CHAPTER I:  THE ACTIVIST CONSENSUS

 

Oberlin comes from a very long tradition of social justice and it’s drilled into you even before you come that this is the type of place it is.

                                                -- Tom Mitchell, class of 1963[1]

 

The racial situation in the South was rather jarring to many Oberlin students because we had been taught that American society was a democratic society and then we discovered that white people in the South were willing to kill other people who actually wanted to have democracy.

                                    -- Pete Guest, class of 1963[2]

 

            From 1960 to 1964, the civil rights movement had an overpowering influence on Oberlin activists.  Students gained organizational skills, but more importantly the movement helped activists form ideas about the meaning of community and the role that they could play in shaping the world around them.

            From the time of the first southern sit-ins, the Oberlin Review carried some coverage of civil rights protests in almost every issue.  The College catalogue for 1961 to 1963 states,

The College from the beginning has taken pride in maintaining the principles of applied democracy.  Long before the Civil War it played a prominent part in the abolition movement.  In considering the admission of students it has never discriminated because of race, color, or creed.[3]

Since this note appears in a short, one-page description of the College, it is clear that Oberlin wished to present itself as a leader in the area of civil rights.  Some students undoubtedly selected Oberlin for this reason.  Every member of the community had high regard for the historical connection of Oberlin to the abolitionist movement.

            Though civil rights was often discussed, there was little disagreement over the movement itself on campus in these early years.  Students and professors worked closely together on civil rights issues.  The administration, including President Carr, was pleased that the student body was so active around racial problems.  Student Council was able to take stands because there truly existed a broad campus consensus on civil rights, which was not the case on other issues.  Two examples occurred in 1963:  in May Council suspended its bylaws to sign a telegram of support for Freedom Walkers being held in Birmingham, and in October Council sent a letter to several Ohio congressmen in support of the civil rights legislation supported by President Kennedy.  The letter was co-sponsored by members of Council who usually opposed off-campus stands.[4]

            Oberlin Action for Civil Rights (OACR, previously NAACP), the civil rights organization on campus, had a membership of several hundred and a number of very active committees.  Its leadership included Bob Einsenstein, Joel Scherzer, Marcia Aronoff, Joe Gross, Jerry von Korff, Martha Honey, and a large number of other students, many of who were also active on other issues.  The civil rights activity that involved the most students was probably fund drives, which occurred annually to support various civil rights causes.  In 1960, the money went to the movement in Nashville.  In 1961, students chose to support the people of Fayette and Haywood Counties in Tennessee.  In 1962, they raised money for McComb, Mississippi, where the money went to help bail out students arrested in civil rights protests.[5]  In 1963, the money went to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

            One of the major fund-raising techniques used was the “Freedom Fast,” in which students would pledge not to eat meals in the dining halls on a certain day, and the dining company, Saga, agreed to donate the saved money and snack bar profits to the fund drive.  Students also made out-of-pocket contributions.  In 1963, the total raised was $2,700.[6]  In 1964, 1200 students participated in the fast, nearly half the student body.[7]  This high participation indicates the wide support for civil rights on campus.

            Another way in which the civil rights movement touched the entire campus was the frequent forums and speakers on civil right issues.  Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Oberlin three times, in 1957, 1963, and 1965.  In 1963 King had the flu and was not able to speak.  His introduction was followed by a three minute standing ovation before he could give his apologies.[8]  Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young, Jr. of the National Urban League were also on the assembly schedule that year.[9]  In 1965, Oberlin hosted a forum on Black Radicalism to discuss the new directions of the movement.[10]  These forums and others were supplemented by informal discussion both inside and outside of the classroom.  Oberlin was a place of constant collective engagement with this issue of the day.

            The civil rights movement raised the issue of community for Oberlin students in a very specific way.  The movement united the Oberlin community behind a cause.  This united community became a desirable goal for many of the students involved.  Thus civil rights work became part of the substance of the Oberlin community.  In addition, through their civil rights work, many students were able to find a meaningful connection to other students and the faculty that may have been lacking in Oberlin’s poor social scene.  They could often see the results of their labors pay off.  In the early sixties, most students were optimistic about the possibility for genuine social change.  One alumnus particularly remembered “the enthusiasm, the released pent up energy, the sense of ‘my gosh,’ we really have a chance of creating community by community and based in college energy, creating some reappropriation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence.”[11]  That this change would occur from the grassroots was part of a hope not only to change who was in power in America, but also to restructure the ways in which people interacted to create a more democratic society.

