The Fog of Youth: The Cornell Student Takeover, 50 Years On

The Fog of Youth: The Cornell Student Takeover, 50 Years On

Tony Fels
Tony Fels
26 min read

On April 20, 1969, an era of student rebellions that had rocked American campuses at Berkeley, Columbia, San Francisco State, and Harvard reached a culmination of sorts with the triumphant exit of armed black students from Cornell’s Willard Straight student union building after a two-day occupation. The students had just won sweeping concessions from the university’s administration, including a pledge to urge faculty governing bodies to nullify reprimands of several members of the Afro-American Society (AAS) for previous campus disruptions on behalf of starting up a black studies program, judicial actions that had prompted the takeover. White student supporters cheered the outcome. And when the faculty, at an emergency meeting attended by 1,200 professors, initially balked at the administration’s request to overturn the reprimands, the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led a body that grew to six thousand students in a three-day possession of the university’s Barton gymnasium. Amid threats of violence by and against the student activists, the faculty, in a series of tumultuous meetings, voted to reverse themselves, allowing the crisis to end. Student protestors claimed victory for a blow successfully dealt to what they held to be a racist institution.

This positive interpretation of the meaning of the Cornell events has surprisingly remained mostly in place among the left-leaning participants (all within the SDS orbit) with whom I have kept in touch over the past 50 years. Most other former New Leftists whom I have spoken with or who have written about the crisis see it roughly the same way. One might have thought that decades of personal maturation would have produced profound doubts about the wisdom of such extreme actions taken when we were still in, or just past, our teenage years.

The continuity in interpretation by former SDSers is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the nation at large took a distinctly critical view of the same events right from the start. Most Americans immediately recoiled at the sight of the widely reproduced image, captured in a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph, of the bandolier-wearing student leading the Willard Straight Hall activists, rifles at their side, out of the building.

Protester Eric Evans (wearing bandolier) and other activists flanked by SDS students (Image courtesy of Cornell University, Office of Visual Services)

Headlines describing Cornell’s “capitulation” and “disgrace” typified national news coverage. Among 4,000 letters written to Cornell’s top administrators after the crisis, under five percent viewed the administrators’ actions favorably, and the student rebellion no doubt helped reinforce the country’s shift toward conservative dominance that had begun the previous November with the election of Richard Nixon. Yet through this immediate aftermath and on into the future, most of the aging participants have shown little evidence of rethinking.

In searching for a way to explain this insularity in left-liberal interpretation on the occasion of the rebellion’s fiftieth anniversary, I am struck by how little we activists really knew about the details of the events that were unfolding before our eyes, and how we wanted to know these details even less, both then and later. I gained this appreciation of our ignorance by reading Donald Alexander Downs’s Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (Cornell University Press, 1999), an invaluable narrative and analysis of one of the era’s major campus uprisings. A political scientist today, Downs was himself a Cornell undergraduate during the late 1960s, although his book says nothing of any role he may have played in the crisis (and I have no personal recollection of him from those days). The book apparently came much later, a project for which he carried out extensive research in the Cornell archives, reading through local newspaper accounts and other written sources, and interviewing dozens of former participants in the 1990s.

While Downs presents his own argument about the threat posed by the Cornell protests to academic freedom—an argument I find persuasive—his carefully written and thoroughly documented account can be detached from that argument by those who might disagree with the lessons he draws. His study deserves widespread attention by anyone today who still wishes to hold to a romantically positive version of those events. Much as the “fog of war” obscures an accurate assessment of a large-scale battle from the range of vision held by any particular combatant, the “fog of youth” may be said to have prevented the vast majority of Cornell’s students at the time from grasping the implications of the conflict as a whole. Thanks to Downs’s history—to which I have added a few minor corrections from Bruce Dancis’s memoir, Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War (Cornell University Press, 2014), and several observations from Divided We Stand: Reflections on the Crisis at Cornell, ed. Cushing Strout and David I. Grossvogel (Anchor Books, 1971), and Anita M. Harris’s Ithaca Diaries: Coming of Age in the 1960s (Cambridge Common Press, 2015)—we can acquire a far more informed view today of the entire picture, revealing just how adolescent, intolerant, and frightening the Cornell protests actually were. Looking back now, there is little to be proud of.

