Swarthmore in the 60’s: Not as Radical as You Thought

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Given current discussions about student activism at Swarthmore, it’s fitting to look back to the era of student protest and arrest: the 1960s.

As you can imagine, Swarthmore student activists embraced issues from the Civil Rights movement to Vietnam. Swarthmore even had its own celebrities in the counterculture. “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto” by Carl Wittman ’66 made waves in the Gay Liberation movement, and Nick Egleson ’66 later became president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Incidentally, Egleson’s father painted the murals in Hicks.

One of our most dramatic moments in the Civil Rights movement was in 1963, when 12 students were arrested for civil disobedience in segregated Cambridge, MD. I sent out a request for stories about the arrests to several alumni (because, let’s face it, it’s an empirical fact that baby boomers love talking about the 60s), and received responses from Daniel Pope and Carl Stieren, both class of ’66.

The students went picketing downtown with local protesters organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and several—the leaders—were arrested for refusing to follow police orders. The rest, Pope reports, “marched to the jail and more or less made them arrest us.” Stieren recalls that time—marching on the jail at night, anticipating arrest and singing freedom songs—as the scariest experience of his life.

They were bailed out the next morning, and the case was closed a month later when the judge found them guilty of disorderly conduct. Their fine, which was later suspended, was one cent each. Both of them cite how clueless and scared they were; “I was 17 at the time and mostly just doing what people told me to do,” Pope wrote.

The Phoenix articles about the arrests, though, are a fascinating example of debates over college journalism. The original article about the arrests took what seems, even today, a rather flippant tone when describing the arrests. The unflattering opening line read: “In a dilapidated Negro church which looks like a grey orange crate, 12 Swarthmore students Saturday night decided to ‘invite’ mass arrest.”

A flood of letters to the editor accused the reporter of making “what was a very serious effort sound like an irresponsible, congenial, off-campus extension of Folk Festival.” Conversely, the protesters were accused of self-righteousness and “vicious verbal attacks, public and private … on some of us who do not share a highly sectarian view of current events.” It’s funny how timeless these debates are.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson came to Swarthmore to fulfill an invitation originally extended to JFK-– although shortly afterward, Johnson stopped visiting campuses in the wake of anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Generally, though, I’m surprised at how muted Swarthmore’s anti-war sentiments were. When Student Council introduced a resolution to the student body in 1965 arguing that America’s actions violated international law and that its military tactics were “deplored on humanitarian grounds,” the results were evenly split: 36% of the student body agreed with the resolution, 25% opposed it, and 38% didn’t vote.

In fact, rather than our famed progressive political engagement, political indifference may have been the norm for parts of the Vietnam era. An article in a November 1968 Phoenix entitled “Wall of Apathy Surrounds Swarthmore Students” begins with the apparently known assumption, “We’ve all heard about how much apathy there is around here…” Of course, this may be the bias of the Phoenix editorial board, or just one of those tropes you hear around campus that isn’t wholly true (nobody pays attention to sports, nobody goes into Philly, etc.).

Swarthmore students participated in plenty of marches in Washington and Philadelphia, but most interesting is the attempted school strike in May 1970. Following Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and resumption of bombing in North Vietnam, an impromptu meeting of over 500 students and faculty gathered to discuss Swarthmore’s response. Proposals included everything from “a short-term burst of politically-oriented activity” to “an indefinite suspension of normal college activities.”

Support for a schoolwide strike, with special conditions for those taking Honors exams, seemed popular; yet the next week’s Phoenix headline read “Mass Enthusiasm for Strike Evaporates; Long-Term Activities Receive Emphasis.” Although “for a few days last week Swarthmore college appeared to have been jarred out of its normal state of political apathy,” the “revolutionary fervor of a week ago could not last at such a fever pitch for very long.” Instead, activists would focus on working with local high schools toward anti-war goals.

So while schools like UPenn and Yale went on strike, and demonstrations at Kent State and Jackson State led to violence, Swarthmore stayed moderate. Friends Library Curator Chris Densmore contends this was “largely because they didn’t have a paranoid administration. Campuses with more rapport have people who can defuse the situation.”

One hypothesis is that the death of President Courtney Smith discouraged student radicalism. No discussion of Swarthmore student activism in the 60s would be complete without mention of the “Crisis of 1969.” In what has been called the “most traumatic week in college history,” members of the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society held a sit-in in the admissions office to protest the college’s lack of support for black students shortly before President Smith died of a heart attack. I won’t go into the Crisis in great detail, simply because so much has already been written about it. Check out the excellent Phoenix article written by Ashia Troiano ’11 for Black History Month this year for a comprehensive review of the crisis.

You could easily do more research about Swarthmore’s actions in Chester and the student power movement within Swarthmore itself to provide a more comprehensive view of Swarthmore student activism in the 60s. I’ve simply chosen to focus on protests that connect to a more national level. It’s interesting—our generation of liberals (or me, at least) tends to mythologize the 60s as a time of wholesale political engagement and idealism. It’s worthwhile to remember that for the most part, the activist community in the 60s consisted of a small segment of students, much as it does today.

Although, if you’d like to feed into stereotypes about the 60s, there are a couple of Phoenix columns that look suspiciously like they were written while under a hint of chemical influence: “You are you. Fascinating, aren’t you? People are so strong! People are so weak! The axe that strikes low the mighty elm may tomorrow sever the fetters of the captive butterfly.”

I asked Stieren and Pope how they feel about their activism more than 40 years later, and whether they would encourage current students to risk arrest. They both stood by their actions, but qualified their response.

“I will say that I’m often skeptical about the value of civil disobedience because it can distract from the original cause … the motive that impelled people to get arrested in the first place sometimes gets lost in the shuffle,” Pope said. “But I think civil disobedience in the Southern civil rights movement of the sixties was on the whole highly successful. I don’t think anybody I know (at least among us privileged white Swarthmoreans) suffered unduly for getting arrested. I’m sure there are situations now where risking arrest would be morally justified and strategically effective.”

Stieren gave a more prescriptive analysis of his college years, and what might have been.

“If we had been both far-sighted and committed to nonviolence, we would have studied Gandhi and King and figured out how the Eastern Shore’s black community could win their freedom without violence. We would have raised the funds to send young Black leaders to Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to learn community organizing. We would have connected with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy and would have set up the means—how about something called ‘freedom scholarships’ –-for young Black men and women to study with them and return to Cambridge. We would have set up freedom scholarships of our own to let the smartest of these brave young people study at Swarthmore.

“And if we had been really far-sighted, we would have kept in mind that basic principle of organizing—replace yourself as quickly as possible.”

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