            Much of the civil rights activism at Oberlin looked Southward, and the more committed students generally spent some time in the South.  Almost everyone on campus, if they had not been South themselves, knew someone who had.  Students had the opportunity to visit the South through exchange programs with majority black Southern schools.  There had been exchanges with Fisk University and the Hampton Institute since 1950 and 1948 respectively.  Exchanges were later initiated with Tugaloo University as well.  These programs could last a week or a semester.  The returning students had a better understanding of race relations and life in the South.[12]  An example of the connection students had to the South was that “when the sit-ins started we were getting daily reports from our Oberlin students in Nashville of what was happening there.”[13]

            Students also traveled South on numerous occasions to help with community improvement projects.  These trips were often held during breaks in the school term.  The one that attracted the most attention was dubbed “Carpenters for Christmas” by the national media because it occurred over the 1964-65 winter break.  A group of Oberlin students, including OACR leader Marcia Aronoff and Professors David Jewell and Paul Smidt, traveled to Ripley, Mississippi to help rebuild a church that had been burned down by white supremacists.  They collected money and building materials from supportive community members.[14]

            A large contingent traveled to Mississippi to participate in the Freedom Summer of 1964.  They worked to get blacks registered to vote and organized freedom schools.[15]  A second group missed classes in the fall to do voter registration work in Mississippi just before the elections.[16]  One student, Charlie Butts, left Oberlin for over a year to run the Mississippi Free Press.[17]  One of the things that Oberlin students found in the South was a sense of community.  African American families took them into their homes and student organizers shared values and faced danger together.

            Many early civil rights activists embraced the concept of the Beloved Community.  As Doug Rossinow points out,

In that community, 1960s radicals expected to find individuals who shared universal experiences and needs, not the least the need for community itself.  The beloved community promised, as well, to meld the differences among the groups that previously had merely negotiated the terms of their interaction, to make a new, redemptive community of all.[18] 

This concept imagined a world in which all people were guided by love for one another, a world in which black and white could live together in harmony.  For many Oberlin students, it became the standard to which they would hold the College over the next several years.

            The idea of the Beloved Community was reinforced by the organizing strategies of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which stressed grassroots work over dramatic demonstrations.  SNCC began with the sit-in movement but quickly became committed to voter registration.  This campaign involved great personal risk, but it also could make a big difference for African Americans in obtaining political power.  Then they could implement changes themselves instead of asking the white establishment for help.[19]  This approach linked community and participatory democracy.  Oberlin students worked closely with SNCC and took these ideals to heart.  This conception of grassroots democracy was essential to Oberlin students’ procedural notions of how to form community.

            Just as SNCC’s philosophy emphasized community organizing in the South, the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) of SDS did community-organizing work in the North.  ERAP was directed by an Oberlin graduate, Rennie Davis, and Oberlin Action for Civil Rights actively recruited for the Cleveland ERAP chapter during 1964 and 1965.  The goal of ERAP was to build “an interracial movement of the poor” by forming community unions that would act on the immediate concerns of community people.  This philosophy emphasized empowering people by giving the community control of the movement.[20]  Dave Newburger, who worked in the Cleveland ERAP project, described it as “a long term project to involve people in the overall process of social change through a political organization.”[21] 

            This ERAP project involved some of the most dedicated student activists, who gave up their middle-class comfort to live in impoverished communities for the summer.  The same was true of students who risked their lives to work on voter registration in the South.  This work represented the high value these students placed on community.  ERAP continued the link between community and grassroots organization.  Students who worked on such projects gained a deeper understanding of the process of building community as they attempted to bring together an impoverished neighborhood around issues of common concern.  The lessons they learned included the importance of participatory democracy.

            Oberlin’s activists also learned invaluable organizing skills in the civil rights movement.  This know-how gave students confidence.  Civil rights work involved great responsibility and integrity on the part of students.  They grappled with the difficult issues of the world and believed that they could help solve them.

            Marcia Aronoff, an important leader in OACR, recalled, “Student involvement was a significant force in making the country aware of injustices that had been going on in the South and subsequently more aware of the same injustices on a different scale in the North that were occurring.”[22]  It is small wonder then, that these students felt the College should not act in loco parentis.  If they were old enough to risk life and liberty in the fight for racial justice, then they were old enough to decide when to return to their dorms and be alone with members of the opposite sex.  In other words, civil rights had a dramatic impact on students’ perceptions of their own place in society, of their place in the College, and of their ability to make changes -- in short of their power.

            Academic freedom at Oberlin was never an issue during civil rights campaigns.  Students were never disciplined by the College for acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights movement.  A good example is the Hammermill campaign.  On February 4, 1965, Hammermill Paper Company announced its intention to open a large plant in Selma, Alabama, because of the “character of the community and its people.”[23]  Selma was in the midst of a bloody civil rights battle at the time and this announcement seemed to many like an endorsement of segregation.

