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

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?


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 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). He can be reached at

All images kindly provided by Cornell University. Office of Visual Services. Protest Photographs, #4-3-2093. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. 


  1. Ray Andrews says

    I don’t understand what is going on in the minds of the cops there. Is that shotgun loaded? The cop in front sure has a lot of faith. I’m reminded of some rap lyrics I once heard:

    It don’t matta if you’re a nig*a
    With you’re fingga on the trigga
    Of an Uzi or an AK
    Blow that pig away.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Right, because all black people are bloodthirsty killers who hate the police, even Ivy League students from the 1960s.

      Fucking racist much? Jesus.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Nakatomi Plaza

        I didn’t write those lyrics, they did. You can ask black people why they support rappers who can say such things.

      • Peter from Oz says

        You are the evil bastard that can find a way of taking offence at anything and read some kind of ism or phobia into any statement, and always be wrong. What a miserable life you must lead. Being stupid and eviil must be such a downer, my friend.
        You obviously didn’t get the message that calling someone a racist immediately marks you out as a complete twat. You lefty tossers have now cheapened the word so much that it has no meaning. Who cares about being a racist when it’s fools like you using the term.

        • Morgan Foster says

          @Peter from Oz

          I like having Nakatomi Plaza around. NP is a constant reminder to us of who the left really are, and what most of them are really like.

          • Mr Bernard Hill says

            …Peter is right on, but I agree MF it’s good having NP venting her drivel as reminder of the chaos which Jacobean ressentiment leads to.

      • Tommo says

        How did you get from the first comment to yours? And by the way, Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet to be be revered, so by using his name like this you are offending them. Racist, much?

        • Academy 23 says

          The idea that Muslims revere Jesus is ridiculous. They deny that Jesus was the son of God, they deny that Jesus died on the cross – the central and most important story in Christianity that teaches turning the other cheek and not revenging yourself on those who have done you wrong, and say he was ‘just a man’, and in Islam he is a prophet called Issa who will come back and ‘break the cross’ on the day of judgement. It’s called heresy. It’s not respect.

      • Jeremiah says

        I dobt know about the rap lyrics, but he’s right that the local cops were almost comically naive in that situation. These people had just led a violent takeover and armed occupation of a building. The idea that the cop has his back turned to a radical so committed to his extremism that hes carrying a shotgun and a literal bandolier of shotgun shells aroubd his shoulder is alnost comical.

        Today there’s no way in hell they wouldn’t have taken MUCH greater precautions in that situation.

      • northernobserver says

        Not half as racist as you, feller.

      • FREEDOM! says

        @Nakatomi Plaza, “even Ivy League students”?

        Are you insinuating that trade school grads and high school drop-outs are more likely to be “bloodthirsty killers who hate the police”? Are you also assuming that the lyrics were written by a black … bloodthirsty killer who hates the police? Do you have any data to support the insinuation that Ivy League students are less violent than the rest of society?

        Your (invalid in this particular case) stereotyping is showing. [If it writes like a clueless, Classist Snob, is it a clueless classist snob? We shall see…]

        N.P., you remind me of people who “admit” they are racist believing that virtue signaling confessions atone for their snobbery. In reality, they are not “racist” at all, they feel icky and look down on anyone who is not “Ivy League”, or, at the very least, a liberal university student.

        @Ray Andrews was talking about a guard who was actually walking in front of an armed man who, with his associates, “… armed with chains, knives, and clubs… roused and expelled…parents who … endured insults and were compelled… in their nightclothes, … to jump off a…loading dock.” These parents were terrorized. By terrorists.
        The man @Ray Andrews spoke of assisted in holding multiple people hostage while they were terrorized and others were threatened with physical harm and death.

        Ray seems to have questioned only the trustworthiness of the men in the photo, and another man’s possible unwarranted trust of their intentions, while quoting words of another person that, in Ray’s estimation, seemed to fit the situation.

        The man with the gun was not a ‘nice young Ivy League student’ just out for a stroll. He was not casually walking along behind campus security when his photo was snapped.
        This man had just emerged from a violent, armed stand-off where an “AAS leader threatened that…Cornell’s faculty…members were “going to die in the gutter like dogs”
        The fact that imbeciles let them get away with a heinous crime notwithstanding.

        Three more things:

        #1 saying “Fucking” does not add to your thoughts in any positive way, it just makes you look like you are incapable of expressing yourself logically. Screaming FUCKING RACIST does not make your words true. (I have no idea if Ray is or is not racist; I do not feel I have enough data to make that judgement).

        #2 don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, you will not be held guiltless for your carelessness.

        #3 I love you. <3 (((hug)))

      • jappy says

        according the crime rates, blacks are bloodthirsty killers

    • Bab says


      My understanding is that the gentlemen in the photo are exercising their right to bear arms, a right which is constitutionally afforded to them and which is usually vigorously celebrated by people of your ideological ilk, apart from those instances where the exercisers are black.

