In two seemingly disparate events, eleven hours after white-supremacist State Troopers and possemen savagely brutalized nonviolent voting-rights protesters on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma Alabama, U.S. Marines waded ashore at Da Nang to "Defend democracy" by commencing active U.S. military combat in the Vietnam War.
At that time, March of 1965, the great majority of Americans — including most college students — trusted the federal government and accepted as generally true whatever Washington told them. So there was broad political support for direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, that trust began to fray as observable fact after fact contradicted administration assertions.
In April of 1965, SDS organized a mass protest in Washington DC against the war. In August, Freedom Movement activists including Bob Moses joined SDS in organizing another national protest called the Assembly of Unrepresented People. Two years later, by the Fall of 1967, Amerian colleges were roiled by protests over the war, the draft, and university complicity with the military-industrial complex.
San Francisco State College (today University) was (and is) part of the Califorinia system of public universities and colleges. In 1967 it had a faculty of 650 or so and around 18,000 students. Though some were in part-time, evening, or adult-education progams, most were full-time students working towards Bachelors or Masters degrees.
Like the University of California Berkeley (UCB), SFSC was a hotbed of anti-war activity. In October and November, SDS and other student activist groups at SFSC launched an effort to end the Air Force ROTC program and halt on-campus recruiting events by the armed services and defense contractors such as napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical. (See documents.)
There were daily rallies and protests that were nonviolent but loud. So loud that some on campus considered them "disruptive." Free speech controversies and debates consumed the campus. Are loud protests 'disruption' or are they 'free speech?' Are military training-course and recruiting events 'free speech' or 'war-enabling actions?' Is nonviolent disruption of a morallly intolerable war justified?
Between October 16th and 20th, thousands of anti-war students from SFSC, UCB, and other Bay Area colleges attempted to physically disrupt processing of draftees at the Oakland California induction center. An massed army of police tried to suppress them. There were many arrests and violence on the part of both police and protesters.
In response to the turmoil shaking the college, SFSC President Summerskill canceled classes and called for a week-long War Crisis Convocation of faculty, students, and staff. For five days in mid-November, issues, questions, and resolutions were publicly debated by the convocation. Over the course of several days, more than 4,600 students, 279 faculty and 99 staff members voted "Aye" or "Nay" on 27 participant-submitted resolutions. (See documents.)
Anti-war/anti-recruiting organizations and individuals campaigned for and against resolutions. So too did a pro-recruiting group identifying itself as Students to Keep Campus Open (SKCO) who briefly appeared with professionally-printed flyers and an unverified assertion that they had support-signatures from 3,251 students and faculty.
The vote results on the 27 resolutions provided a snapshot in time of opinions on the SFSC in November of 1967:
In summary, the results showed strong support for free-speech on campus including unpopular speech and firm opposition to political violence or coercion — by either authorities or dissidents. Though the Vietnam War as such was not voted on, a majority were opposed to ending ROTC and barring war-recruiters from campus.
None of the anti-war, anti-recruiting, end campus-complicity, resolutions won a majority of votes. Yet SDS and other anti-war groups considered the outcome a victory because the War Convocation debates and campaigns had significantly shifted campus opinion in their direction. Given later national and campus events, it seems almost certain that had a similar set of resolutions been voted on a year later in November of 1968, a clear majority would have favored ending ROTC and opposing college complicity with the war.
While the ballots were being counted, President Summerskill expressed his support for the mysterious SKCO. After the count, he cited the 72% majority who had voted for Resolution #22 "Resolved: That no member of the campus community shall be suspended, expelled, of dismissed for the exercise of any civil right...," and he called for, and committed himself to, a campus open to divergent views.
Conservative trustees and right-wing legislators condemned Summerskil and his "open campus" policies. So too did Republican Governor Reagan who had won office through a demagogue campaign against student activists who dared challenge the racial and cultural social-norms of the 1950s. Within a week, Summerskill bowed to their outside pressure by banning Open Process, a student funded publication and suspending its two editors because of anti-war articles and some sexually suggestive content (mild by today's TV standards). The specifics of the Open Process articles were irrelevant to the authoritarian goal of putting uppity students and Black radicals back in their proper (subservient) place and ensuring that they had no voice whatsoever in the content of their education. This and other politically-motivated retaliations alienated and further radicalized many students and faculty.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford. 2023.