            Oberlin students took two actions to respond to the Hammermill announcement.  First, they asked the College to stop buying paper from Hammermill.  Second, they traveled to Erie, Pennsylvania, the site of Hammermill’s main office, and staged a demonstration on the date of Hammermill’s annual stockholders’ meeting.  Along with local groups, they picketed and sat-in, blocking entrances, exits, and a railroad trestle which brought essential goods to and from the plant.  Thirty-five students were arrested in this action.  The next day a second busload arrived to continue the protest.[24]

            Erie officials wanted the College to furnish a list of the students who had participated in the demonstration so the company could inform parents and scholarship donors.  Initially Dean of Students Bernard Adams suggested to the press that the College could discipline students involved in this action.  In the end, however, the College refused to supply the names.[25]  President Carr, under pressure from students outraged by the Dean’s statement, clarified the College’s position by releasing a statement concerning social protest:  “[N]o disciplinary action has ever been taken by the College against students or faculty for such participation . . . Oberlin College has always acted in a manner consistent with the highest standards of freedom of expression and due process of law.”[26]  The College stood united not just for civil rights, but the right of every member of the community to work against injustice without obstruction from the College.  Carr and others believed that this right was part of academic freedom.

            Although much civil rights activism focused on the South, the movement also helped to awaken Oberlin students to discrimination in their own community.  Students were involved throughout the sixties in tutoring in local impoverished schools.  In addition, Oberlin students lent support to the efforts of Cleveland blacks to end the de facto segregation of the Cleveland schools in February 1964.  At the time, Cleveland was divided into ethnic neighborhoods.  Schools in black neighborhoods were overcrowded, so students were bused to white neighborhoods.  The bused students were kept completely segregated within the white schools.  The United Freedom Movement, a federation of civil rights groups, called for a one-day boycott of the Cleveland schools to protest the school board’s inadequate plans for integration.  On the day of the boycott, approximately 170 Oberlin students helped to staff freedom schools, where they taught black history and literature and held discussions with children about the civil rights movement.  Marcia Aronoff asked in reference to the conflict, “What happens in a community when a large section of a community loses complete faith in the elected ‘representatives of the people’?”[27]  For the Oberlin students involved this was an issue that concerned the meaning of community.  They believed that community could not exist without true democracy.

            An issue even closer to home was the hiring practices of the Northern Ohio Telephone Company (NOTC), which had offices in downtown Oberlin.  Civil rights groups, particularly the NAACP, accused NOTC of discriminating against African Americans.  In October 1963, a town-gown coalition including over two hundred students, called for negotiations with the president of NOTC.  Students organized a street-by-street canvas of Oberlin and collected 730 signatures in two days for a petition that was then sent to Colonel William Henry, NOTC President and General Manager.  On October 4, students and townspeople joined together to picket the telephone company.  Many students expressed hope at this collaboration with the town of Oberlin.  Commented one, “This is the first student-town action against discrimination, and I hope it will be only the beginning.”[28]

            The Hammermill protest and the Cleveland school boycott both revealed that Oberlin activists could help promote change.  In the Hammermill case, the company agreed to negotiate with demonstrators.  It made concessions, including lobbying for African American voter registration in that year’s elections in Selma.[29]  In Cleveland, the protests convinced the school board to pass a resolution calling for immediate and full integration.[30]

            These civil rights actions influenced Oberlin radicals in their emerging understanding of their place in the campus community and what exactly they wanted that community to be.  Students internalized the ideas of the civil rights movement and then applied them to their lives at Oberlin.  The most important of these ideals was community.   

* * *

            Civil rights was not the only off-campus issue that students were concerned with during the early sixties.  Active campus groups included the Student Peace Union (nuclear disarmament), Fair Play for Cuba, and Action Against Apartheid.  These groups provided community engagement for some students the way that the civil rights movement did for others.  One such group was active in working against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  The arguments that activists made against HUAC demonstrate their thinking on free speech, which underwent a major shift by 1968.