White Radicals Take the Initiative

As Downs shows, two mostly separate streams of student activism, one predominantly white, the other exclusively black, came together in spring 1969 to produce the rebellion at Cornell. The mostly white leftists centered their attention on opposition to the American war in Vietnam. As early as May 1965, radicals in a variety of organizations (SDS came to Cornell in 1963 but did not dominate the campus left until fall 1966) disrupted a speech by Averill Harriman, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, taking his microphone and insulting him as an “agent of imperialism.” A few days later students interrupted the annual ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) review with a sit-in, sparking an angry reaction by members of the audience. A similar demonstration against Marine recruiters in November 1967 by about 200 protesters and 30 counter-demonstrators led to pushing, shoving, shouting, and obstruction.

Not all such student activism resulted so quickly in confrontation. Predominantly white student radicals pursued other issues along with their antiwar activities, including support for the civil rights movement earlier in the 1960s, and later a push for educational reforms (in class size, the grading system, and other areas), a drive to have Cornell build low-income housing for the residents of the adjoining town of Ithaca (the focus for the SDS faction of which I was a leading member), and a campaign for greater freedom of speech and expression in campus publications. Even the latter cause, however, came to a potentially violent head in January 1967, when the district attorney from the surrounding county directed sheriff’s deputies to seize a literary magazine for its sexually explicit material and arrest its student distributors. Repeating a famous tactic from the 1964 free speech movement at Berkeley, students threatened the county official by ominously surrounding his car, while trying to trip a deputy. Local authorities soon backed off, though not before some students had vandalized the empty police car. An effort to encourage students to resist the draft, begun peacefully in spring 1967, similarly ended in a sit-in at the university proctor’s office when the administrator forcibly tried to stop the organizing by suspending several students.

Whether peaceful or confrontational in design, nearly all these forms of campus activism framed themselves as “demands.”  With the barest of exceptions, radical students showed little interest in putting forth proposals, making suggestions, or engaging in reasoned dialogue in order to bring about reforms at Cornell or in their wider communities. Leftists produced plenty of leaflets and other information, increasingly in the name of anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist ideals, aimed at attracting more students to their side, but their unstated goal was expression far more urgent than persuasion. Persuasion by its very nature proceeds slowly, whereas student demands were expected to be met immediately. Even negotiations were frowned upon as likely to lead to unacceptable compromise.

The adolescent character of this sort of rebelliousness displayed itself clearly at the largest campus protest to hit Cornell back in the 1950s, an era that most SDSers would have thought bore little relationship to the antiwar and antiracism activism of the later 1960s. The issues in contention at that time concerned university rules requiring chaperones for women students and prohibiting parties in off-campus student apartments. In 1958 over one 1,000 students gathered outside university president Deane W. Malott’s house, shouting obscenities and throwing rocks while the president was meeting inside with the chairman of the school’s board of trustees. Students chanted, “We have parents now, who needs more?!” It cannot be simply coincidental that the occupation of Willard Straight Hall on April 19, 1969, an act that turned the university on its head, would take place during Parents’ Weekend.

African American Students Join the Fray

Meanwhile, alongside these actions by mostly white activists, radicals among Cornell’s African American students were pursuing their own agenda. When James A. Perkins succeeded Deane Malott as Cornell’s president in 1963 during the height of the civil rights movement, he quickly undertook measures to increase the number of African American students. From four black students admitted to a freshman class of 2,300 in 1963, their numbers grew to 94 in the 1968 incoming cohort. By the spring of 1969, Cornell’s undergraduate and graduate student population included 259 African Americans.

