The ’60s on the Hill

The call to activism didn’t reach Tufts until the decade was more than half over, but when it did, it transformed the whole campus community
A Vietnam-era protest poster. The call to activism didn’t reach Tufts until the '60s were more than half over, but when it did, it transformed the whole campus community.
Students found this and other Vietnam-era protest posters in a Metcalf Hall storage closet last year. Poster: Courtesy of Tufts Digital Collections and Archives
November 22, 2019

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When I started teaching at Tufts in September of 1964, life could not have seemed simpler. Parietals were in effect, and men dutifully left women’s dorms at 10:00 p.m. There were no Coke machines there, because the dean of Jackson College wished to protect the women’s teeth. All fraternity dances had to have an adult chaperone—often it was Enzo, the barber on Boston Avenue. Rarely did talk in or out of the classroom turn to the three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Mississippi over the summer, or the recently issued Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way for a greater American military presence in Southeast Asia, or the challenge to traditional views of women posed by Betty Friedan in a best seller called The Feminine Mystique. Yet by the time 1964’s first-year students were ready to graduate, the mood on campus had shifted dramatically. The ’60s had arrived on the Hill.

Poster: Courtesy of Tufts Digital Collections and ArchivesThe decade actually lasted only five years here¸ but there had never been anything like it. The yearbooks for the classes between 1968 and 1972 tell of marches, sit-ins, and growing awareness—a movement toward civic engagement and freedom of thought for students and faculty alike. The adolescents who matriculated then were no less fresh-faced than the ones who had come earlier, and like their predecessors, they would spend a few years together in a never-to-be-repeated experience they would remember for the rest of their lives. The difference was that for them, the experience would unfold within a time destined to change forever how Americans think about what happens on a college campus.

But when exactly did this time start? Some might point to February 1, 1960, the day that four college students from all-black North Carolina A&T University were arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s. Or the day in August of 1964 when the bodies of those three murdered civil rights workers were found—two were among a handful of white college activists who had gone south to work on voter registration with local black volunteers. One of their colleagues, Mario Savio, returned to the University of California, Berkeley, to light the flame of campus activism across the country.

The truth, however, is that the beginning of the ’60s cannot be traced to any particular moment. Rather, it was the result of a perfect storm, one that had been brewing for longer than most people imagine.

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When World War II ended, America seemed ready for a return to business as usual. Rosie the Riveter, who had built so many of the weapons of war in our factories, was thanked for her efforts and told to go back to the kitchen where she “belonged.” We had fought fascism with a segregated military, and while President Harry Truman would end segregation in the armed services in 1948, Jim Crow, enshrined in the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, would remain the law of the land for civilians. In the South, lynchings continued, some of veterans. As for the future of colonialism, the French hoped to get back Indochina with help from the US, and the British, Winston Churchill fervently believed, would keep their empire.

Beneath the surface, though, a progressive spirit was already at work—showing itself first in professional baseball, of all places. And the critical issue was race. In 1944, when the segregationist Southerner who had served as the commissioner of Major League Baseball died, the mostly segregationist team owners quickly replaced him with another Southerner, the Bourbon-drinking Kentucky politician Albert “Happy” Chandler. They must have thought baseball would remain a whites-only bastion. What they did not know was that one among them—the new owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey—was a passionate integrationist.

Poster: Courtesy of Tufts Digital Collections and ArchivesRickey kept his own counsel until he heard an interview in which Chandler, asked whether he would accept African Americans in the major leagues, surprised everyone by saying that “if they can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific, they can play baseball in America.” With an ally in the commissioner’s office, the Dodgers owner set about making his integrationist dreams a reality. His big move would be to recruit a talented player from the all-black Kansas City Monarchs—a former army lieutenant who had survived a court martial for disobeying a driver’s order to move to the back of a military bus. His name was Jackie Robinson. In 1946, when the sixteen major league team owners voted on whether to approve the integration of baseball, the results were fifteen-to-one against, but that didn’t matter. “My vote is the only one that counts,” Chandler told Rickey. Jackie Robinson came to the Dodgers the next year.

