Issue date: 4/10/08
At 7 a.m. on the morning of May 5, 1970, first-year Howard Burchman
picked up the phone in the WRMC-FM office. His vision was blurry and
his voice probably sounded tired. He had been up all night, his eyes
glued to the radio station's teletype feed, which was spitting out
bits and pieces of news about the Vietnam War protest a day earlier
at Kent State University in Ohio. He knew that four students had been
shot by police, and like hundreds of thousands of other college
students across the country on May 5, Burchman knew they could not
die in vain. The voice on the other end of the line finally answered,
and Burchman told Dean of the College Dennis O'Brian that he and
other students wanted a suspension of classes and a memorial service
for the Kent State four. He got his wish at noon, when the College
Council assembled in a special meeting and voted to suspend classes
until the following Monday. But Burchman did not go back to his room
and catch up on much-needed sleep. In fact, he and other Middlebury
students were busier in the next few days than they had probably been
all year. They pushed aside schoolwork and grumpiness over the recent
snowfall and turned their attention to rallies, protests ... and
arson. The Strike of May 1970 had begun.
Five Days in May
Why did Middlebury care so much about political activism during the
volatile 1960s and '70s? It sure seems like modern Middlebury
students kick back their heels and crack open their books in their
own personal bubbles inside of a larger bubble that seals off the
campus from the rest of the world. Students occasionally hear stories
about the College Democrats chasing votes for Hillary or Obama or
read in the spaghetti-splattered events schedule in Ross that the
College Republicans have brought another conservative speaker to
campus. What makes our 1970s counterparts so different?
The students' reaction to the shootings at Kent State holds some of
the answers. It revealed their deep connection with the anti-war
movements taking place at other colleges and universities across the nation.
"As the words of the Kent State killings spread across this campus,
the students were deeply shocked and in despair," Gregor Hileman,
editor of the Middlebury Magazine, wrote that summer. "Suddenly
feeling themselves a threatened minority, they urgently desired some
symbolic expression of solidarity with each other, with the faculty,
and with their peers at other schools."
For the rest of the week and into the weekend, the students expressed
their solidarity by holding protests, rallies, canvassing nearby
towns, cutting their hair and pretty much any other way they could
think of. The protests were organized and well -attended - not just
by the dreadlocked hippies, but also by students, faculty and members
of the College and town community.
At 7:30 p.m., on the same day that Burchman set the strike in motion,
Mead Chapel was jammed to the rafters with students and faculty who
gathered to mourn the deaths of the Kent State Four. The College
chaplain uttered a few remarks, the College choir sang and the
memorial service ended with the hymn "Turn back, O man, forsake thy
Then the real rally began.
The students, jammed inside the chapel like sardines, stuck around
until 10:45 p.m., listening to speeches by professors, students and
political activists. Andrew Wentink '70, now the Curator of Special
Collections and Archives, remembered the electric atmosphere of the rallies.
"What was extraordinary was that the entire student body as well as
the faculty came together and spoke passionately," he said. "The
initial feeling after the Kent State [deaths] was 'What difference is
a protest at Middlebury going to make?' But I think over time there
was a consensus that we should join other students and universities
in protesting the war."
They were still at it early the next morning in Proctor Hall, the
organizers' informal headquarters. Organizers set up a "strike
information center" on May 6, and no one rushed past the tables on
their way to make panninis. Fifty or 60 people were milling about,
some wearing red rags torn into armbands, others reading posters
taped to the walls with information from the WRMC teletype machine
that detailed how their fellow students across America were dealing
with the turmoil in the wake of the shooting. Students also paid
attention to signs that called for action on campus and around town.
"We need 60 people every night for the next three days to patrol this
campus. Sign up!" one sign loudly proclaimed.
"Sign petition to Senator Prouty," another commanded.
