U of I protests of the 1960s

An insider chronicles a turbulent decade

click to enlarge Radicals in the Heartland: the 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois, by Michael V. Metz. University of Illinois Press, 2019.
Radicals in the Heartland: the 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois, by Michael V. Metz. University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Radicals in the Heartland: the 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois by Michael V. Metz gives an insightful, well-documented analysis of events that shaped each year of the 1960s at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus. The account is juxtaposed against what was occurring nationwide regarding the Vietnam War, civil rights, freedom of speech and students' feelings that they should be treated as adults. The early 1960s had its share of disagreements, but by the end of the decade, full-fledged violence had erupted.

Metz, who took part in the student movement, identifies the many student groups that organized on campus, provides biographical information about the main leaders and includes a section of first-person reflections by the leaders who went on to successful careers after graduation.

The book is divided into six parts and is well-researched, full of documented newspaper reports, archived materials and quotes by students and faculty.

The preface explains the catalyst of later events. George Stoddard, the president of the University of Illinois, was hired in 1946. A huge supporter of free speech, which some viewed as communistic, he argued for the end to a state law that prohibited political candidates from speaking on a college campus. Champaign State Representative Charles Clabaugh, who viewed the U of I as "the hotbed of communist influence," led the passage of a new law in 1947. Called the Clabaugh Act, it prohibited certain organizations from accessing university resources, and university administrators had the authority to decide. For over 20 years this law created controversy and conflict. Who or what was subversive? Who would decide and how?

In 1953, Stoddard met his end. The newly appointed U of I board trustee – former Illini football hero Red Grange – made a motion of no confidence in Stoddard. Stoddard resigned on the spot; Grange never attended another board meeting.

David Dodds Henry was named interim president and then hired in 1956. He would face the impact of the Clabaugh Act when controversies arose over such issues as the academic freedom of faculty, the university's role in recognizing campus student groups, even the strict curfews and dorm rules.

In 1960 two major issues created deeply divided opinions over academic freedom. Student Edward Yellin's pending fellowship that included a teaching assistant position was in jeopardy when it was revealed he had been subpoenaed years earlier by the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to answer questions. Then Leo Koch, an assistant professor, published a letter in the Daily Illini advocating for premarital sex for "mature" students. In both cases, opinions were hotly debated. Yellin kept his fellowship; Koch was fired.

Metz explores the Free Speech Era, 1965-1967, in Part II. The impact of a 1964 large student protest against the prohibition of political activity at the University of California, Berkeley, spilled over onto other campuses. Some tried to hold a protest at the U of I campus, but few showed up. The Daily Illini editor, later famed movie critic Roger Ebert, wrote that 801 students at Berkeley had been arrested, but "we don't have 801 students who would understand why 801 students would want to be arrested for denial of free speech."

Vietnam hadn't yet become the overarching issue; a 1965 protest drew only 12 students. There was more interest in ending strict dorm rules. Students Against the Clabaugh Act (SACA) pushed for an end to the law but without success.

Students wanted to form a W.E.B. Dubois Club, which was considered, incorrectly, to be a communist organization. Trustees, who had first approved the group, reversed their decision. SACA changed its name to Students for Free Speech and invited a professed communist to speak on campus, raising concerns by many, including parents. Although the speaker drew 2,000 on the porch of the Union Hall, not much came of the event.

Women joined student groups that were mainly led by men; the women were often harassed, treated as secretaries and ignored. Women spoke up against strict rules: a 10 p.m. dorm curfew on weeknights, midnight on weekends, required skirt attire for Sunday dinner and in bowling classes. There was a policy that couples could only meet in lounges in the dorms and must have three feet on the floor. The first female student president, Patsy Parker, pushed for changes. A midnight rally against curfew failed as 9 fraternity men showed up and heckled the women.

Communism and curfews had been the focus, until the next stage, Part III: The Antiwar Movement, 1967-1969. Anger against the Vietnam War increased: male students openly burned their draft cards, students held sit-ins. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, students led a sit-in against the Dow Chemical Company, a producer of chemicals used in the war. U of I students held their own five-hour sit-in, barring all interviews.

Across the country, Vietnam protests gained momentum. Civil rights gained interest; Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in the spring of 1968. In August that year the Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to riots. "A stark choice faced student activists," Metz writes. "Either let go of hopes for wide-scale political change and thus escape establishment retaliation, or continue the struggle by fighting violence with like violence." Most chose the first and few the latter, according to the author.

In Part IV, The Violent Time, 1969-1970, Metz follows the actions that led to the outbreak of violence. Many students had attempted to hold peaceful protests with speeches on the quad and at the student union. On Oct. 15, 1969, the nationwide Day of Moratorium, 9,000 U of I students participated in all-day events and a march. Peace turned to violence in the spring of 1970 after four students were killed at Kent State University. Illinois State Superintendent of Education Ray Page declared, "Four students that should have known better than to have participated in outright revolt against the forces of law and order lie dead." Students were shocked and angered. May 4-8, 1970, in Champaign has been called the week that was the "most violent period in the 100-year history of the university." There were protests, marchers throwing rocks and bottles through windows, sit-ins in the middle of intersections, marches to the president's home and arrests. Many, though, peacefully went about their lives.

On Saturday of that week, activities, speeches and music were planned on the quad. Students enjoying the spring weather congregated, some sharing a picnic, others throwing a frisbee. Then suddenly the Illinois National Guard came from both sides of the quad, surrounded the throng of people, arrested some and took them to Memorial Stadium to be held.

Thus ends the decade; Metz provides a final analysis. He applauds the students for speaking up, changing the course of the war and being influencers of later movements. He believes they were not extremists, but rather engaged individuals with a deep-seated feeling of moral right. He also claims they failed at political revolution. Mayhem ensued, but the silent majority prevailed and does so today. The students did not stop "the strength of the established order," he claims.

Cinda Ackerman Klickna was a student at the U of I, starting in 1969, but acknowledges she was unaware of all that was happening on campus. Her involvement was as a bystander, which may surprise those who know her now.

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