Tuesday, 23 of September of 2014

Student Protest at Brandeis, Harvard and M.I.T.

The student protests for minority hiring at Tufts University in late 1969 were just one event in the Boston area that would shift the focus of the New York Times and Boston Globe readership towards “student turmoil”. The well-drafted demands by the Afro American Society at Tufts for a 20 percent hiring quota of Black and ‘third world’ people on Tufts‘ construction sites, evoked a very consenting response in the media, the New York Times wrote on November, 8 1969, “The issue is of immense national importance. Across the country, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Federal subsidized campus construction is being carried out. The law clearly prohibits the use of Federal funds for any such projects if they violate the provisions of existing civil rights legislation. A long history of discrimination both within the building industry and amny of the unions involved in construction has led to virtual exclusion of non-white minorities.” New York Times 11/8/1969 However, media coverage of student protests in these years rather tended to generalize than to identify the distinct movements that were part of this „student upheaval.“

Universities of the greater Boston area had all their own version of the 1960s and 70s and student activism. Looking closer at the year 1969 in the context of Boston‘s university landscape, it becomes apparent which wide array of issues were addressed by students, either by challenging their own school administration and the decision-making processes within their university, or nationwide policies.

The year 1969 was especially important with regards to the new dimension and rise of the anti-war movement which eventually concluded in the biggest demonstrations in US history, during the Vietnam War Moratorium on October 15 and November 15, which took place in Washington D.C. and major cities in the US. The anti-war protesters at universities often shared their podium with protesters for civil rights, especially the activists of the black campus movement, who would demand a more equal representation of minorities on campus and the establishment of Black Studies Programs. In 1966, the Black Student Union (BSU) at San Francisco State University had been a pioneer with its demand for the establishment of the academic discipline of African American Studies. In January, 1969, Brandeis University had one of its most difficult moments in the context of student activism, when talks between 60 black students and the Brandeis administration failed over demands for the establishment of this exact sector of Afro-American studies. The protest was accompanied by a sit-in, organized by white classmates to express their solidarity. “The ranks of the students were joined by representatives of off-campus organizations, including the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Resistance an antiwar, antidraft organization.” New York Times 1/11/1969

In April, Harvard‘s administration faced similar difficulties to respond adequately to demands made by black students and the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to abolish the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs on campus and give students a voice in selecting faculty for the newly established Center for African American  studies. Firstly, the demands by the protesters were not met, but as that lead to a two weeks strike, the administration tried to find a solution by sending in a negotiator. In the end, a faculty vote finally decided in favor of the demands concerning R.O.T.C. and agreed on giving blacks a voice in selection of professors for the propsed program of African American Studies. New York Times 4/24/1969 While the institutional response to most of the student demands was rather passive, individuals among the faculty often opened up new possibilities and sided with incitement for structural university reforms. With regards to Harvard’s reform on the voice of the student body, sociology professor Alan Kerckhoff was quoted on the developments at Harvard, “It seems to me that there is an expressed desire on the part of some students to be more involved in the workings of the university in general, and it seems to me that although many of us might differ as to what level and to what extent, it is a reasonable request.” New York Times 4/24/1969 The protests at Harvard were not over though. In November, 1969, new activism arose as the incidents surrounding the student protests at Tufts on November 6 shed a new light on discriminating hiring policies for federally subsidized projects. “The Nixon Administration has chosen the Greater Boston area as the second in the nation to implement  a program aimed at ending job discrimination on Federally assisted construction projects.” Boston Evening Globe 11/12/69

The events of the protests for minority hiring at Tufts, but also those following at Harvard University  the same year, both show how solidarity among students often involved activists of neighboring campuses, and how certain demands would lead to a spillover effect. Harvard black students had participated in the protests at the construction site of Lewis Hall, and one week later students at Harvard protested at the college dean‘s office to demand equal payment for painting workers. One of their demands was also to set up a minority hiring quota of 20 percent of Black workers on all Harvard construction sites within the next month, by December 2, 1969. On November 12, the Boston Globe titled its coverage on the protests with „Job Protest at 3 Campuses.“  Tufts, Harvard, and M.I.T. students joined demands for better job opportunities for black workers and protested their respective administrative offices. Boston Evening Globe 11/12/69 After a protest in the administration building at Harvard, on December  5, 1969, the university sent their negotiator Professor Archibald Cox, and agreed to freeze all new contracts on construction projects. Also, a committee was formed on the issue of how Black students should be represented. Still, the negotiations that followed the event failed, and the students who participated at the protests had to expect disciplinary actions. One week later, on December 11, Black students responded to the broken agreement by shutting down one of the construction sites and protested at the university‘s Faculty Club, playing drums. Afterward, Harvard suspended about 50 of those students.In the aftermath and as a response, CORE director Floyd B. McKissick called Harvard the „citadel of higher education and racism.“

While protests at Tufts and Harvard mainly concerned demands made by black students widely backed by their white classmates or the SDS, M.I.T. had different problems. It‘s highly specialized programs never attracted many Black or Hispanic students, such that the demands to reform underrepresented minorities did not play a big role in the institution. M.I.T. did however experience massive demonstrations during the autumn of 1969, when students and faculty alike protested the war related research of their institution. M.I.T. was a vulnerable target in the context of the anti-Vietnam-war protests, but also, defense-related Cold War research in general. The Instrumentation Lab on guidance systemfor ballistic missiles became a target of student – and faculty – protests and strikes. In particular, in a strike on November 6 it became clear how dangerous it was to actually protest on these sites, as the M.I.T. Instrumentation Laboratories were Federal property and “unlawful entry into the buildings could bring a 10-year prison term.” Boston Evening Globe 11/6/1969 The protests by the students, the Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC), and the „Union of Concerned Scientists“ eventually led to the removal and halt of certain research areas at M.I.T. while others remained or resumed work later.

Altogether, the protests in their variety of actors and demands brought some new developments on campus and nationwide. These included over 1000 universities-established Black Studies programs in the country, and new policies to include students in university governance. Even the protests at  M.I.T. and its creation of the  „Union of Concerned Scientists“ found followers among scientists at universities across the country that would question the war-related work of their institutions. The struggle and protest in these years, especially of students of color, demonstrate how important the student body became as a carrier of activism and representation of concerns regarding minorities and equal representation. Finally, the demands by students to establish Black Study Programs within the context of academia and the reputation of their own university established a significant channel for legitimizing the study of African American history and culture, allowing its own legacy, within and beyond university walls.


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