As was true among the white students, radical activists never comprised more than a relatively small minority within the total black student population. But the situation black students faced of being a distinct racial minority on a large campus, together with the heightened racial consciousness that came with the rise of the black power movement in the summer of 1966, meant that radical leaders were able to attract a significant following during this time. Coercion of more politically moderate individuals, especially ones who tried to maintain personal relationships with white students, also played a role, as a number of black former students and others whom Downs interviewed reported. The Afro-American Society, founded in early 1966, typically had 50 to 100 members but could occasionally bring as many as 150 students to its meetings and actions.

Black students at the time faced incidents of racial prejudice and cultural misunderstanding. Examples included a derogatory remark with racial overtones made by some white players toward some black players during tryouts for the men’s freshman basketball team, roommate conflicts in the dorms between white and black women over the procedures involved in fashioning Afro hairdos, and arguments over what music should be played on the cafeteria jukebox. Cornell’s popular fraternity system produced the biggest incident. While some African Americans, including several AAS leaders, belonged to predominantly white fraternities, many black students encountered barriers at the time of rushing. In October 1966, midway into a dance party at one fraternity house, a doorman began charging blacks an entry fee that he waived for whites. The Interfraternity Council was sympathetic to Cornell’s black students and quickly carried out an investigation. Its judicial body found that, while the fraternity did not originally set out to exclude black students (earlier in the party both white and black students had been admitted), discrimination had occurred. In response, the council placed the fraternity on probation for a year and then co-sponsored (with the AAS) a “Soul Week” on campus that brought black power advocate Stokely Carmichael and other national figures to Cornell. Nevertheless, this incident led to the formation of a racially exclusive residence for men and, a little later, another for women (Wari House) for those black students who wished to move to them. As described in a slightly more detailed account of this episode than Downs’s, written a year after the Cornell takeover by AAS member Cleveland Donald, Jr., for an anthology, Divided We Stand: Reflections on the Crisis at Cornell, the fraternity’s blatant act of discrimination had a radicalizing effect on the university’s black students.

Militant actions did not start right away, but a building takeover at predominantly black Howard University in spring 1967 on behalf of a black studies curriculum, among other issues, spurred on African American students elsewhere. Black activism at Cornell, much like its white radical counterpart, now acquired the character of making nonnegotiable demands and using the power of group intimidation to get results. Black student radicals had the added tool of appealing to feelings of social guilt felt by sensitive white students, faculty, and especially administrators, a factor cited by many of the people Downs interviewed for his book. Donald recognized this factor as well in his own essay, though he added that “the act of haranguing whites” also produced frustration for AASers, “because blacks knew that whites enjoyed the punishment…[and] by enjoying the punishment, deprived blacks of the therapeutic value inherent in the act of punishing.”

The First Black Radical Actions

The new militancy found expression principally in the demand for an African American studies program at Cornell. An economics course on development offered in the spring of 1968 semester provided the immediate catalyst. Although the course instructor, a visiting professor from the Philippines, was not explicitly addressing the situation of blacks in the United States (but rather poor people in general), he made a number of statements in class about poverty that three radicals among the seven or eight African Americans in the class found to be racist. When the professor made it difficult for these students (or any students) to raise objections in class (though not out of class), the three radical students took matters into their own hands.

They registered a complaint with a dean and then the Economics chair, asking for an apology from the professor, the professor’s dismissal, and a black professor to be appointed in his place. A couple of weeks later, after spring break, the radical students returned to the classroom, taking over the podium to read a statement. Chaos broke out before the professor canceled the class. The radical students then gathered about 40 to 60 supporters, marched over to the Economics Department and took over the office. There they held the chair hostage for the next seven hours (they also briefly detained three secretaries), declaring the office closed until a mechanism had been established to address their three demands. With student supporters on the outside and plainclothes campus guards called to the scene, the situation grew increasingly tense. At one point a fight broke out when five black students pushed past the guards to join those inside. Two guards and one student were injured in the melee.

