by WILL TREECE
November 20, 2009
Given current discussions about student activism at Swarthmore, it's
fitting to look back to the era of student protest and arrest: the 1960s.
As you can imagine, Swarthmore student activists embraced issues from
the Civil Rights movement to Vietnam. Swarthmore even had its own
celebrities in the counterculture. "Refugees from Amerika: A Gay
Manifesto" by Carl Wittman '66 made waves in the Gay Liberation
movement, and Nick Egleson '66 later became president of Students for
a Democratic Society (SDS). Incidentally, Egleson's father painted
the murals in Hicks.
One of our most dramatic moments in the Civil Rights movement was in
1963, when 12 students were arrested for civil disobedience in
segregated Cambridge, MD. I sent out a request for stories about the
arrests to several alumni (because, let's face it, it's an empirical
fact that baby boomers love talking about the 60s), and received
responses from Daniel Pope and Carl Stieren, both class of '66.
The students went picketing downtown with local protesters organized
by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and
severalthe leaderswere arrested for refusing to follow police
orders. The rest, Pope reports, "marched to the jail and more or less
made them arrest us." Stieren recalls that timemarching on the jail
at night, anticipating arrest and singing freedom songsas the
scariest experience of his life.
They were bailed out the next morning, and the case was closed a
month later when the judge found them guilty of disorderly conduct.
Their fine, which was later suspended, was one cent each. Both of
them cite how clueless and scared they were; "I was 17 at the time
and mostly just doing what people told me to do," Pope wrote.
The Phoenix articles about the arrests, though, are a fascinating
example of debates over college journalism. The original article
about the arrests took what seems, even today, a rather flippant tone
when describing the arrests. The unflattering opening line read: "In
a dilapidated Negro church which looks like a grey orange crate, 12
Swarthmore students Saturday night decided to 'invite' mass arrest."
A flood of letters to the editor accused the reporter of making "what
was a very serious effort sound like an irresponsible, congenial,
off-campus extension of Folk Festival." Conversely, the protesters
were accused of self-righteousness and "vicious verbal attacks,
public and private … on some of us who do not share a highly
sectarian view of current events." It's funny how timeless these debates are.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson came to Swarthmore to fulfill an invitation
originally extended to JFK- although shortly afterward, Johnson
stopped visiting campuses in the wake of anti-Vietnam demonstrations.
Generally, though, I'm surprised at how muted Swarthmore's anti-war
sentiments were. When Student Council introduced a resolution to the
student body in 1965 arguing that America's actions violated
international law and that its military tactics were "deplored on
humanitarian grounds," the results were evenly split: 36% of the
student body agreed with the resolution, 25% opposed it, and 38% didn't vote.
In fact, rather than our famed progressive political engagement,
political indifference may have been the norm for parts of the
Vietnam era. An article in a November 1968 Phoenix entitled "Wall of
Apathy Surrounds Swarthmore Students" begins with the apparently
known assumption, "We've all heard about how much apathy there is
around here…" Of course, this may be the bias of the Phoenix
editorial board, or just one of those tropes you hear around campus
that isn't wholly true (nobody pays attention to sports, nobody goes
into Philly, etc.).
Swarthmore students participated in plenty of marches in Washington
and Philadelphia, but most interesting is the attempted school strike
in May 1970. Following Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and resumption of
bombing in North Vietnam, an impromptu meeting of over 500 students
and faculty gathered to discuss Swarthmore's response. Proposals
included everything from "a short-term burst of politically-oriented
activity" to "an indefinite suspension of normal college activities."
Support for a schoolwide strike, with special conditions for those
taking Honors exams, seemed popular; yet the next week's Phoenix
headline read "Mass Enthusiasm for Strike Evaporates; Long-Term
Activities Receive Emphasis." Although "for a few days last week
Swarthmore college appeared to have been jarred out of its normal
state of political apathy," the "revolutionary fervor of a week ago
could not last at such a fever pitch for very long." Instead,
activists would focus on working with local high schools toward anti-war goals.
So while schools like UPenn and Yale went on strike, and
demonstrations at Kent State and Jackson State led to violence,
Swarthmore stayed moderate. Friends Library Curator Chris Densmore
contends this was "largely because they didn't have a paranoid
administration. Campuses with more rapport have people who can defuse
One hypothesis is that the death of President Courtney Smith
discouraged student radicalism. No discussion of Swarthmore student
activism in the 60s would be complete without mention of the "Crisis
of 1969." In what has been called the "most traumatic week in college
history," members of the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society
held a sit-in in the admissions office to protest the college's lack
of support for black students shortly before President Smith died of
a heart attack. I won't go into the Crisis in great detail, simply
because so much has already been written about it. Check out the
excellent Phoenix article written by Ashia Troiano '11 for Black
History Month this year for a comprehensive review of the crisis.
You could easily do more research about Swarthmore's actions in
Chester and the student power movement within Swarthmore itself to
provide a more comprehensive view of Swarthmore student activism in
the 60s. I've simply chosen to focus on protests that connect to a
more national level. It's interestingour generation of liberals (or
me, at least) tends to mythologize the 60s as a time of wholesale
political engagement and idealism. It's worthwhile to remember that
for the most part, the activist community in the 60s consisted of a
small segment of students, much as it does today.
Although, if you'd like to feed into stereotypes about the 60s, there
are a couple of Phoenix columns that look suspiciously like they were
written while under a hint of chemical influence: "You are you.
Fascinating, aren't you? People are so strong! People are so weak!
The axe that strikes low the mighty elm may tomorrow sever the
fetters of the captive butterfly."
I asked Stieren and Pope how they feel about their activism more than
40 years later, and whether they would encourage current students to
risk arrest. They both stood by their actions, but qualified their response.
"I will say that I'm often skeptical about the value of civil
disobedience because it can distract from the original cause … the
motive that impelled people to get arrested in the first place
sometimes gets lost in the shuffle," Pope said. "But I think civil
disobedience in the Southern civil rights movement of the sixties was
on the whole highly successful. I don't think anybody I know (at
least among us privileged white Swarthmoreans) suffered unduly for
getting arrested. I'm sure there are situations now where risking
arrest would be morally justified and strategically effective."
Stieren gave a more prescriptive analysis of his college years, and
what might have been.
"If we had been both far-sighted and committed to nonviolence, we
would have studied Gandhi and King and figured out how the Eastern
Shore's black community could win their freedom without violence. We
would have raised the funds to send young Black leaders to Highlander
Folk School in Tennessee to learn community organizing. We would have
connected with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy and would
have set up the meanshow about something called 'freedom
scholarships' -for young Black men and women to study with them and
return to Cambridge. We would have set up freedom scholarships of our
own to let the smartest of these brave young people study at Swarthmore.
"And if we had been really far-sighted, we would have kept in mind
that basic principle of organizingreplace yourself as quickly as possible."