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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): Early 1960s

By Robert V. Labaree

Early 1960s

Although the years after World War II represented a relatively quiet period of unrest, the seeds of the student movement that eventually culminated in the formation of the New Left and anti-war Vietnam War demonstrations throughout the nation in the late 1960s were planted at the start of the decade. On February 1, 1960, four African American freshmen from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro staged a sit-in at an F. W. Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest racial segregation. This act of civil disobedience sparked widespread, non-violent resistance by students throughout the South and energized the broader Civil Rights Movement. The early student sit-in movement is documented in the collected volume edited by David Garrow titled Atlanta, Georgia, 1960–1961: Sit-Ins and Student Activism, and in James H. Laue’s Direct Action and Desegregation, 1960–1962: Toward a Theory of the Rationalization of Protest. Both works describe the early struggles of college students to confront racial inequality and put an end to segregation throughout all public life, not just in public education, as had been established in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Anthony Orum’s Black Students in Protest: A Study of the Origins of the Black Student Movement provides a brief but well-written analysis of early activism among black college students and what Orum described as its transformation from “a parochial to a mass phenomenon.” Other key studies that feature analysis of college-student participation in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement include Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960–1970 by Jeffrey A. Turner; the edited work by Robert Cohen and David J. Snyder, Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s; James P. Marshall’s case study in Student Activism and Civil Rights in Mississippi: Protest Politics and the Struggle for Racial Justice, 1960–1965; Fighting for Our Place in the Sun: Malcolm X and the Radicalization of the Black Student Movement, 1960–1973, by Richard D. Benson II; and Rosemari Mealy’s Activism and Disciplinary Suspensions/Expulsions at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs): A Phenomenological Study of the Black Student Sit-In Movement, 1960–1962. Each of these works contributes to understanding of the essential role that college students had in igniting, nurturing, and sustaining the larger Civil Rights Movement.

Another compelling work covering this era is Freedom Summer by Doug McAdam. Relying on in-depth interviews and questionnaires, McAdam offers insights by examining the connections between white civil rights volunteers who participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964 (many of whom were college students), and broader activist efforts to reform higher education, end the Vietnam War, and in later years help create the women’s and environmental protection movements. Complementing these studies documenting college-student participation in sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement is the archive of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959–1972, part of the newly released ProQuest History Vault: Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century database (contained in its Organizational Records and Personal Papers, Part 2 module). These materials cover the founding of the SNCC, its activist activities, and its evolving mission from an organization primarily focused on civil rights to its increasing involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests.

In addition to the sit-in movement, the first half of the 1960s also witnessed a series of student demonstrations that became known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California, Berkeley. The protest coalesced in September 1964 when Berkeley Chancellor E. W. Strong indefinitely suspended eight students for violating rules regulating student activities promoting political causes that were not sanctioned by the administration. This policy was tested again on the first of October when a former student was arrested while distributing civil rights pamphlets outside the main gates of the university. In response, UC Berkeley activist Hal Draper distributed his eleven-page pamphlet The Mind of Clark Kerr: His View of the University Factory & the New Slavery” summarizing views espoused by then-president Clark Kerr of the University of California system in his book The Uses of the University, in which Kerr characterized institutions as “multiversities” and “knowledge factories” that cultivated a “life of the mind” in “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.” The incongruity between Kerr’s vision of higher education and the administrative decision to ban student-led political causes was too much to bear. Students quickly rallied around the belief that their rights to free speech were being suppressed. Borrowing civil disobedience tactics from the Freedom Summer initiative to register black voters that some of the students had participated in, unrest quickly grew and contributed to the overall milieu of student activism in the first half of the decade.

One should consult The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s, by David Lance Goines, to obtain the most comprehensive exploration of the movement’s origins, impact, and legacy. Jo Freeman’s At Berkeley in the Sixties: The Education of an Activist, 1961–1965 offers an eyewitness account of what happened and, most importantly, a glimpse into why people behaved the way they did behind the scenes as the movement began to gain momentum. A capstone study that complements these works is Seth Rosenfeld’s richly documented work Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Rosenfeld relies on FBI records released under the Freedom of Information Act to document FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s ideological campaign against student radicalism and “communists” at the University of California, Berkeley, uncovering details about how Ronald Reagan’s support of these efforts vaulted him into the governor’s office. The interactions among Reagan, Hoover, UC Berkeley president Kerr, and student leader Mario Savio create a compelling narrative about FBI overreach and its consequences for the university and the public’s perceptions about liberalism and the New Left.

Although both Goines and Freeman highlight the fact that there were many participants in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, Savio emerged as its most vocal and oft-quoted member. His impact is documented in two works by Robert Cohen: The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings That Changed America, Cohen’s annotated anthology of Savio’s pronouncements produced during the year 1964, and his biography in Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. Together, both volumes paint a vivid picture of Savio as a person and a champion of collective resistance. The Free Speech Movement Archives, assembled by the activists who were involved, and the Free Speech Movement Digital Archives, maintained by the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, clearly document the movement’s origins and participants.

Works Cited