The occupation came to an end when the university provost agreed to meet with the students to discuss their demands, hire an outside lecturer selected by the AAS, and investigate the whole matter. A nine-member commission composed of faculty, administrators, and students (the Williams Commission) expeditiously carried out the ensuing investigation, and unanimously concluded that the economics professor had not been guilty of overt racism, although a minority of three believed that unconscious or institutional racism had been at work in some of the professor’s presentations. The commission also censured the radical students’ actions in the episode, referring them to Cornell’s judicial board for adjudication while recommending against severe punishment.

Despite the findings of the Williams Commission, however, the university administration decided not to charge any students in the disruption, and the provost even indicated to leaders of the AAS that he and other administrators took their side morally. As the dean of the College of Arts and Science put it in a public report at the time, “[The economics professor] and I and most whites are racists in some degree. We are all in some degree ignorant of and insensitive to the plight of black people….I think they [black students] have the right to demand of us…that we make an immediate and resolute effort to teach ourselves about black problems, and that we dedicate ourselves as an institution to finding solutions to these problems.” The willingness on the part of Cornell’s administrators to overlook these unlawful campus actions, equally true for some of the disruptions caused by white radical students, would contribute enormously to the armed takeover of Willard Straight Hall one year later.

The Push for a Black Studies Program

In hiring an AAS-approved outside lecturer in the wake of the Economics Department takeover, Cornell in effect took the first step toward establishing a black studies program at the university. In the fall of 1968, the university set up an advisory committee of faculty and students to plan the program, but AAS radicals soon articulated their own proposal, characteristically set forth as a list of demands. Rejecting the advice of faculty and several African American students on the advisory committee to structure the program as an interdisciplinary major with professors hired by contributing departments, the radicals insisted on an autonomous College of Afro-American Studies with powers over its own finances and hiring. In early December, the radicals arrived at the advisory committee meeting with close to 50 supporters and announced that the planning group had been disbanded in favor of a new black-only body, voting 50-0 in favor of the change. On the same day, six radicals precipitously evicted a professor and two employees from a building that the university had already designated to be used as the program’s headquarters beginning a year from then, when the program would likely be starting up. Three days later, the AAS presented their autonomous college plan to President Perkins and demanded his approval within 24 hours.

When the “deadline” passed without the president’s authorization, AAS radicals initiated what became known as the “December actions.” Seven militants pointed toy guns at students in front of the student union and disrupted traffic. They invaded the administration building, committing petty vandalism (knocking over a sand-filled container with cigarette butts and two candy machines, discharging a fire extinguisher, and banging on office doors). Back at the student union, they surrounded a campus police car, striking its hood and roof, and barged into a closed dining room pretending to demand service. The following day, 75 African American students, accompanied by some children, staged a brief sit-in in front of the president’s office. When Perkins offered to speak with them and sent out a cart of food, they refused his offer and overturned the food cart. Another group of 30 went to three different campus libraries, removing an estimated 3,700 books from the shelves, dumping them in front of the circulation desks and proclaiming that they had “no relevance to me as a black student.” The December actions came to an end a day later, when a radical contingent delayed that evening’s basketball game by marching across the court while playing music. It would be the reprimands of three AAS students involved in the toy gun harassment episode, a punishment handed down by the student-faculty judicial board after a nearly five-hour meeting that lasted until 2:00am on April 18, that would precipitate the Willard Straight takeover the following day.

The SDS and the Afro-American Society Join Forces

But the intervening four months between the December actions and the judicial board’s decision had not been devoid of additional and even greater provocations. The new semester on campus (spring 1969) brought SDS and the AAS together in two protests that turned violent. The goal of both protests was ending the university’s perceived support for the apartheid regime in South Africa through the school’s investments in banks that did business in that country. For Cornell, the principal bank in question was Chase Manhattan. Towards the end of February, Cornell’s international studies program sponsored a four-day symposium on the subject of South Africa, and trouble arose at the first evening session when an SDSer tried to interrupt a liberal South African defender of apartheid by asking the audience to decide whether he should be permitted to keep talking. Only the intervention by another SDSer, a law student, who appealed to the audience to uphold the principle of free speech, allowed the speaker to continue. But at the keynote event two evenings later, held at the Hotel Administration School’s Statler Auditorium, President Perkins did not fare as well. The president had earlier promised to use his remarks introducing the evening’s main speaker to explain the trustees’ reluctance to sell Cornell stock in the Chase Manhattan bank, and SDS and AAS members in the audience looked forward to the opportunity to make his position appear weak.