At 11 a.m., a second rally was held in Mead Chapel (Proctor's terrace
was ruled out because of the snow and sleet). The downstairs pews
filled quickly and left students peering around rafters in the
balcony to see the speakers. One student read a letter explaining to
her professors why she was going to skip her classes for the rest of
the year to help the anti-war cause.
'I'm mad, you're mad, we're all mad'
But the next morning, students awoke to some bad news. It seemed that
the politically charged atmosphere was taking an ugly turn.
At 4:15 a.m. on May 7, someone had broken the glass entrance to
Recitation Hall, poured gasoline on rags at the base of the walls and
touched them off. Flames quickly leapt up the staircase and enveloped
the attic of the small World War I-era wooden building. Fire engines
from Middlebury and Vergennes screeched to the site 15 minutes later,
but it was too late. By the time the flames were gone, they had
gutted the building, and with it the main rooms of Middlebury's
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) center. It turned out that it
was the third attempt to vandalize ROTC offices at Middlebury that
week. Public Safety officers had foiled previous break-in attempts at
the ROTC headquarters in Alumni House on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"Initially there was great shock and concern" about the Recitation
fire, Wentink recalled. But since the building was slated for
demolition anyway, he and other students believed that it was an
appropriate, albeit dramatic protest.
"The majority of students felt that if something was going to be
burned down, it might as well be Recitation Hall, because it was
expendable," Wentink said.
But the vandalism did not end there. Later that day, someone had
spray-painted the word "scab" on the set of the upcoming play "Alice
in Wonderland," one of the few events scheduled to take place during
the strike and cancellation of classes. The word scab implied that
the show was breaking the strike, but that was not true, according to
Wentnick, who played the Cheshire Cat.
"Some people thought that such a play was superficial and shouldn't
go on in light of what was happening around the country," he said.
"But the truth was, the interpretation we made of the [script] was
very loose." The actors had in fact turned the play into a subtle war
protest of their own.
"We felt that in times of national crisis, it was important that art
make a statement against the establishment," Wentink said. "One of my
lines as the Cheshire Cat was 'I'm mad, you're mad, we're all mad."
The cast and crew slept in Wright Theater to avoid any further damage
to the set, and when the curtain rose that weekend, it revealed a
sold-out and appreciative audience.
On Monday at 9 a.m., classes resumed. The Strike of 1970 was over.
No 'emotional commitment'
The Five Days in May might have represented the zenith of political
activism at Middlebury. Barely 10 years later, students were already
beginning to feel comfortably isolated in the bubble that we know so
well today. Marion Lee '80 put it a little more bluntly in a 1979
interview with The Middlebury Campus.
"You could drop a bomb on New York City and it wouldn't affect the
people up here," she said.
Rick Glaser, who wrote the column in which Lee's quote appeared,
agreed with her. He noted that students no longer had an "emotional
commitment" towards activism.
"There are four reasons, I believe, why this campus is politically
stagnant," Glaser wrote. "First, the student body is unaware and
uninformed of what is going on. Second, there is no unifying issue.
Third, Middlebury is not an urban center and therefore attracts less
politically active people, and finally, there is the ever-present
problem of inflation. For good or for bad, Middlebury is in the Stone
Age when it comes to political activism."
Nearly 30 years after Glaser wrote those words, it seems that the
College is still politically stagnant. This time around, however,
inflation is not as much of a problem and the 2008 elections
certainly serve as a unifying issue. Where is our campus activism, then?
Emily Gullickson '10, president of the College Democrats, believes
that some of it may be taking a back seat to individual political projects.
"People just dedicate all of their time to a single cause instead of
engaging in political activism," she said.
The priorities of students and administrators alike are partly to
blame. Everything from the Projects for Peace fund, designed to help
students pursue world peace, to the enormously demanding workload
seem to tell the modern Middlebury student that college is for
studying, and his or her own time is for political projects. Maybe
that is just how the majority of students want to spend their four
years here. But for those who are looking to stir the pot of campus
activism, remember that the extraordinary events of the Five Days in
May 1970 were started with a single phone call at 7 a.m.