      Given that agents of the government had only recently committed a massacre against protestors at Orangeburg, and would go on to shoot unarmed protestors at Kent State University, its perhaps reasonable that student protestors of that era may have believed that they required firearms in order to defend themselves.

      • Jeremiah says

        He didn’t even say they should have even forcihly disamerd then (even though the law certainly allowed thst considering they had just committed a host of crimes) all he was saying is that it’s almost comically naive that the cop has his back turned to a guy so commited to radical extremism thay he’s armed with a bandolier and shotgun he had just used to forcibly occupy a building illegally.

        All he’s saying is why would the cop have his back turned to him? It would make much better sense to have those armed walking in front of them.

        • Ray Andrews says


          Exactly. Regardless of ideological spin on the situation, I can’t help but wonder what these child murdering racist pig cops are thinking. Seriously. Were Mr. Ta-Nasi Coates a cop in that situation I doubt he’d leave those guys with their guns in hand. It really does defy explanation.

        • D.B. Cooper says


          … all he was saying is that it’s almost comically naive that the cop has his back turned to a guy so committed to radical extremism that he’s armed with a bandolier and shotgun…

          Ugh, I’m not so sure that’s what @Ray Andrews meant when he imputed “a lot of faith” to the cop in front. Unless, of course, his imputation of “faith” was based on something other than the cop walking in front of a nigga… with [his] fingga on the trigga.

          Trust me when I tell you, racist epithets are to @Ray-the-racist-Andrews, what AOC is to the midwife of stupidity. The two are basically indistinguishable. Not only that, I have it on good authority Ray Andrews is of the Canadian persuasion, and God knows you don’t want to be caught carrying water for that.

      • Jeremiah says

        Also I’m personally only supportive of gun rights because I support the constition and the constituion through years of supreme court case law allows wide latitude in personal posession of firearms (but not using them in commission of any crime). Personally id be completely fine with a constitional amendment thst greatly limited gun access, but the key is it needs to arise from the constition just like infringements on other things in the Bill of Rights should come only through the purposely rigorous process of amending the constitution.

        I don’t personally own a gun or have any interest in owning a gun.

      • GregS says


        The right to bear arms does not include the right to brandish arms. One can legally carry a shotgun on a public street, if and only if, it is sheathed in a case. Even the right to carry a handgun is predicated on it being in a holster. Once you take a weapon out of its sheath or holster, it better be for self-defense.

        The fact that you do not know this, surprises no one.

        • Bab says


          I spent most of my adolescence carrying my trusty .410 shotgun up hill and down dale, and I have never ever seen a shotgun “sheathed in a case”, unless you mean either a slip or a proper latched case, and I can’t imagine what kind of screaming wanker would be running round with a shotgun in one of those. I did a google search for “shotgun holster” and of course they exist; every stupid accessory does these days.

          Every long gun I have ever carried, I either had it slung over my shoulder or I carried it in my hand. Usually I carried it broken open, but I was more safety-conscious than most.

          In any event, there are umpteen youtube videos of gun enthusiasts walking around city streets with AR-15s in their hands, making some kind of political statement. Not really any different from what these guys are doing.

          • GregS says


            The dictionary definition of “sheathed” is “close-fitting covering or case”. This can be a cloth case, a hard-sided case or soft-sided case. If what you say is true, that you have toted a .410, unless you did so on your own property, one would wonder how you got it there without a case? If you did not case your weapon, you are in violation of the law.

            I did a google search for “shotgun holster” and of course they exist; every stupid accessory does these days.

            My reference to “holster” was clearly in the context of a handgun. Read the sentence again.

            In any event, there are umpteen youtube videos of gun enthusiasts walking around city streets with AR-15s in their hands, making some kind of political statement. Not really any different from what these guys are doing.

            And just as illegal. It is called “Improper Exhibition of a Firearm” and in most states is punishable by up to a year in prison.

      • Ray Andrews says


        “and which is usually vigorously celebrated by people of your ideological ilk”

        What is my ideological ilk? I should wait for an answer but let me spoil the fun by stating that I think that American gun-nuttery is outright insanity. True, the 2nd Amendment gives members of a well-regulated milita the right to bear mussel loading flintlock muskets, but that black dude is not carrying a flintlock and I stand to be corrected as to his membership in a well-regulated militia.

        “its perhaps reasonable that student protestors of that era may have believed that they required firearms in order to defend themselves”

        Yes, perhaps. But my astonishment is directed at the cops in this case. Being the rampant, racist, massacring animals that you suppose them to be, is it not surprising that the cops escort armed blacks away from the scene of their criminal occupation of a university? And turn their backs on them? Should they not have massacred the protesters instead? Surely this is puzzling?

        • GregS says

          mussel loading flintlock muskets

          Sorry Ray, I just couldn’t resist. Stuffing mollusks into a flintlock is both difficult to do and yields unsatisfactory results. It is better to load lead shot into the muzzle.

          (I know it was a typo. Just having fun) 🙂 🙂 🙂

          • Ray Andrews says


            Ha. Well I have that coming. And it would make for a funny skit.