Even before Perkins could get to the podium, an AAS leader grabbed the microphone and an SDS leader shouted from the audience to demand that the president make good on his promise to explain the university’s investment policy and either break with it or defend it. That much was planned, but what happened next was not. As Perkins began to speak, one AAS member moved from the side of the stage to the lectern and lifted the president up by the collar. Black students in the audience began to beat drums they had brought with them, but soon boos from the audience took over. When a safety officer approached the stage to help free the president, another AAS member moved in from the other side of the stage, pointing a two-by-four board at the officer to stop him. A shaken Perkins was soon released and escorted off the stage to be driven home. The crowd in the auditorium was visibly shocked by what had occurred, and most cheered when a black South African anti-apartheid leader rose to condemn the two attackers, as did an SDS leader. But Downs quotes another eyewitness, an administrator, who observed that as the evening went on and more people spoke, “It was amazing as well as very disturbing to see the reaction of many members in the crowd change from one of concern about the uncalled-for treatment of the President to one of almost outright anger that the President didn’t remain in order that they could criticize him publicly.”

A less ugly but still violent protest broke out a little more than a week later, when about 200 SDSers and a considerably smaller number of AASers joined together to stop Chase Manhattan representatives from recruiting future employees at Malott Hall, home to Cornell’s business school. The demonstrators forced their way into the room where the recruiters’ table had been set up. A campus patrolman later recounted what happened next: “When we got totally overrun, I got pushed, I got knocked down on the floor, and [there was] glass all over the place….There were ten or fifteen students. I mean, they just literally chomped all over tables, literally, everything went flying. It all happened just, whoosh! So fast!…I went right through a window,  head first….I could have been killed…Several of the recruiters that were there that were sitting in the chairs, I mean, their chairs went over backwards, they just left their briefcases and everything and just walked away.” The university cancelled Chase’s recruiting efforts for the foreseeable future.

Protester outside Bailey Hall (Image courtesy of Cornell University, Office of Visual Services)

Violent Acts and Cornell’s Response

Neither of the disturbances at the Statler Auditorium or Malott Hall resulted in any university judicial actions. Proceedings against the two individuals who had taken part in the physical attack on President Perkins might have occurred, except that one of these men abruptly left the area after being cited and, perhaps more importantly, was expelled from the AAS, while the other had already dropped out of school. Sporadic cases of violent assault in fact hovered around the edges of the AAS’s activism at Cornell. In a fierce conflict between two factional leaders of the AAS that broke out in fall 1968, one small group went after another with guns and knives, and both sides were armed with chains, even if the only explicitly violent result was a smashed car window. During the December actions, an AAS member, one of the two men later involved in the attack on Perkins, struck a Cornell Daily Sun reporter in the face and roughed up a photographer when he noticed them in front of the building the organization had just seized to become the future headquarters of the black studies program.

The worst outbreak of violence occurred over the weekend following the Malott Hall protest. Three white students were assaulted on campus. In two cases the victims were attacked from behind but were able to identify their attackers as black; the third victim was rendered unconscious for four days from head injuries and was unable to remember anything about the assault. No suspects were ever identified, but an anonymous letter published soon after in the Sun under the title, “One Black’s View,” expressed “shock” and “shame” that “some of my brothers have found it necessary to attack white students.” As Downs notes, “He or she then claimed that those black students who opposed the AAS’s direction of action were afraid to speak out. ‘Even though I am black, if I signed my name to this letter, I would be intimidated. I have seen it happen to others.’” It is probably the case that the perpetrators of these violent acts comprised a tiny minority within the AAS, but the fact that such actions had taken place and were widely discussed on campus—to which might be added the outbreak of a number of fires of unexplained origin—enhanced the frightening quality of all the Cornell protests. In the background, too, was the violence taking place in the country at large, most especially the assassination of Martin Luther King (the news of which was reported just a few hours after the Economics Department takeover had ended), provoking anger among African Americans everywhere.