             In 1962 there was a movement on many campuses in opposition to HUAC, particularly the Los Angeles hearings being held April 24-27th.  At Oberlin this event was marked by a “Walk for the First Amendment” around Tappan Square followed by an Arch 7.[31]  Approximately 300 people participated.  At the Arch 7 many people spoke out on the harm HUAC was doing to free speech in America.  This event was organized by the Student Council Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on HUAC.[32]

            Despite the fact that there was not a campus consensus on this issue (twenty students counter protested at this demonstration), Student Council was extremely involved in this campaign, which was backed by the leftist campus political party.  Council endorsed the demonstration and urged students to write to their Congressmen asking them to vote against appropriations for HUAC.  They also held forums on the issue and a referendum.  Student Council sent a letter supporting the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censure of the University of Illinois for violations of academic freedom in firing a professor and another letter to the chairman of HUAC protesting investigation of travel to Cuba.  Both these letters were approved by the student body by margins of over 200 votes out of approximately 800 voting students.[33]

            The subject of academic freedom was brought to the minds of Oberlin students by bans on leftist speakers at other schools and the protests that followed.  For example, in 1961 there were mass student strikes in three New York colleges to protest speaker bans.  Oberlin activists expressed support for these demonstrations.  In an editorial in the Oberlin Review Rennie Davis noted that although the strikes had been called “inappropriate to a college” any effort “to prohibit the expression of unpopular views to a community of students . . . should always be met with the strongest possible resistance” because that prohibition was truly inappropriate to a college.[34]

            This activity continued into the 1962-1963 school year.  In January three students visited Washington to lobby for the abolition of HUAC.  They presented a petition with 370 student signatures and a telegram signed by many faculty members.[35]  The following month Frank Wilkinson, Executive Director of the National Committee to Abolish HUAC, spoke at Oberlin.[36]  A majority of students supported abolishing HUAC.

            Many radical students saw a direct connection between groups like HUAC and the academic community.  In a very real way, HUAC and other anti-communist organizations threatened free speech in the larger society as well as the academic freedom of the campus.  If free inquiry suffered, then ultimately the College community would feel the effects.

            An example of the connection between anti-communism and colleges was the National Defense of Education Act and other laws that required loyalty oaths and disclaimer affidavits from students and faculty.  In the case of the NDEA, students who wished to receive financial aid under this bill were required to file an affidavit stating that “he does not believe in and is not a member of and does not support any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government” and to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States.[37]  Acts such as these made anti-communism a very relevant issue on the Oberlin campus and allowed activist students to argue that in effect these were not off-campus issues at all.

            In 1962, Fulton Lewis, Jr., a supporter of HUAC, visited Oberlin to speak and show the movie Operation Abolition, which depicted the student protests against the HUAC hearing in San Francisco several years earlier as communist-inspired.  Anti-HUAC students picketed Lewis’ presentation, but they respected his right to speak.  David Finke was involved in the campaign against HUAC.  He remembered,

At that point there was never a question of keeping a person from speaking.... Nobody would have, at that point in the early sixties, tried to boo or drown out Fulton Lewis Jr., but certainly being prepared to put some pretty sharp or hostile questions to him and make sure that people knew there was another point of view . . . there was a more universalist kind of doctrine.[38]

Radical students at this time believed in free speech for everyone.  This position may have been related to the special repression of leftist viewpoints in the fifties, but they saw free speech as necessary to democracy.  And as we have seen, they also saw democracy as necessary to community, which was the most important value of this period.

            President Carr also championed the principle of free speech for everyone.  When he first came to Oberlin in 1960, he had a reputation as a civil libertarian since he had been president of the AAUP.  He was very supportive of student actions against HUAC; in fact, he wished students would focus more on this issue and less on campus concerns, which he considered trivial by comparison.  So Oberlin students could express their support for their counterparts at other schools who were fighting speaker bans and other violations of academic freedom, but they never had to deal with these issues directly.  Jonathan Seldin, a student at the time, recalled, “If there were issues involving academic freedom at Oberlin, it would’ve been a feeling that there were threats from the outside.”[39]  Students did not feel that expression at Oberlin was at all threatened.  President Carr’s valuation of free speech as the highest possible academic principle remained rigid and unchanged throughout the sixties

            HUAC and anti-communism did not cause much conflict on campus.  The consensus was perhaps not as great as that over civil rights, but most students, administrators, and faculty agreed that the red scare was not beneficial to America or its educational institutions.  In this way, free speech could be considered another substantive community value.

            Students’ developing ideas of community were influenced by off-campus activism on issues like civil rights and HUAC.  They were heavily influenced by the ideas of SNCC and ERAP, which attempted to create community through grassroots organizing.  Yet, in the early sixties, there was very little conflict over off-campus issues between students and the administration.  The desire of students for an Oberlin community that supported progressive activism and the desire of President Carr for a community that upheld free speech were both fulfilled.  Students were awakened by this activism to injustice, but off-campus issues did not lead them to question the motives of authority or develop a radical analysis.  Instead it was social rules that would bring students and administrators into conflict.


 



[1]Tom Mitchell, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 12 Nov. 2001.

