. The deaths of two students at Jackson State ten days later had far less impact. Previously non-protesting students and peaceful campuses joined in the dramatic protest against the war and the student killings. Although students on each campus protested in different ways, a general unity prevailed through the country.

Who Protested?

As in 1969, no region in the United States was free from student protest activity. In all parts of the country, schools of every type participated in the National Student Strike in some manner. As has been the pattern for two years, the protests were more frequent at state universities and private schools, but there was a striking increase in the number of smaller schools which had not previously reported protest activity. By contrast, the number of community colleges which participated in the National Student Strike is lower than such schools having student protests during 1969, while the parti­cipation of theological seminaries and professional schools increased. Parti­cipation in the National Student Strike is defined as student involvement in anti-war activities and/or memorial activities during the period May 1 – May 15.

May 1970, Urey Hall, UCSD

The reports of student involvement in the National Student Strike indicate that at least one school in every state participated.

In 27 states, .1% -25% of all the schools participated. In 16 states, 26%-50% of all the schools participated. In 4 states, 51%-75% of all the schools participated. In 3 states, 76%-100% of all the schools participated.

The highest proportion of school participation occurred in the East and mid-Atlantic region and the lowest proportion in the South.

The proportion of public and private schools participating in strike activities frequently paralleled the percentage of public and private schools in the state. Rhode Island, for example, has 11 private and three public institutions. During May, strike activities hit nine private schools and two public ones.

Schools with enrollments of 10,000 and over had the highest percentage of protests. This is similar to protests in 1969, although more than twice the number of schools participated in the National Students Strike than in student protests in the spring of 1969.

Although specific numbers of students participating in any protest activities are difficult to provide, it seems clear that considerably more students participated in the National Student Strike than in 1969 protests. Although the New Left actively participated in 1969 and in the National Student Strike, the number of moderate students who participated in the National Student Strike appears to have been far greater than in 1969.

Protest Activities

The great majority of protests on college campuses were peaceful and non-violent (violence occurred on fewer than 5 percent of the campuses). Black armbands quickly became the symbol of support for the strike and the strike demands.

Following the Kent State killings, classes were suspended and memorial services were held on hundreds of campuses throughout the country, many of which had never before been the scene of protest. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Bells tolled periodically. Vigils were held. Fasts and hunger strikes began. Guerilla theatre productions dramatized student concern. Symbolic coffins were carried and graves were dug. The question of “who is next?” appeared on placards. Art students and musicians gave special memorial performances and exhibits. Students in professional schools who had never before participated in student demonstrations joined in the strike and in a number of cases, voted to end classes for the year. (A number of law schools closed and medical students conducted their own protests.)

“No more business as usual” was the focus for protests throughout the country. Students organized anti-war activities which were clearly related to their major objective to end the war. Classes were boycotted or cancelled in order for students to engage in discussions about the war, and to conduct teach-ins and seminars. A number of campus newspapers, including that at the University of California at Santa Cruz, developed special editions devoted entirely to Cambodia and distributed them on campus and in the community. Editorials as well as news articles in student newspapers focused on the Cambodian invasion, the student deaths, and the necessity for a strike.

Of the 760 campus protests included in the Urban Research study, 25 percent had strikes in which classes were boycotted on a large scale or in which schools were actually closed by the president or following a vote within the university. The majority of strikes in which schools closed lasted one day. At least 18 percent of those having strikes, however, lasted one week, and at least 10 percent closed for the remainder of the academic year (not counting individual professional schools on campus).

On a number of campuses, students were given the option of attending classes or engaging in anti-war activities without academic penalty. Norwich College, the oldest military college in the country, was one of the schools where class atten­dance was optional. Professional schools, including medical, engineering, nursing, and law schools, previously not involved in student protest acti­vities, participated in the strike. At least 23 of the schools on strike were colleges of theology or seminaries.

Most of the campuses on which there were anti-war activities had rallies, marches, or mass meetings. Over half of these were confined to the campus. Those which were not, however, usually were held in downtown areas, presumably to influence the citizens of the non-university community. One dominant characteristic of the National Student Strike was the dedication of the participants to work for change through the legislative process, through legitimate channels, and in a non-violent manner. The largest percentage of the off-campus protests were conducted in state capitals, and were addressed particularly to legislators. The next highest percentage were held in local federal buildings.

Busloads of students, faculty, and administrators traveled to Washington, D.C. to talk to Congressmen and to lobby for legislation. Seven hundred went from Haverford College alone. Although these groups were primarily from schools in the east, groups also came from at least as far away as Colorado. Among the other off-campus sites for the anti-war protests were National Guard armories, local draft boards, military recruiting offices, post offices, city council meetings, courthouses, and the offices of governors. One protest was held at a Nike missile site.