Similarly, the Supreme Court was most likely not reflecting the will of the nation when in 1954 it effectively ended racial segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. The decision was unexpected, especially given that in 1942, Chief Justice Earl Warren, then California’s attorney general, had been one of the loudest voices advocating for forcible removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, and many school districts across the country were determined to remain segregated. Nevertheless, the ruling stood. In September 1957, when state officials blocked nine black students from entering all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, federal forces prevailed over the enormous local hostility.

Brave citizens outside the schools were also resisting segregation. In December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The upshot was a bus boycott that launched the nonviolent black protest movement. Thirteen months later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met in Atlanta with sixty black pastors and civil rights leaders to strategize.

Poster: Courtesy of Tufts Digital Collections and ArchivesMeanwhile, college demographics were undergoing a sea change. On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act—the GI Bill—with the intention of averting unemployment pressure and giving returning war veterans a chance to attend college. Some 7.8 million vets seized the opportunity—and they were not the traditional elites. They were often the children of immigrants or from families who had never dreamed of college. Many also took advantage of Senator J. William Fulbright’s offer of a post-graduate year’s study abroad, which led them to careers in higher education. As a result, freshly minted PhDs all over the country were becoming professors at schools where earlier they would never have been welcomed as students. By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, a new, more diverse generation of faculty was taking the reins, including some women and people of color.

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With social forces like these in play, it’s not hard to see how activism might have taken root on college campuses, particularly as the ’60s wore on and President Lyndon Johnson sent more and more young men to Southeast Asia to fight and die in what some were calling an immoral war. Indeed, it may have been that war and the threat of the draft that were most responsible for finally politicizing Tufts. The faculty voted out ROTC courses, and the Defense Department took its officers away. For many on campus, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy had a target on its back, in part because of its dean’s support of the conflict in Vietnam. In 1970, after soldiers of the Ohio National Guard responding to a Kent State protest against the bombing of Cambodia killed four students and wounded nine, Tufts canceled its Commencement exercises.

But even if the war in Southeast Asia was what initially got the attention of the Tufts community, other concerns of ’60s activism were soon drawing it as well. Tufts’ new Experimental College began teaching courses on the country’s first community health centers, which School of Medicine faculty created at Columbia Point in Boston and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, to provide better access to care for the poor. The Ex College also offered a revolutionary course on sexuality and reproductive health (including abortion, which was then illegal) called Our Bodies, Ourselves, taught by members of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.

Clashes with the school administration became commonplace. When a 1969 class speaker announced to the Commencement gathering on the lawn in front of Ballou Hall that he was a homosexual, the dean of students raced to the back of the stage and pulled the plug from the loudspeaker. The following fall, students demonstrated against the all-white unions working on the construction of a new dorm. Some of the more aggressive protesters handed Tufts President Burton Crosby Hallowell a list of demands aimed at making the construction workforce more diverse and didn’t wait for an answer—they occupied his office in Ballou Hall.

On January 27, 1973, President Richard Nixon ended the military draft. The war protests ended. But the ’60s themselves, which had emerged from such a long buildup of unrest, never really came to an end and most likely never will. The college campus had become a battleground of ideas over the course of that decade: Who controls the telling of American history? Who gets to give the civics lesson, to paint the picture of the American past? Those questions haven’t gone away.

In fact, the search for an authentic American narrative got a boost this year with the announcement of a Tufts endowed chair in economics named for Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish Nobel laureate whose 1944 book An American Dilemma argued that racial conflict was the greatest problem our nation had to face. As Myrdal said, it is an American dilemma. In the past half-century, we as a people have taken some steps forward in coming to terms with it, but some steps backward, too. And while it’s undeniable that racism still plagues our society, we also continue to struggle with foreign policy, women’s rights, gay rights, and a host of other issues the ’60s threw into high relief. Time for more learning.

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