protests in the sixties -- 2/26/24

Today's selection -- from The Long Sixties by Christopher B. Strain. The civil rights movement on college campuses in the 1960s:

“Notably, the discontent of white students stemmed directly from interest and involvement in black civil rights. Having seen the power of protest in the South, they started to turn those methods of protest toward perceived injustices in their own lives. Many SDS leaders, for example, cut their political teeth in the struggle for black equality. In 1961, Tom Hayden married Casey Cason, a white YWCA project worker from Texas and active member of SNCC; the Freedom Rides later that year would serve as their honeymoon. Civil rights campaigns across the South, especially the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, invigorated not only black youth but also white youth: as black Southerners put their lives on the line for social justice, a small but committed cohort of sympathetic whites—mostly Northerners, with a few valiant Southerners salting the mix—stood shoulder to shoulder with them. It is no stretch to say that the student movement of the 1960s and the enormous changes in the ways young people thought, worked, and lived stemmed directly from the civil rights movement, which set the tone and pace of subsequent protests.

“Nowhere were these changes felt more keenly than on university campuses. Acting in loco parentis, or ‘in place of the parent,’ college administrators had traditionally treated students like children. Through the early 1960s, undergraduates were subject to various restrictions on their private lives. Women, for example, were generally subject to curfews as early as 10:00 p.m. Single-sex dormitories were the norm. Some universities expelled female students deemed ‘morally undesirable’ for violating strict visitation rules, including the ‘three feet on the floor’ commandment of dorm mothers who insisted on open doors in the hopes of preventing petting from progressing too far. College administrators also restricted freedom of speech on campus by forbidding student organizations to address ‘off-campus’ issues: organizing, demonstrating, or otherwise ‘causing a ruckus’ on campus also were frowned upon. Students, not surprisingly, could find such restrictions stultifying, but such rules were reflective of a larger social order that encouraged conformity and consensus. The end of in loco parentis began in 1961, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found in Dixon v. Alabama that Alabama State College could not summarily expel students without due process. It was the first tremor in a much bigger quake coming to American college campuses; in fact, much of the turmoil that embroiled American college campuses in the 1960s can be traced to the transition from authoritarianism and overprotectiveness to a new absence of paternalism in higher education.


“Berkeley, California, was the epicenter of this quake. In the fall of 1964, a number of students at the University of California returned to the Berkeley campus from Freedom Summer, an intense civil rights campaign in Mississippi. Organizations like SNCC and CORE had recruited college students from across the nation to go to Mississippi to help boost the number of registered voters in the state; as of 1962, only 6.7 percent of eligible black persons in Mississippi were registered voters. Those young people who volunteered—predominately white, mostly Northern, many of them Jewish—came from elite colleges, including the University of California at Berkeley, the flagship university in the UC system. In Mississippi, the student volunteers encountered vicious hostility from local whites determined to maintain segregation and dissuade black people from voting. Civil rights workers were harassed, beaten, and even killed by Klansmen and other local racists, who ran amuck, burning black churches and attacking local blacks and white volunteers with impunity. Punctuated by the murders of three civil rights workers—James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—at the hands of white racists, Freedom Summer ended with the formation of a new political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, created to challenge the dominance of white Mississippians at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City (see Chapter 10).

“Like other Freedom Summer participants, the Berkeley students returned to their studies energized by their dramatic and dangerous confrontations with hardcore Southern racists. As was customary, they distributed flyers, recruited converts, and solicited funds, along with other student activists at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, on what students believed to be city property, just outside the southern campus gate. When Katherine Towle, the dean of students, announced a new policy on September 14 that prohibited recruiting and soliciting funds for political causes on that corner (claimed by the school as campus property, henceforth subject to all university rules and restrictions), the students protested, met with Dean Towle to petition their grievances, and continued to set up tables in violation of the ban.

“Chancellor Edward Strong singled out protest leaders for sanction, indefinitely suspending them without a hearing. Not pleased by what they felt was an arbitrary use of authority, students then scheduled a broader protest rally for October 1. At that rally, after police arrested graduate student Jack Weinberg for trespassing, students responded by surrounding the squad car. Thousands of students proceeded to sit down around the car, which could not move from the spot without running over someone. One by one, the most vocal students respectfully removed their shoes to stand on the hood of the car and describe a series of injustices that the university administration had perpetrated against them.

“The speakers issued a torrent of complaints. They championed the right to assembly. They identified the alienation they felt in a gargantuan bureaucracy that robbed them of dignity and purpose. They mourned the loss of a liberal arts education in the face of increasingly professionalized curricular norms. They described being processed through the UC system by an inattentive faculty and unresponsive administration. They highlighted the break between the ideas they were taught and the expectation to disregard those ideas outside the classroom; in other words, they were being taught by their professors to think and act for themselves, but administrators, parents, and employers expected them to conform and not question. They bemoaned the attenuation of freedom of speech. Their biggest gripe was that they were tired of being treated like children. Signs, autocratic and restrictive, existed at every turn: do this, don't do that. While their problems were real and their complaints generally sound, the assembly was begrudging, abstract, and unfocused. They didn't know exactly what kind of place they wanted Berkeley to be, but they knew they didn't like what it had become. The protest lasted 33 hours, during which Weinberg languished in the back of the patrol car.

“Over the next weeks and months the initial protests at Berkeley evolved into what the students termed the Free Speech Movement (FSM), a semester-long demonstration that grew to involve much more than free speech. Student organizations initially came together in a united front with no political agenda beyond that of the right to advocate. Young Democrats, Young Republicans, Youth for [Barry] Goldwater, and Students for a Democratic Society all came together with campus chapters of CORE and SNCC and other student groups to reaffirm the very right to organize. The socially engaged but apolitical nature of the protests reminded some observers of the syndicalists, anarchists, or Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) of the much earlier World War I generation; others took it less seriously, deeming the protest as little more than ‘a kind of socially conscious panty raid.’ But as the protests continued, they seemed to resonate with a student body unhappy with and resentful of how they fitted into the greater scheme of things.

“On December 2, a massive sit-in was scheduled at Sproul Hall, the main campus administration building. Under an American flag, one thousand students filed up the front steps of the building with folk singer Joan Baez singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ over a megaphone. At 4:00 a.m. the next day, the police moved in and began arresting people. More students subsequently went on strike in protest of the arrests. As national attention swiveled toward Berkeley, the larger student body began to mobilize, not just those liberal student activists who had initiated the Free Speech Movement. Even though their critics contended that none among those protesting were serious students in the first place, those who demonstrated actually represented the best at Berkeley: 47 percent of them had better than B averages; 71 of the graduate students in the crowd had averages between B and A; 20 were Phi Beta Kappa; 8 were Woodrow Wilson Fellows; 20 had published articles in scholarly journals; 53 were National Merit Scholarship winners or finalists; and 260 had received other academic awards."



Christopher B. Strain


The Long Sixties: America, 1955 - 1973




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