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“Building on the Continuity”

4.17.19

Alan Gilbert ’65, Ph.D. ’74 (twice suspended, separated, and readmitted in 1973 by a two-thirds faculty vote) speaks at a gathering of current and former student activists three days before Friday’s conference. 

Photograph by Lydia S.C. Rosenberg/Harvard Magazine


Alan Gilbert ’65, Ph.D. ’74 (twice suspended, separated, and readmitted in 1973 by a two-thirds faculty vote) speaks at a gathering of current and former student activists three days before Friday’s conference. 

Photograph by Lydia S.C. Rosenberg/Harvard Magazine

This story concerns the events at Harvard during the spring of 1969, when student anti-Vietnam War activists occupied University Hall, and then-president Nathan M. Pusey called in local police and state troopers—resulting in a violent confrontation in Harvard Yard. The incident prompted outrage, wider protests, and an eight-day strike. For more on the topic, see the March-April 2019 feature “Echoes of 1969.”

 

How to acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Harvard strike?

The strike veterans who began organizing the April 12 event roughly six months earlier agreed on some principles, said Miles Rapoport ’71 in opening the morning session: the event should be marked; it should be universal—“That is, all of us who were involved, in whatever way we were involved, or whatever opinions we had at the time: with 50 years of hindsight, we’re all in this now”; and it should “connect with the student activism of today, because it’s not just about nostalgia, it’s also about trying to make sure that whatever lessons we learned, whatever experiences we had get passed on to the students who are interested in organizing….”

Their answer was a day-long “inter-generational reflection and dialogue” on “The Strike of 1969, Protest at Harvard, and Organizing Today.” A reunion wasn’t quite what they were aiming at, said Rapoport, an SDS member turned senior practice fellow in American democracy at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Nor was it exactly a celebration, because “it was serious business then and it is serious business today.” He called it a combination of sharing their own stories and connecting with current campus activists, “sharing our lessons and our understandings and building on the continuity…: the spirit and the sense of urgency we had then and the spirit and sense of urgency that the students have today.”

The morning audience members—for “Telling Our Stories”—were mainly alumni. Filling two-thirds or more of the 131 seats in Science Center E, they testified to the effects of their Harvard activism on their own and others’ lives in the decades since. They also shared lessons and concerns: the need for activists to build a big tent—instead of succumbing to the “narcissism of small differences”—and not ignore elections (that raised a mordant to rueful laugh); the importance of turning lessons from the past into tools for the present, and educating undergraduates about the legacy of the civil-rights and labor movements, and the threat of nuclear war. Some women recalled their growing awareness of being marginalized, even as activists, by the greater number of men around them in the days of 4:1 Harvard:Radcliffe enrollment ratios, and some men recalled the learning experience of having feminist—and SDS—issues raised and explained by intelligent, articulate women. One speaker, reflecting on the contrast between her own initial undergraduate experiences at the Harvard of the late 1960s and what she had seen three days earlier, when a group of strike participants joined student divestment activists in picketing University Hall, said she was “struck by the leadership of these articulate young women…the presence of people of color, the presence of scholarship students who didn’t feel they had to be silent and apologize, the presence of first-year students who were brave and confident—and that‘s a transformation for which our entire generation, I think, deserves some credit.”

Her perspective echoed something Rapoport had said earlier, quoting a friend: “When you are young, you think that the fight for social justice is a sprint. When you hit middle age, you realize it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And when you hit our age, you realize it’s a relay race—and that’s what we’re here for.” The afternoon session turned to links between the strike and “Organizing at Harvard Today.”

 

That session brought together six strike participants with four current students working on different activist campaigns: the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, the Graduate Student Union, Divest Harvard (calling for divestment from fossil fuels), and the Student Labor Action Movement. It opened with welcoming remarks from Rapoport, Archon Fung, McCormick professor of civic engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Marshall Ganz ’64-’92. Fung, who helped organize the conference, talked about how he came into activism personally. He grew up in Oklahoma, where, he said, if he hadn’t left for college, “I’d almost certainly be wearing a MAGA hat.” He went to MIT to study engineering, during the Gulf War. But his plans changed after he encountered faculty who made him see “that America’s actions around the world, at that time and now, certainly did not live up to the American values that I had come to believe the country stood for. That was my radicalizing experience.” 

