In my last two posts about experiences that led me to join the Peace Corps, I introduced my life as a student at UC Berkeley from 1963 to 1965. Under any circumstances, it would have been interesting and challenging. Berkeley is one of the leading academic institutions in the world. But it was politics of change that brought the campus to the forefront of people’s attention in the 60s. Today, I begin my exploration of the student revolution from my perspective of having a front row seat on the action as I struggled to understand what was happening and where I fit in.
What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day. I was drawn toward these issues, and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a potential Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi because of who his parents were went beyond being counterproductive. It was stupid. We all lost. But I wasn’t ready to take up a picket sign. This was my first year at Berkeley and my hands were more than full in struggling with classes and eking out time to be with Jo Ann. There were also numerous responsibilities to fulfill in my role as dorm president.
I did strike one tap hammer blow against the machine, however. We were expected to participate in the annual Ugly Man Contest. Its purpose was to raise money for charity by having someone or thing really ugly as the dorm’s representative in competition with other dorms, fraternities and sororities. People would vote by donating money (normally pennies) to their favorite ugly man. In addition to being pure fun, it was on the top of the Dean’s list as an acceptable student activity.
I proposed that our ugly man be an unfortunate Joe College student whose computer card had been lost by the Administration. Consequently, he no longer existed. Early computers used punched cards to contain data and had become ubiquitous in our lives. They came with the warning “do not fold, spindle or mutilate.”
We made up a casket and wandered about campus in search of poor Joe. It was a small thing, but it reflected a growing unease I had about the alienation created by assembly line education where numbers were more important than individuals. It seems that the student body wasn’t ready for the message. A popular bartender, selected by a fraternity as its ugly man candidate, walked away with the prize.
While my concerns over student alienation were evolving, the administration was monitoring off-campus student activism with growing concern. The University perceived its primary objectives as carrying out research and preparing young people to become productive members of American society. There was little room in this view for students seeking social and political change— in Mississippi, in Oakland, or on campus.
But the world was changing. A young President in Washington, Jack Kennedy, was calling on the youth of America to become involved and had created the Peace Corps to encourage involvement. Racial equality seemed attainable in the United States, and people the world over were yearning for and demanding freedom. It was easy for idealistic young Americans to believe we were at the dawning of a new age, and natural to want to be involved in the transformation.
Had the students restricted their political efforts in the early and mid-sixties to the far off South, the eruption of conflict on the Berkeley Campus may not have taken place. But they chose local targets as well. When the students marched off campus to picket the Oakland Tribune, Sheraton Hotel, United Airways and Safeway over discriminatory hiring practices, they were challenging locally established businesses with considerable power. Not surprisingly, these businesses felt threatened and fought back. Rather than deal with the existing discrimination, they demanded that the University, local authorities, the state government and even the Federal government do whatever was necessary to reign in the protesters.
Their arguments for the crackdown were typical of the times: A few radical off-campus agitators with Communist connections were working in conjunction with left leaning professors to stir up trouble. The participating students lacked mature judgment and were naively being led astray. The vast majority of students were good law abiding kids who just wanted to get an education, party, and get a paycheck.
The University was caught between the proverbial rock and a very hard place. The off-campus political activism was creating unwanted attention. Public dollars could be lost and reputations tarnished. There was a justifiable fear of reprisal from the right. The ugliness of McCarthyism was still alive and well in America. Its half-truths, outright lies and accusations had created a deep paranoia and distrust within American Society.
Only a few years before, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had held hearings in San Francisco in its ceaseless search for Communists. UC had been a target. Clark Kerr and others had worked hard to protect and restore the academic freedom on campus that loyalty oaths and other McCarthy-like activities had threatened. Student activism would refocus right wing attention on the Berkeley Campus.
My greatest insight into the mindset of the Administration was when the Dean of Students called student leaders together to discuss the growing unrest on campus. Our gathering included members of the student government and presidents of the resident halls, fraternities and sororities. Noticeable in their absence were student representatives from off campus organizations such as CORE, SNCC, SDS, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and other activist groups. We sat in a large room with tables organized in a square; there must have been at least 40 of us. I was eager to participate and imagined an open discussion of the issues. I couldn’t have been more wrong, which is the subject of my blog-a-book post from The Bush Devil Ate Sam next Wednesday.
Friday’s Travel Blog: Last Friday I featured the magnificent sea stacks found at Harris Beach State Park on the Oregon Coast. But what about ordinary rocks? This Friday, Peggy and I lower our cameras to look at a collection of ‘not so normal’ rocks and driftwood at the park.