The context of this violent era of social change helps explain why the Cornell administrators responded so timidly to the radical actions of its white and black students. In a few cases the university’s judicial system had reprimanded student protesters and even placed some on probation. This was true for the demonstrators in the ROTC and marine recruitment altercations (in the latter case 129 students received reprimands), as well as for the few students charged in the December actions. But, as Downs points out, over time the mixed faculty-student judicial boards (which themselves underwent structural change during this era) lost legitimacy, not because they lacked fair-minded and dedicated personnel but because the growing influence of leftwing ideology undercut the value of individual responsibility in favor of group accountability. And if a group, like African Americans, was seen as a historical victim of prejudice, then that group’s rule breakers deserved to be treated with special leniency—at least that’s what many at Cornell, including its leading administrators, thought. By the time of the Willard Straight takeover, according to “many sources” whom Downs consulted, “the administration had adopted a ‘hands off’ policy when it came to potentially illegal actions of dissident students, especially blacks.”

The same sort of compensatory thinking, which could never be openly acknowledged, caused Cornell’s administrators to avoid speaking honestly to the faculty about most of their educational policies toward minority students, covering everything from the university’s admissions requirements (which were altered for incoming African American students) to the president’s final proposal for the new black studies program, reflecting most of the AAS’s original demands, that he submitted to the university’s board of trustees in early April 1969. The Cornell administration’s weak and deceptive style of leadership helped set up its strained relationship with the faculty no less than it encouraged continued student disruptions, even when the board of trustees approved the new Afro-American Studies Center at its April 10-12 meeting.

A Deceptive Cross-Burning Incident

The Cornell administration, however, was not alone in its reliance on deception to further its aims. With the trustees’ acceptance of the new black studies program, the AAS’s principal goal, the only demand of the society that remained unfulfilled was that none of its members be disciplined for their actions the previous December—actions needed, as they saw things, to bring that program into existence. Having come this far in obtaining everything it wanted, the AAS must have felt there was no reason to back down now on its final demand. In addition, the society’s group ideology, in which all acts were deemed collective in nature, virtually required that it mount a major demonstration that would rescue the three cited members from their anticipated reprimands. Perhaps sensing, however, that a critique of “judicial racism” might not provide sufficient justification for the audacious step that the AAS was now planning, some radicals—how many and who they were is not known—in all likelihood decided to add the provocation of a cross-burning in front of Wari House, the black women’s residence, together with a brick thrown through the residence window a little before 3:00am on the morning before the AAS seized the student union building.

The circumstantial evidence behind the claim that these events were staged is overwhelming in Downs’s account, although the truth of the matter was probably known to only a few in the AAS. Many people, from sympathetic university officials to police officers from the town of Ithaca, suspected a ruse at the time. There were no physical traces pointing to the involvement of non-Cornellians, to which may be added the fact, omitted from Downs’s book, that the wood used to construct the cross was purchased from art supplies sold at the campus store, as a subsequent report by the university’s trustees revealed. With the passage of years, more and more testimonies by individuals, both black and white, involved in the Cornell takeover have accumulated to buttress the claim made by then-university provost Dale Corson in a 1996 interview that he was “99.9 percent sure” that it was an inside job. In April 1969, however, nobody dared voice these suspicions, and the appearance of such an overtly racist act added momentum to the student rebellion, as it was cited again and again by participants in favor of overturning the reprimands. In her memoir, Ithaca Diaries: Coming of Age in the 1960s, Anita M. Harris wrote that a group of Jewish students issued a statement pledging their support for the AAS based on the “full [historical] implications” of such a “vile act.”

