College activism is dead, and other myths: The evolution of a radical revolution

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BY ROBERT SOAVE

Published April 4, 2010

Sit-ins. Anti-war protests. Civil rights rallies. The invention of the teach-in. These are just part of the legacy of student activism at the University of Michigan during the 1960s. The steps of the Michigan Union served as the birthplace of the Peace Corps in 1960, and at spring commencement in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced his “Great Society” reforms to fight poverty and racial inequality. Except for the University of California at Berkeley, no college campus possesses as strong a connection to the radical activism that characterized the Swinging Sixties as the University of Michigan.

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Flash forward to today, where students across the country are routinely thought to be “apathetic.” Even when University students mobilized in 2008 to elect the first black president of the United States, commentators seized on the idea that students seemed passionate about public policy for the first time in decades. On the surface, this would appear to be the case. When was the last time students shut down a University administrative building in the name of racial and gender equality, or rioted en masse to demand the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. military from its wars abroad?

But no matter how many people think students just don’t care anymore, the experts — those who lived through the so-called height of college activism in the 1960s — vehemently disagree with this assessment, saying student activism is just as alive today, if not more so.

“There’s much more activity now,” said Alan Haber, the first president of the radical '60s activist group, Students for a Democratic Society, and a University student activist in the '50s and '60s. “Many more students are involved, many more organizations, many more issues, much more intelligence-wise.”

Haber isn’t alone in this opinion. This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of SDS, a group that came to symbolize student activism in the United States. Many of the most prominent activists from the '60s, however, believe that today the student movement for change is bigger, more capable and more successful than it was half a century ago, and would rather look toward the future than idealize the past.

RETURN OF THE RADICALS

Haber has been fighting for a peaceful, prosperous and equal society for 55 years. He claims that such a society won’t happen unless people listen to what each other have to say and learn from it.

Haber started listening to what others were saying when he was a freshman at the University in 1954. At that time, scarcely a trace of political debate existed on campus. The socialist and workers’ rights movements — which had flourished in the wake of World War I and experienced a short-lived resurgence after World War II — were all but gone. The culprit? McCarthyism. Being a radical meant being accused of disloyalty to the U.S. government, and people with ideas outside the norm had to shut up or risk losing their jobs and legal rights.

“After (World War II), Michigan was very hot, and then McCarthyism came and it just closed down,” Haber said. “When I became a student in 1954, there was no political activity (or) public organization on campus. Everybody was afraid.”

The University, for its part, was all too willing to let undesirable opinions fade from campus life.

“Every speaker on campus had to be approved by a faculty group that this person was not subversive,” Haber said.

Getting rid of the approval committee would eventually become one of Haber’s priorities. But in the fall of 1954, Haber was just a University freshman who skipped class to attend his first demonstration — more out of curiosity than conviction.

“I probably didn’t know it was a demonstration, because why would I have known that this was called that?” Haber recalled. “So in a way, it was different times.”

A group of mostly graduate students was protesting the University’s decision to fire three faculty members who had refused to sign loyalty oaths. Haber became involved with this group, which included members with socialist and communist tendencies. Eventually, Haber and his friends found a faculty advisor and started a political issues club on campus. Though the club remained discussion-based for the first few years, the University was once again, slowly but surely, becoming a place where students could challenge accepted ideas.

“I witnessed the coming-into-consciousness of activism, from very quiet to quite active,” Haber said.

What was happening at the University of Michigan was also slowly taking shape on campuses nationwide. Bob Zellner, the first white southern field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a student group that fought for racial equality, remembers the emerging energy of the time.

“We were just coming out of what they call the silent '50s, and everybody was getting involved,” Zellner said. “It was a mass movement. It was very exciting.”

CONFUSION AND CRISIS

For the next few years, that excitement only grew. As students across the country became involved in the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights and world peace, the University of Michigan led the way. On March 24, 1965, the University held the first-ever teach-in, where over 3,000 people participated in lectures, discussions and debates about the Vietnam War.

Haber remembers that day fondly, as well as what followed. “A hundred and some campuses across the country did it,” he said, “and a whole network of academics, intellectuals and people who were knowledgeable about Vietnam and about history became a community, a knowledgeable public.”