The one new tactic used widely during the National Student Strike was blocking traffic. Students across the country blocked traffic on highways, expressway exits and entrances, at intersections, and on city streets. In most cases, they distributed leaflets and talked to the stopped motorists about the war. Students at Southern Illinois University blocked the railroads, and a “Honk Your Horn for Peace” campaign near the University of Virginia tied up part of the city.

Because the protest issues were considered to be important to all citizens, the anti-war activities were planned to involve the community as well as the campus. Mimeographed leaflets were widely distributed. Petitions were drawn up and signatures sought at post offices, in shopping centers, at public meeting places and by door-to-door canvassing.

A national petition urging Congress to end military operations in Cambodia was begun at the University of Rochester. Citizens were urged to attend meetings, rallies, and discussions. Telegrams were sent to the President, to governors, state legislators, and Congressmen. Letter-writing campaigns were conducted with students urging citizens to join in. In some cases, they even made the materials and postage available. At Murray State College in Kentucky, a secretarial pool was made available to help in preparing the letters. At Stanford University, 2,000 students signed a letter sent to President Nixon. A number of schools conducted “mail-ins” with hundreds of letters and cards mailed at once to Washington.

College presidents and members of boards of trustees were requested to participate in these efforts to communicate with the President and Congress. In addition to those who sent letters regarding the war and the Kent State deaths, a number sent requests to the President urging hio to listen to the student dissent. In some cases, boards of trustees passed resolutions regarding the war and the Kent State deaths. Regents at the University of Texas, how­ever, unanimously rejected requests by the faculty and students for the suspension of classes for holding special forums.

In contrast to 1969, university faculty members on campuses across the country actively participated in the National Student Strike. They joined in the anti-war demonstrations and teach-ins, sent letters and telegrams, held meetings to discuss the National Student Strike, voted in numerous cases to support the strike, and in some cases to abolish academic credit for ROTC, and traveled with students to state capitals and to Washington, D.C. to discuss the war with legislators.

Although most of the anti-war activities on campuses were not disruptive, students on approximately 10 percent of the campuses included in this study focused some part of their protest on campus buildings. Occupying a building or part of one was the most frequently used tactic, and the two most fre­quently chosen objects were the ROTC building and the administration building: this was the case on approximately 40 percent of the approximately 80 campuses on which students occupied buildings. The next most frequently used tactic in this category was picketing, often done in an effort to increase support for a strike on the campus. In a few cases, fires were set in buildings, most often in ROTC buildings. One was totally destroyed (at the University of Kentucky), but damage in the others was reported to be relatively minor.

Other disruptive or destructive campus activities included blocking entrances to campus buildings, overturning furniture, breaking windows, and disrupting classes, but these occurred in only a few cases.

ROTC buildings or units were the most common objects of both disruptive and non-disruptive protests. At least two ROTC reviews were cancelled (Canasius and Xavier) and the ROTC program at a number of schools was abolished or modified (St. Louis, Connecticut, and Emory, among them). Although fires were set to a few of the ROTC buildings, and firebombs were thrown at them, and a few were damaged, they were more often the scene of candlelight marches and peace demonstrations. Students at Cornell University laid siege to the ROTC building using a “peace tank” to fire candy and flowers at it.

Although campus administration buildings were a frequent object of “occupations,” they were far more frequently the scene of rallies and mass meetings, often because the students were urging the administrators to use their positions to influence government policy. The homes and offices of university presidents were the objects of protest in less than 5 percent of the protests included in this study and in fewer cases were the trustees the focus of protest.

On some campuses, guerilla theatre productions dramatized anti-war sen­timent. On a few campuses, draft cards were collected, and at Hamilton College in New York, $35,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds was pledged to be cashed in if U.S. troops are not withdrawn from South-East Asia by July 4th. On a few campuses, President Nixon was burned in effigy and students at at least one school (Washington University) flew a Viet-Cong flag. Following the deaths at Kent State, flags on campuses across the country were lowered to half-staff. However, when students attempted to lower the flag in public places, they were usually prevented from doing so, most often by the police.

As students across the country began anti-war activities in their local communities, state capitals, and in Washington D.C., they also began to cut their hair shorter and shave off their beards. At Barnard College, a day care center was established to enable mothers to be free to participate in anti­war activities. Particularly after the four students at Kent State were killed, social activities and traditional campus events were cancelled. One medical school (Chicago) established a four-year scholarship in memory of the students. Following the deaths of the two students at Jackson State small rallies or memorial marches were held on a number of campuses, but the response was not a protest as it was following the Kent State deaths.