“Participating in student organizing and activism really changed my life,” he said. He commented on why student activism, in particular, matters: “Students possess a moral sensitivity and sensibility that just gets dull with age…We need student activists for that moral sensibility, to detect the injustices that we’ve just gotten a little bit dull to.”  

Then, Ganz addressed the audience. Originally part of the class of 1964, he dropped out to pursue activism. “My education about race, power, and politics was not here—it was in Mississippi,” he said, at the Freedom Summer in 1964 organized to register African-American voters. (He reminded the audience that the civil rights movement didn’t call itself that—it was known at the time as the freedom movement.) More than 25 years later, feeling a bit stuck, he came back to finish his senior year and earned his degree in 1992. He earned a Ph.D. from the Kennedy School, and now teaches there as a lecturer. 

The panel that followed was introduced by Susan Jhirad ’64, Ph.D. ’72, who energetically invited the participants to learn from one another so that today’s young people can carry forward the foundation of earlier activism: “At the age of 76, it’s true, I don’t want to get arrested anymore!” 

From the panel, a number of themes emerged. One of them, introduced by Judith Baker ’70, was striking: the activists of 1969 were working with much less information than people have today. Often, they had to make up for gaps in knowledge with the conviction that what was happening around the world was unconscionable. “We were facing such a panoply of evils,” Baker said. “What we were taught in American history had nothing to do with truth…We didn’t know anything about the treatment of Native Americans. We knew nothing about slavery…We had nothing in our newspapers about Vietnam…I think we were facing a veil of secrecy and oppression.”

“Now, I think we have more information,” she noted, only to add, “Information doesn’t solve problems. We thought information and transparency would solve problems—it did not.” 

Suzanne Lynn ’71, who said she was “one of 13” black women admitted to Radcliffe in 1967, added: “We didn’t have access to the same information about what was going on in our own country, let alone what was going on in the rest of the world…Part of it was that we thought we were the first people to ever think of some of these things. And so we made up a lot of this, and some of it didn’t turn out so well.” Michael Kazin ’70, who teaches history at Georgetown and works with student activists, echoed their comments: “I think student activists today are smarter than we were. We were angry, we had a lot of mistaken ideas of some things going on in the world…And we didn’t think about strategy like they do.” 

“I don’t remember a lot, frankly, about the strike,” Lynn said. “And I think it’s deliberate—I think I repressed a lot of it because a lot of it was painful. This is not an exercise in nostalgia for me at all. There were a lot of mistakes made, there was a lot of hurt and pain attached. But there was also glory and liberation—it was all of those things.”  

Throughout the afternoon, various speakers commented on the connections between different social movements, the idea that anti-Vietnam War activism grew directly out of civil-rights activism, and that becoming involved in one movement inevitably draws activists into others, opening their eyes to injustice that they hadn’t seen before. But a strain of the conversation also stressed the clashes between movements. Suzanne Lynn and Robert Hall ’69, who grew up in Florida under Jim Crow, were members of Afro, the student movement calling for an African-American studies department at Harvard. (And that movement, Baker mentioned earlier, was part of the awakening of their generation: students were realizing that American history was darker and more complicated than they’d learned. That there was such a thing as black history. And they wanted it taken seriously at Harvard.) Lynn stressed that the demand for an African-American studies department wasn’t part of SDS’s demands of the administration. “I felt very strongly as one of the few black students who did sometimes talk to white people and go to SDS meetings that there really were two parallel universes.”  

This tension, involving solidarity and conflict between different movements, turned into a discussion between Isa Flores-Jones ’19, a current Ledecky fellow for this magazine and an organizer for Divest Harvard, and Salma Abdelrahman ’20, from the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign. Their movements increasingly have been working together, and they described what they viewed as the Harvard administration’s intentional division of their respective campaigns. “We see the Harvard administration actually targeting black and brown students with language around civil discourse and well-reasoned and thought-out and articulated arguments,” Abdelrahman said. The two students believe the University has shut the prison divestment campaign out of conversations and not engaged with its organizers as it has with the fossil-fuel divestment campaign. Abdelrahman raised similar concerns at a panel event on fossil-fuel divestment last week, as reported in the Harvard Crimson (Bacow then denied those charges)

Suzanne Lynn wasn’t surprised: “I’m really glad to hear of the consciousness of the young people here about efforts to divide,” she said. “I have spent my entire life doing some sort of social-justice work, and I have never had an experience in all of these years where I felt that people of different racial backgrounds were working together on an equal basis.” 

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