The Takeover

The takeover of Willard Straight Hall was not carried out without violence, even though rifles would only be brought into the building later in the first day of the occupation. At the outset, some of the AAS students were armed with chains, knives, and clubs. Arriving at around 5:00am on the morning of Saturday, April 19, the occupiers roused and expelled the 28 parents who were staying in the building’s upstairs hotel rooms for Parents’ Weekend. Some of the parents endured insults and were compelled to exit the rooms in their nightclothes, leaving their belongings behind. All were led down a long flight of stairs to the building’s garbage area, where they were forced to jump off a three-foot loading dock. Though none was injured, most were left shocked, frightened, and angry. During the occupation itself, a fair amount of vandalism occurred, including to the doors and the contents of the visitors’ rooms, to locks on vending machine coin boxes (with $1,000 taken), to interior floors and paintings, and to stores of food from the kitchen.

The AAS began bringing the infamous rifles (and some hatchets) into the building about eight hours into the takeover, after 25 white fraternity men had entered the student union from a side window in an attempt to break the society’s hold over the building. In the resulting melee, the occupiers were able to repel the fraternity men with only slight injuries to both sides, but this forcible effort to end the takeover added to fears by the AAS—unfounded, it turned out—that whites from the surrounding community, including sheriffs’ deputies or even the national guard, were planning an armed attack. The AAS justified its introduction of rifles on grounds of self-defense (the New York state legislature would make the presence of guns on a university campus illegal only after the Cornell rebellion), but “self-defense” could be asserted so aggressively as to carry the potential for violence itself—two days later, an AAS leader threatened that if Cornell’s faculty did not reverse its vote on the reprimands, various of its “racist” members were “going to die in the gutter like dogs.”

Just as AAS leaders manipulated the society’s own membership by means of staging (or, at the very least, failing to repudiate) the phony cross-burning incident in advance of the takeover, SDS leaders (from its “Action Faction”) carried on secret planning of their own to ensure that the predominantly white organization would rally behind the anticipated occupation. Downs demonstrates that a number of these white radical leaders had been alerted to the planned takeover by their African American counterparts several days before the occurrence. A few had purchased rifles for the AAS leadership several months earlier. By 7:00am of the first day, SDS had thrown up a picket line around the student union as “protection” for the occupiers inside, and the number of these dedicated supporters grew as the day wore on.

In truth, little manipulation of SDS’s membership was needed to bring about this support. Ever since the widely reported and explosive student rebellion at Columbia University the previous spring, most members were looking for some way to provoke a similar confrontation with Cornell’s administration. In addition, nearly all SDSers accepted the radical critique of the university’s judicial system as inherently rigged against black students, thus justifying in their minds the AAS’s demand to nullify the reprimands. Throughout the first three days of the rebellion, SDS managed to speak for an ever-increasing number of white students, who came to see the takeover and the tense showdown that developed between administration and faculty after the initial agreement between administrators and the AAS through the eyes of campus radicals. At one mass meeting of 2,500 students, the few who voiced misgivings were drowned out by chants of “Fight racism—meet the black demands NOW!” In the background lay the frequently voiced threat by SDS to take over the university’s administration building (Day Hall) if the faculty failed to reverse its first vote refusing to go along with the nullification agreement. Most students at the school seemed to endorse that plan.

In the end, however, SDS became a victim of its own success. Once guns had been brought into the occupation, the Cornell administration never wavered from its determination to accede to the AAS’s demand concerning the reprimands. “Saving lives,” in the words of one of the university’s main negotiators, became the administration’s sole objective. Yet even without the genuine fear of terrible violence if Cornell had, for example, sought an injunction to vacate the student union with the threat of law enforcement action behind it, the university’s record in the years leading up to the crisis positioned the administration to do nothing other than capitulate. It had no intellectual resources at its disposal to convince the student body, white and black alike, that reforms in university policies cannot come about through intimidation and force without sacrificing essential elements of any civic community, much less a university. It had given in to these sorts of actions too many times before.