The creation of a knowledgeable public was what was necessary, in Haber’s view, to effect real change. Once the public became informed, the government would alter its policies to reflect the view of the people. Or so the activists thought.

“That didn’t happen at all,” Haber said. He recalled a debate with federal authorities on the Vietnam War, which was organized by Haber and the Inter-University Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy. “We wiped the floor with them. But it had no impact.”

This inability of activism to generate actual change in the realm of public policy frustrated many in the movement, who increasingly turned to more dramatic — and in some cases, dangerous — methods of getting their point across. Radicals argued with each other over whether to remain nonviolent or whether to bring home the reality of war to the American people by committing domestic violence. The assassinations of President John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — and the air of conspiracy that circled these murders — only made activists more concerned that peaceful tactics weren’t working.

“When you get lied to on the one hand and when knowledge doesn’t make any difference on the other hand, and people had walked around in circles and froze for peace every winter, what is the point of getting out there and freezing your butt off with a sign?” Haber said.

These dilemmas were soon compounded by infighting between various groups within the movement. The black members of SNCC clashed with the white members. Female members of SDS accused the group of being patriarchal. By the 1970s, SDS, SNCC and plenty of other groups had ceased to exist. The movement lost many of the threads holding it together.

And that, if one believes the hype, was the end of student activism.

ACTIVISM EVOLVES

But contrary to popular belief, student activism didn’t die — it merely took different forms that some would argue have been more effective, though less visible, than the tactics of the '60s.

“I think there’s a little bit of a fetishization or romanticization of the '60s,” said Vasugi Ganeshananthan, Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University, who has written extensively on '60s activism. “This idea that caring for the sake of caring, that somehow passion is in and of itself an end — I don’t know that I agree with that.”

While no one can deny the passion of the '60s activists, many felt — and still feel — that their achievements were fewer than they expected. Ganeshananthan believes that you can look at it both ways. For one, some of their more radical tactics scared away people who were in the mainstream. These acts also drove compromise positions further to the left.

“And then there’s the other argument that in order to enable real change you need people to be on the far, far left, because then the compromise is to end up somewhere in the middle and then at least you sort of shift the dial a little bit,” Ganeshananthan said. “I just tend to not find those arguments that compelling.”

That’s not to say that '60s activism didn’t accomplish anything. Haber’s activities were partly responsible for the University rolling back many of its egregiously sexist and racist policies, such as requiring curfews for female students and forbidding interracial dating.

“They also responded by making the curriculum more flexible,” Haber said. “The University had accommodated in some way to courses that touch on human rights.”

In Haber’s view, these changes have encouraged students to pursue careers that are activism-oriented, such as international law.

Student activism since the '60s has been about making arguments that are not only compelling, but also attract people to participate in the movement. Such a shift has led to an increase, not a decrease, in student activism.

“It may be that there’s more student action now than there was in the '60s, it’s just so diverse and in so many different mediums,” Zellner said. “Now there’s trouble everywhere and there’s action everywhere, so there’s probably as much activity now as there was then, or even more.”

Today, students are evolving activism online, in conferences and through internships and careers in humanitarian and social justice fields. And they are constantly assessing their methods in light of the past.

THE COST TO STUDENTS TODAY

This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of both SDS and SNCC. To celebrate this anniversary and discuss how activism has changed, many '60s activists, including Haber and Zellner, reunited last month for a conference entitled “Bring It Back, Take It Forward.” Of course, there was no better place to hold it than Ann Arbor.

While the conference, organized by the School of Social Work, purported to remember the past as well as look to the future, many of the attendees said that they preferred the future. One person who felt this way was Bill Ayers, the co-founder of Weather Underground who was recently thrust back into the national spotlight in 2008 when it was alleged that Barack Obama was closely linked to him. Ayers participated in a panel discussion during the conference and shared his thoughts.

“I don’t have any nostalgia for the '60s at all,” Ayers told the conference attendees. “I don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body.”

Ayers worried that student activists today think that their actions have less merit because they aren’t repeating the same activities of the '60s.

“I think the myth and symbol of the '60s in some ways sits heavily on young people today who think that, somehow, the trick is to reproduce the time when we had the best demonstrations, the best music and the best sex,” Ayers said. “Actually the sex is still great, the music is good (and) we don’t need to replicate the demonstrations of the past.”