[2]Pete Guest, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 2 Nov. 2001.

[3]General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1961-1963, 60:6 (July 1962): I-37.

[4]“Council Wires Birmingham,” Oberlin Review, 7 May 1963, 1; Dick Roisman, “Council Espouses Civil Rights, Sends Letter to Congressmen,” Oberlin Review, 1 Oct. 1963, 1 and 4.

[5]Pete Guest, “Year’s News Reveals Political, Social Concern,” Oberlin Review, 18 Sept. 1962, 3.

[6]“Controversy, Change Highlight Year’s Events,” Oberlin Review, Sept. 17 1963, 9.

[7]“1200 Students Sign Up to Fast for Civil Rights,” Oberlin Review, 21 Feb. 1964, 1.

[8]“The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Oberlin,” Oberlin Electronic Group, 3 Feb. 2002, Oberlin College, 8 Feb. 2002, http://www.oberlin.edu/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/MLK/MLKmainpage.html.

[9]“Civil Rights Leaders, Educators Highlight Fall Assembly Series,” Oberlin Review, 22 Sept. 1964, 1.

[10]Bill Kramer, “Black Radicals Advocate Violence,” Oberlin Review, 12 Jan. 1965, 1.

[11]David Finke, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 4 Dec. 2001.

[12]“Student Faculty Exchanges,” 12 March 1964, General Faculty Files, Carr Presidential Papers, Box 2, OCA.

[13]David Finke, interview.

[14]”Carpenters for Christmas, Ripley, Miss: ‘Come Home to My Lord and Be Free,’” Oberlin Review, 12 Jan. 1965, 4-5.

[15]“Diverse Civil Rights Programs Employ Students’ Summer Time,” Oberlin Review, 22 Sept. 1964, 4.

[16]“Carpenter Hammer in South, Nail Mill Pact,” Oberlin Review, 12 June 1965, 11.

[17]Arlene Warmbrunn, “Students Agitate for Civil Rights in the South,” Oberlin Review, 18 Sept. 1962, 1 and 12.

[18]Rossinow, 342.

[19]Robert Weisbrot, Freedom Bound: A History of American’s Civil Rights Movement (New York: Plume, 1990).

[20]Tom Hayden, “The Politics of the ‘Movement,” in“Takin’ it to the streets”: A Sixties Reader, ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, 91-96.

[21]“Diverse Civil Rights Programs,” 4.

[22]Marcia Aronoff, interview by author, tape recording, conducted by telephone from Oberlin , OH, 6 Dec. 2001.

[23]Tim Craine to President Carr, 18 April 1965, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 6, OCA.

[24]“OACR Protests Selma, Union Segregation” Oberlin Review 12 June 1965, 14.

[25]Ibid.

[26]Robert K. Carr, Social Protest and the Academic Community (Oberlin, 1965): 1.

[27]Marcia Aronoff, “Cleveland Ohio: 1964,” Concern Newsletter, April 1964, Oberlin, OH, Student Publications, Student Life Records, OCA, 5.

[28]“Student Committee Circulates Petition Urging Negotiation,” Oberlin Review, 1 Oct.1963, 1 and 4.

[29]“OACR Protests Selma, Union Segregation,” Oberlin Review, 12 June 1965, 14.

[30]“Chaotic Events Characterize School Integration Attempts,” Oberlin Review, 18 Feb. 1964, 2 and 4.

[31]Arch 7’s were a frequent occurrence at Oberlin in the sixties.  The phrase means simply to meet at the Memorial Arch at 7 o’clock.  These events were a kind of open forum on a particular issue, usually with a few planned speakers followed by an opportunity for anyone to talk.  Of course they did not always occur at 7, so there were also Arch 10’s and Arch 12’s.

[32]Jon Lipsky, “Students Protest HUAC in Arch 7 Rally,” Oberlin Review, 24 April 1962, 1.

[33]Karen Gunderson, “Campus Approves Referenda 2-1,” Oberlin Review, 24 May 1963, 1.

[34]Rennie Davis, “Striking for Academic Freedom,” Oberlin Review, 21 Nov. 1961, 2.

[35]Mac Shelton, “Three Anti-HUAC Delegates Lobby at Congressional Session,” Oberlin Review, 8 Jan. 1963, 1.

[36]”Wilkerson, Movie Attack HUAC,” Oberlin Review, 1 March 1963, 1.

[37]“The National Defense Education Act,” 1961-62, Activist/Political Organization Files, Student Life Records, Box 2, OCA.

[38]David Finke, interview.

[39]Jonathan Seldin, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 25 Nov. 2001.