NET Journal: “To Calm A Troubled Campus” College protests in 1969 – April 17, 1969 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
1968 was, for all intents and purposes, a turning point in our society and certainly the Institutions of higher learning within our society. Protests on college campuses were not new; they had always run the gamut – they were part of the complicated fabric which embraced the notion that questioning authority was a healthy thing and that the true nature of College itself was, not only a place of higher learning, it was a place of free expression as a way of stimulating thought and exchange of ideas.
It looked, and still looks, really good on paper – anything that begs investigation and questioning is a healthy thing for human development – we are, after all a species whose main intention is to evolve. Lofty ideas is where change comes from and the pursuit of those ideas is a virtue and not a vice.
However – the ideal and the practice are seldom on speaking terms and the protest movement with good intentions has often been derailed by the underpinnings of contention, disruption and agenda forwarding – and more often than not, those distractions have become the public face of a movement and not its original intent.
Case in point – the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 – initially a brought about by an exclusion of certain groups to express ideas on the Berkeley Campus. It was perceived as an attempt by the University to censor the exchange of thoughts and ideas, largely as a result of the Anti-Communist hysteria brought on by the McCarthy Investigations during the 1950s. The movement was quickly painted as a leftist attempt at hijacking the University system by the media. But it also grew in scope to include the presence of Military recruitment on campus as well as using the university setting as a place to engage in research for the Military. All of this led to an opportunity for other groups to join as part of the Free Speech Movement, strictly to cause mayhem and sow division, almost as a way of confirming the suspicions of those who were convinced the College Campus was a hotbed of extreme leftist ideology, which then promoted a backlash towards higher education, which devolved into the dismantling of institutions and stepped violence over the coming years.
This documentary/discussion focuses on the events in 1969, where Student protest was primarily involved in the escalating Vietnam War, as well as issues of race and urban culture. The first part of this program deals with an issue at Penn State, where land which was initially populated by African-Americans was being appropriated by the College for campus expansion, the tearing down of homes and the uprooting of families because the University could and it was part of a plan that had been in place since just after World War 2.
It’s reminiscent of the People’s Park incident and UC Berkeley later on that year. Where Penn State was a successful protest, People’s Park was not. But it did illuminate what was going on with regards to protests and the College Campus in the 1960s. It would only escalate in the coming months, culminating with the violent confrontations as Kent and Jackson State.
But somewhere in the middle of all this is the College Campus – the place of higher learning – ground Zero for Protest. Much has happened since that time, a lot of it is worrisome – it is at times difficult to separate the legitimate protest from the hijacked one – the true concern from the manufactured mayhem. In 1969 we didn’t know where things were heading.
In 2021 we still don’t.
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