In an interview after the panel, Ayers explained that he doesn’t buy the notion that students are somehow less active or passionate today than they were back then. “I think that people who see it that way are looking for a replay of something that was in the past,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

In fact, many of the conference attendees felt that the heightened student activity of today was all the more remarkable because it’s more difficult to be an activist now than it was in the '60s. This is not to say that activism was easy in the '60s. Zellner told attendees that five of his colleagues were murdered by southern racists during his first three years working for SNCC. But though the physical risks of being a radical have greatly decreased, the economic costs are higher than ever.

“There was a lot of risk, a lot of real, physical risk in the '60s, but it is much more difficult now, economically, to be an activist,” said Andrew Lichterman, a nuclear disarmament activist, during a question-and-answer session after the panel. “It’s a lot harder to start your own small institution on a shoe string.”

Since the 1960s, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed and the pace of college has accelerated. The result is that students don’t have nearly as much free time to dedicate to activity. And Haber thinks it’s no accident that the tempo of college life has sped up over the last 50 years.

“They had some system planners (that thought), ‘How do we close down activism here at this institution?’ ” Haber said. “Well, you speed up the worker and you don’t give them any toilet breaks,” Haber said. “You run it like a factory.”

Haber recalled that there used to be longer breaks at Thanksgiving, the winter holidays and during the school year, which lasted into June. This made it easier to dedicate time to activism and still catch up on schoolwork before exams. But this free time has largely disappeared.

“Now, you miss a day, you miss a week, you can’t do it,” Haber said. “You’re wasted around this noose of student debt or parental financial engagement or expectation, and you can’t just be an activist. I used to say activism is a five-year undergraduate degree, whatever your second major might be. You drop out, you take more time — but you can’t do that now.”

With greater and greater fiscal constraints placed on students — especially those from the state of Michigan, where the economic downturn has been especially brutal — it’s more difficult for them to justify neglecting their school work in order to focus on something else. The University, parents and financial realities are all demanding that students go to class, even if the inequality in the world is calling them to be activists. In light of such hardships, the fact that activism is thriving in new forms speaks well of the tremendous dedication of students to right the wrongs of the world they live in.

TAKING IT FORWARD

Today, the spirit of the 60s activists lives on within dozens of campus organizations dedicated to peace, racial equality, gender equality, immigrant rights, gay rights, civil liberties, social justice, environmental justice and drug legalization. But one group that specifically channels the community-organizing core of activism is the University’s School of Social Work. The fact that activism is now practiced and preached in University classrooms is just one more positive development since the '60s.

“We are a profession with a code of ethics,” said Liz Gonzales, a graduate student in the School of Social Work who helped organize the conference. “Meet people where they’re at, empowerment, choice.”

For Gonzales, being a social worker means listening to people, finding out what’s keeping them down and fixing it.

“You need to sit with a person and hear their story, hear what’s going on, hear how systems are holding them back from moving forward, from being successful,” Gonzales said.

Such an approach would certainly please Haber, who still believes that listening to each other is the only way to end all the violence and exploitation, from the wars in the Middle East to the wars in our own hearts.

“You won’t make peace without a meeting,” said Haber. “If we’re going to have peace in our little part of reality, what are the questions that have to be resolved? What are the principles of resolution that bring justice and restore what has been out of balance, and makes you at the end feel like everyone has come out better? The whole war system has to be dealt with.”

Haber is still working to facilitate these meetings. His dream is to hold a gathering in Meggido, Israel — the location of the Christian apocalypse as described in the Book of Revelations — where he hopes to preempt the war to end all wars with a peace to prevent all wars. As for his home town of Ann Arbor, Haber is working to bring the city community and the student population closer together, especially on the issue of the Ann Arbor Public Library’s now defunct parking lot, which he hopes to transform into a common area.

The face of activism may have changed. It is of course the very nature of radicals to be excited for the future rather than cling to the past. But Haber and his friends are still warriors for peace, justice and equality. His words for the conference attendees were short and simple, yet elegant and apropos. In so many ways, he still epitomizes the burning passion and undying dream of the student activist.

“I hope you all will be part of the choice for the new society rather than the quiescence of ratifying the old society,” he said.

With student activism still growing, he won’t have to worry about that anytime soon.