Facing such a weak administration, SDS never got the confrontation it desired. As the number of its student supporters grew into the thousands, young people of more moderate dispositions inevitably came to dominate the huge meetings that took place. These students accepted the radicals’ interpretation of the AAS’s goals and remarkably even most of the society’s tactics. Doubtless the cross-burning incident played a large role in shaping this consensus. But when it became apparent on the evening of the third day (April 21) that the faculty was likely to overturn its initial vote, this great mass of moderate students blocked SDS from moving forward with its projected administration building takeover in favor of giving the faculty one more chance to decide. The following day, the faculty endorsed the agreement, although most said they did so only out of fear for a worse outcome if they hadn’t. Six thousand or more students joined with AAS leaders and President Perkins at Barton gymnasium in cheering this resolution.

Person reading Daily Sun in the audience at Barton Hall. (Image courtesy of Cornell University, Office of Visual Services)


Eldon Kenworthy, a young government professor who had done more than anyone else to articulate the moderates’ position at a critical moment, later quipped in one of the Divided We Stand essays, “The Mensheviks had won,” a reference to Lenin’s less ruthless but still revolutionary opponents at the time of the Russian Revolution. The analogy was apt, because by arbitrarily overturning the reprimands, the Cornell community had broken, albeit nonviolently, with a fundamental principle in a liberal democracy that requires all mentally competent individuals, regardless of status or ethnic background, to be held accountable to the same set of laws. Confusion on this score would remain a lasting legacy of the Cornell rebellion, particularly because the campus judicial system that the university had in place in the late 1960s, Downs shows, had never been racist to begin with.

Beyond this confusion, the student rebellion produced few lasting results. Experiments in greater student participation in university governance that issued from the “Barton Hall community” proved fleeting. Black student activists achieved an African Studies program, but this goal had been won before the dramatic building takeover had occurred. The new program also suffered, Downs points out, from the extreme separatism of the AAS’s campaign to bring it into existence. Had the program been structured less autonomously and brought more fully into relationship with the university’s academic disciplines, as was the case with a similar program established around the same time at Yale, it might have gotten off to a stronger start. SDS declined in importance in the years following the takeover. Several prominent Cornell faculty members resigned immediately, while quite a few more began to look for positions at other schools. Downs quotes a number of professors who stated that they now began to edit or censor their lectures for fear of incurring student disapproval, knowing that they could not count on the university administration to back up their academic freedom.

The ethical shortcomings of the 1969 Cornell student rebellion, which appear so glaring today, were anything but clear to us radical activists at the time. In those days, what were taken to be moral ends—furthering along racial justice and ending the American war in Vietnam—justified an abundance of coercive means, as a leading Cornell activist, Bruce Dancis, acknowledges in his thoughtful memoir, Resister, although his criticisms do not go as far as mine. We thought little about the negative consequences of the tactics we adopted and delved not very deeply into even the positive goals we pursued—what, for example, would Vietnam be like if U.S. forces withdrew?

Downs helpfully warns against over-emphasizing the differences he has recorded in the tactics adopted by Cornell’s black and white student radicals. One of the AAS members he interviewed in 1997, he tells us, “would often punctuate her recollections of events with the exclamation, ‘We were so young!’” Indeed, the category of youth offers greater insight into the era’s excesses than that of race. The Cornell events formed not just part of a national outburst on American college campuses but also an element within a worldwide explosion of youthful energies that ranged from students opposing communist tyranny in Prague to those who provided the shock troops for Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution. Perhaps Cornell’s Economics professor George Hildebrand put it best at the time when he castigated the university administration’s “incredibly naïve and romantic permissiveness that prevailed over the last three years,” stemming from its “misplaced faith in youth.” How many veterans of those student days, now in their late-60s or early-70s, would be willing to agree?

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Tony Fels

Tony Fels is professor emeritus of history at the University of San Francisco and author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt (2018)