Race, War and Student Activism

Laurel Yearbook, 1970

Campus Speaker on Moratorium Day- October 15, 1969.

The American public was losing faith in the Vietnam War. As casualty figures mounted, public disillusionment spread. The draft brought the war into homes of Americans and spilled onto college campuses.

In August 1967, a white shopkeeper in New Haven shot and killed a Hispanic youth who had threatened him with a knife. The incident resulted in riots sweeping the city.

The New Haven Police Department was barely able to contain the burning and looting, so the governor declared a state of emergency and ordered the National Guard to assemble near the city and to be prepared to move against the rioters. When the college opened in September 1967, the riot and the war vied with each other for attention, while professors tried to contain student excitement in the classroom. Some Southern students, inspired by the successes of earlier Civil Rights advocates and the demonstrations at Harvard, Berkley and Columbia, took to the streets to express their discontent. On the other side of the spectrum were students who saw these demonstrations as unpatriotic, or as disrupting their efforts to obtain an education. The athmosphere was tense at Southern.

During 1967-68, the extent of the campus tension caught President Buley by surprise, but by the following school year, he had a plan. Buley announced a student-faculty committee to deal with the unrest on campus. Unfourtunately for President Buley and his committee, student activists denounced the attempt.

Presidents Nixon’s decision to send troops on an incursion into Cambodia awakened college activists around the country, combined with the highly charged trial of four Black Panthers in New Haven, guaranteed that local protestors would be out in full force. Tension in the city caused Buley to cancel classes and other activities at Southern from Wednesday, April 29, 1970, until the following Monday, May 4 at noon. The following days saw the climax of student protests on campus. On May 4, instead of returning to classes, many undergraduates and some professors joined a nationwide strike against the Vietnam War, choosing to attend teach-ins about the war, racism, and the revalance of higher education, instead of their regular classes.

On May 13, 1970, a crowd of undergraduates stood outside Engleman hall chanting “All we are saying is give peace a chance”, while inside, the faculty were dabating options that would allow students and faculty to support the strike without penalty. When Dr. Buley finally emerged to announce that the meeting had voted 211-79 to make such options available, the gathering, convinced that the decision would improve attendence at teach-ins, changed it’s chant to “Celebrate, Celebrate, step to the music.” Some cheering protestors began to dance, other raised the strike flag with it’s peace sign to the top of the campus flagpole; and others cooled off from the muggy heat with a swim in the pond. Buley received a standing ovation from the students. With violence erupting at other colleges across the country like Jackson State University and Kent State University, the peaceful end to the semester was a testament to Hilton Buley’s presidency.

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