Berkeley on Edge… the 60s

Within a week of my arrival at Berkeley, I was President of Priestly Hall, my dorm. Following my stint as Student Body President at Sierra College, I decided to jump into student politics at the University. The dormitories were new so the residents were new. The fact that I was a Community College transfer made little difference.

Student politics seemed dull and almost frivolous compared to the real thing, however. What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day.

Fellow students had actually signed up for and gone on Freedom Rides in the South. An active effort to end discriminatory hiring practices was underway in the Bay Area and organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality were recruiting students to support their efforts.

I was drawn toward these issues and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a potential Martin Luther King 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 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 such as organizing parties, collecting rolls of toilet paper to throw during Cal football games and learning the football fight songs.

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 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. 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. Apparently the student body wasn’t ready for the message; a popular bartender representing a fraternity 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. These weren’t bad goals but there was little room in the equation for students seeking social and political change… in Mississippi, in Oakland or on campus.

But ‘the times they were a changing,’ as Bob Dylan sang. A young President in Washington was calling on the youth of America to become involved, 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 also a justifiable fear of reprisal from the right.

The ugliness of McCarthyism was still alive and well in America. Only a few years before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had held hearings in San Francisco in its ceaseless search for Commies. UC had been a target.

HUAC created a deep paranoia and distrust within society and may indeed have constituted the most un-American type of activity ever perpetrated on the American public. Clark Kerr, the University President, 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 might 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, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and other activist groups.

We sat in a large room in a huge square; there must have been at least 40 of us. I was eager to participate and imagined an open discussion of the issues.

A Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate, and then laid the foundation for our discussion. A small group of radical students was disrupting the campus and organizing off-campus activities such as picketing and sit-ins that were illegal in nature.

While the issues being addressing were important, there were other, more appropriate means available for solving them that didn’t involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it might have to crack down for the overall good of the University.

The Administration wanted our feedback as student leaders. What did we think was happening, how would our constituencies react to a crack down, and how could we help defuse the situation? We were to go around the room with each student leader expressing his or her view. I expected a major reaction… hopefully a protest or at least a warning to move cautiously, to involve all parties in seeking some type of amenable agreement.

The first student leader stood up. “The radical students are making me extremely angry,” he reported. “I resent that a small group of people can ruin everything for the rest of us. The vast majority of the students do not support off-campus political action. I believe the student body would support a crackdown by the Administration. You have my support in whatever you do.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Was the guy a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to repeat the party line and set the tone for everyone else? If so, he was successful. The next person and the next person parroted what he had said. I began to doubt myself.

Normally, I am quite good at reading political trends and sensing when a group leans toward supporting or opposing an issue. My read on what was happening at Bancroft and Telegraph was that the majority of the students were empathic with and supportive of the causes the so-called radical students were advocating.

The Martin Luther Kings of the world were heroes, not bad guys, and their tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience were empowering the powerless. Sure, the majority of the students were primarily concerned with getting through college. To many, an all night kegger and getting laid might seem infinitely more appealing than a sit-in. But this did not imply a lack of shared concern.

Or so I believed. Apparently, very few of the other participants shared in my belief. Concerns were raised but no one stopped and said, “Damn it, we have a problem!”

As my turn approached I felt myself chickening out. I was the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears. What did I know?

Acceptance in this crowd was to stand up and say, “Yes, everything you are talking about is true. Let’s clamp down on the rabble rousers and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the establishment. I stood up with shaking legs.

“Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the president of Priestly Hall,” I announced in a voice which was matching my legs, shake for shake. This was not the impression I wanted to make. As others had spoken, I had scribbled some notes on what I wanted to say.

“I believe we have a very serious problem here, that the issues are legitimate, and that most students are sympathetic. I don’t think we should be cracking down but should be working together to find solutions. Now is not the time to further alienate the activists and create more of a crisis than we presently have. I believe it is a serious mistake to not have representatives from the groups involved in organizing off campus activities here today.”

I was met with deadly silence. A few heads nodded in agreement, but mainly there were glares. “Next,” the Dean said. No yea, no nay, no discussion. I was a bringer of bad tidings, a storm crow. But it wasn’t ‘kill the messenger.’ It was more like ‘ignore the messenger,’ like I had farted in public and people were embarrassed.

After that, my enthusiasm for student government waned. I should have fought back, fought for what I believed in, fought for what I knew deep down to be right. But I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what to do with 15 books in Poly Sci 1. I had a relationship to maintain on campus and a mother fighting cancer at home. The dark, heavy force of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay.

Finally I decided that something had to go and that the only thing expendable was my role as President of the dorm. So I turned over the reins of power to my VP and headed back to Bancroft Library. Politics could wait.

Next blog: John Kennedy Is Shot Down on the Streets of Dallas.

How Being a Minority, Facing Nuclear Oblivion and Becoming Green Can Change Your World View: the 1960s

I graduated from high school in 1961 as a budding Young Republican. College changed my perspective.

I spent my first two years at Sierra, a small, rural community college nestled in the rolling foothills east of Sacramento. I then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, the flash point of worldwide student unrest in the 60s. Sierra liberalized my view of the world; Berkeley radicalized it.