Police and National Guard troops were involved in less than 7 percent of all the protests. At least 1,800 demonstrators were arrested during the May 1-15 period, and 315 students were suspended from four schools. Confronta­tions occurred in only 3 percent of the protests (approximately 24 campuses, all but three state schools) where police and National Guardsmen were involved. Tear gas was used in only a handful of instances,

Curfews were announced on at least seven campuses. The governors in four states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and South Carolina) declared campuses in a state of emergency. In California, the governor ordered schools to close.

In spite of the relatively peaceful nature of the protests, injuries were reported for over 100 demonstrators, 28 policemen, two National Guards­men, and six students died from shots fired by troops called on campus.

The above excerpts, as noted, are from the 1970 publication “On Strike! Shut it down!” To this day, it is the only publication whose single focus is on the May 1970 National Student Strike. I’m striving to fix that and am working on some kind of update. If you’re interested in that or are interested in assisting us in the research, contact me at obragblog@gmail.com .

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman May 5, 2018 at 3:21 pm

What a time. Feels like yesterday. We were driving from Cleveland to New York City to spend the weekend with friends before taking off a few weeks later to live in California. We were on the road as these events began to unfold — the shocking shootings at Kent State, the unbelievable invasion of Cambodia. By the time we entered midtown Manhattan, the streets were crowded with protesters throwing bottles at horse-mounted police. That evening and the following day, petitioners were everywhere in the city, getting signatures from passersby. It seemed everyone opposed what the Nixon government was doing. But the war went on for another three years.

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retired botanist May 6, 2018 at 3:09 pm

A fascinating summary, Frank! I’ve never read statistics on the activities and impacts of the National Student Strike Association. Many people nowadays don’t even know what it was…
I was attending a small women’s college in New England at the time, and about a dozen of us joined the NSSA, took over the campus library for 3 days and disrupted the graduation ceremonies. We stenciled red strike fists on the backs of our white, “Jackie Kennedy- style” suits, marched barefoot into the chapel, and delivered our speech against the war and the invasion of Cambodia.
By procuring ca. 2K (what would probably be called an outreach grant today!) from the local Mayor, we opened up a “coffee house” to help get non-students and town folk involved…pita bread, cheese, coffee and anti-war literature were the only things served. Given our small size, we also worked with Boston University and Brandeis to attend rallies, help disseminate information, develop strategies, and add power to the movement. We raised money for CORE to help napalm-burned children, we siphoned gas (thanks, Abbie Hoffman!) to pay for our commutes to other campuses, and we refused to pay the phone tax on our AT&T bills.
Two of us, my roommate and myself, were later expelled for our activities. Coming from a military family, it was a year of enlightenment that changed my life–my father was a high-ranking Naval officer, one brother was serving as a medic in the siege of Khe Sanh, the other was a draft fugitive, and political opinions were not allowed within the “military fortress”. Choosing sides was impossible. In many ways, the war tore our family apart. But it was also the catalyst for shaping my own adult identity, and the point at which I became a free thinker and not just an extension of my parents and upbringing.
My roommate and I are still BFFs 45 years later. Although we have both accomplished many successes with our lives since, those months reflect one of the most important chapters. It really wasn’t about “dropping out” at all, it was about dropping in and taking a stand- and I continue to do so today. Thanks for the reflection on something that makes me proud. :-)

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 7, 2018 at 12:52 pm

Thanks retired botanist – some great personal history of those times. I particularly could relate to this: “In many ways, the war tore our family apart. But it was also the catalyst for shaping my own adult identity, and the point at which I became a free thinker and not just an extension of my parents and upbringing.”

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Ol OB Hippie May 7, 2018 at 8:12 pm

Right on, sister! Brandeis had a strike central, did you see it or run into anybody from there?

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retired botanist May 8, 2018 at 2:13 pm

Ol OB- I’m not sure what things were called then, but we convened with large forums at Brandeis, and organizers were very embracing of our somewhat smaller effort. In particular, we were chummy with Susan Saxe (and Katherine Powers) while there, and, as a result, were ‘watched’ for a time after those months and I expect were on a # of “lists”. We went to Key West (my hometown, where I stayed for the next few years) following expulsion, and it was pretty obvious we were tracked for awhile, but our trail had little to offer in the ensuing history of those women and the events of the movement.
Indeed, Nixon was a pig, and the President of our college was very like him! We were gratified that about six years later he was fired and indicted for embezzlement! :-)

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 7, 2018 at 12:55 pm

What made the history books about San Diego students’ protests that May was that UCSD student George Winne immolated himself in protest of the war. https://obrag.org/2014/05/may-1970-student-strike-against-vietnam-war-to-be-commemorated-at-ucsd-may-9th/

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Ol OB Hippie May 7, 2018 at 8:11 pm

Gee, Nixon was such a pig!

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