Three things happened at Sierra that changed my political views. The first took place in the first hour on my first day at school.

On Being a Minority

The faculty had arranged for a speaker to kick off the school’s welcome and orientation. He was a Chinese man who stood up in front of a sea of white faces and smiled like he had access to secrets we didn’t.

“You think I look funny?” our speaker asked with a grin.  His question was greeted by nervous laughter. As naive as we were, we still knew enough to be made uncomfortable by such a question.

“Well I think you look funny,” he went on to much more laughter, “and there are a lot more of me who think you look funny than there are of you who think I look funny.”

It jolted my perspective. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the South in the early 60s and I was sympathetic with its objectives. Providing people with equal rights regardless of race, sex, religion or other arbitrary factor seemed like the correct thing to do. I also had a vague concept that we all lose when we limit a person or group’s ability to succeed because of prejudice.

But I had never perceived of myself as being a minority. Instead, I belonged to an exclusive club. In 1961 white males dominated the US and the US dominated the world. It was easy to assume that this was how things should be.

The fact that it might be otherwise put a new spin on the issue. What if we ended up in a situation where we were in the minority and lacked power? I added enlightened self-interest to my list of reasons for supporting equal rights. They might be the only protection we had.

On Facing Nuclear Oblivion

The second event was one of the most scary our generation would face. All of our lives we had been raised under the threat of a nuclear cloud. We were constantly treated to photographs and television coverage of massive, doomsday explosions and their tell-tale clouds.

Growing up in the 50s meant growing up paranoid. In elementary school, we even practiced drills where we would hide under our desks and assume a fetal position for when the big bomb hit.

Atom bombs, which could destroy whole cities and kill millions of people, weren’t massive enough. We needed bigger bombs and we needed more. It was important that we could kill everyone in the world several times over and blast ourselves and the rest of life into times that would make the so-called Dark Ages seem like a Sunday picnic in the park.

None of this was our fault, of course. We had the evil Russian Communists and their desire to rule the world to blame. “We will bury you!” Khrushchev threatened and we believed him. Losing a soul to communism was worse than losing a soul to the devil. Better Dead than Red was the motto of people whose fingers were very close to the nuclear button.

The closest we have come to the nuclear holocaust took place during two terrifying weeks in late October 1962.  I, along with most of the student body and faculty at Sierra College, sat tethered to the radio in the Campus Center as our nation teetered on the edge of nuclear abyss.

It all came about because a cigar chomping right-wing dictator we liked was replaced by a cigar chomping left-wing dictator we didn’t. It was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and has its own headlines in the history books as being a highlight of the Cold War.

Castro and his revolution had provided a toehold for Communism in the western Hemisphere. Jack Kennedy waged a crusade to get rid of him that included an alleged assassination attempt using Mafia hit men and the invasion fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs.

Castro called on Khrushchev for help and Russia responded by offering nuclear missiles. This made the folks in Washington rightfully nervous. Kennedy set up a blockade of Cuba. It was here that things got dicey. Fingers hovered over the launch buttons.

Fortunately, Khrushchev blinked. Aided by promises that the US wouldn’t invade Cuba and that we would remove our missiles from Turkey, Russia retrieved its nuclear missiles and we entered our decades long stare-down with Castro.

From that point on in my life, I became convinced that here had to be solutions to solving international differences beyond blowing each other off the map. Nation states rattling sabers was one thing; nation states rattling nuclear bombs and other forms of mass destruction was something else.

On Becoming Green

Another concept I was introduced to at Sierra was environmental activism. For this, I owe thanks to Danny Langford. Dan liked to talk and could fit more words into a minute than I could five. One Monday morning he proudly informed me that he had spent his weekend pulling up surveyor stakes in a new development called El Dorado Hills.

“You did what?” I asked in a shocked and disapproving voice. Pulling up surveyor stakes was malicious vandalism.

“I pulled up stakes to discourage a developer from building houses,” he responded in greater detail assuming it would make sense to me.

It didn’t. Why would someone want to discourage a developer? My Republican roots were offended to the core.

“Why would you pull a destructive stunt like that?” I wanted to know as I pictured several days of surveyor work going down the drain.

“It’s a beautiful area,” Dan responded, “covered with oak trees and grass. They are going to cut down the trees, plant houses, and pave over the grass.”

Suddenly what Dan was talking about made sense. I wasn’t about to join him on one of his destructive forays but his comments made me think about how fast we were paving over California.

Many of the wooded areas I had wandered as a kid a few years earlier had already met their demise at the business end of a bulldozer. Progress was how this destruction was defined and progress was a sacred American tradition. For the first time in my life, I questioned its value.

Possibly there were other costs that needed to be considered and weighed in our blind rush toward the future. It would be nine years before I made the leap into being a full-time environmental activist but the seed had been planted.

So here I was in mid-1963, part internationalist, a future environmentalist, and a Civil Rights advocate. I had definitely made a left turn out of the right lane. I figured I was ready for Berkeley.  Not.

Next blog: I am held at gunpoint.