        • Morgan Foster says

          @Ray Andrews

          “True, the 2nd Amendment gives members of a well-regulated milita …”

          It seems relevant to ask you if you are an American, because you misunderstand something very important about the 2nd Amendment.

          The reference to “a well-regulated militia” is parenthetical. The 2nd amendment enshrines a “right of the People”, not a right of a well-regulated militia member. And despite the clear and unambiguous language of the amendment itself, the Supreme Court has been compelled to rule (and quite recently) that the phrase “the People”, as used in the 2nd amendment, means – literally – the people of the United States, each as individuals. Therefore, an individual right.

          And although it is a moot point, “well-regulated”, as it was used in the 18th Century, meant something that was in good working order. Something that was functioning as it was designed to do. “Well-regulated” never, ever, in the 18th Century, referred to something that was “regulated” by the government, i.e., pursuant to government regulations. We cannot, we must not, reinterpret words in the Constitution to mean something that is different than what was meant when it was written.

          When you think about it, the 2d amendment would make no logical sense if the “right to keep and bear arms” referred to the right of the government to keep and bear arms. No one on earth would imagine that the government might want to infringe its own right to keep and bear arms. Therefore, there would no reason to have a 2d amendment or to even think about one.

          It’s also worth mentioning that the men who wrote, and later voted to incorporate the 2d amendment into the Constitution, had, very recently, overthrown their lawfully constituted government, that of Great Britain, with guns, and wanted to have the ability to do so again, should it prove necessary.

          Something that the Black Panthers correctly understood.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Morgan Foster

            Canadian, but a close student of your Constitution and its jurisprudence.

            ” “a well-regulated militia” is parenthetical”

            So some interpret it, but others, including SCOTUS justices do not see the parenthesis, perhaps because they are not there. Seriously tho, the best reading is as you say. It does not imply that only militiamen may bear arms only that in as much as any citizen might be at some point called upon to join a militia, the right to bear arms must remain uninfringed. Still it is a close thing — the writer had a specific reason to permit the bearing of arms. The implication is that the bearer of arms will be the sort of person who would be called upon to join a well-regulated militia, not a criminal nor a sick kid.

            “was in good working order. Something that was functioning as it was designed to do.”

            Sure. I myself have never understood it otherwise.

            “with guns, and wanted to have the ability to do so again, should it prove necessary”

            Agreed. The right to bear arms is an American’s totem of his sovereignty.

            “to mean something that is different than what was meant when it was written”

            I quite agree. What was the intention? But context matters. At the time, the context in terms of hardware, was the flintlock. Would Tommy J and Johnny A really support the right of a mentally ill teenager to access a weapon that could massacre an entire school? I doubt it. That’s why there have always been restrictions of one kind or another on the right to bear arms. You can’t walk around with an RPG for example. Thus it has never been the case that the 2nd was interpreted to mean that there are no restrictions whatever. Thus restrictions are permissible and the sensible question is what those restrictions should be. As with a firm majority of Americans, not to mention just about everyone in the rest of the world, I consider your laxity with guns to be somewhere between derelict and insane. Perhaps one cannot see this from inside America.

        • Bab says

          @Greg, the law to which you are referring states that a person shall not handle a weapon in a “an angry, threatening or careless manner”. I can’t see a single state that allows open carry of long guns that requires them to be “sheathed” while doing so. There are some states that require that there be no cartridge in the chamber whilst being transported by car.

          I recall that the Black Panthers carried long guns into the California Legislature in 1967, and it was widely acknowledged that there was nothing illegal in them doing so. Ultimately, I think its obvious that the men in the photo weren’t committing any kind of offence.

          • Jack B. Nimble says


            Here’s the story of the Black Panthers and the NRA:

            ‘…..although the National Rifle Association (NRA) currently leads the charge for the rights of citizens to carry guns of all types with little to no interference from the government, the original gun rights advocates to take that stance were the Black Panthers.

            Throughout the late 1960s, the militant black nationalist group used their understanding of the finer details of California’s gun laws to underscore their political statements about the subjugation of African-Americans. In 1967, 30 members of the Black Panthers protested on the steps of the California statehouse armed with .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns and .45-caliber pistols and announced, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves.”

            The display so frightened politicians—including California governor Ronald Reagan—that it helped to pass the Mulford Act, a state bill prohibiting the open carry of loaded firearms, along with an addendum prohibiting loaded firearms in the state Capitol. The 1967 bill took California down the path to having some of the strictest gun laws in America and helped jumpstart a surge of national gun control restrictions…..

            In contrast to the NRA’s rigid opposition to gun control in today’s America, the organization fought alongside the government for stricter gun regulations in the 1960s. This was part of an effort to keep guns out of the hands of African-Americans as racial tensions in the nation grew. The NRA felt especially threatened by the Black Panthers, whose well-photographed carrying of weapons in public spaces was entirely legal in the state of California, where they were based….’


          • Bab says

            @ Jack – yes, and I can recall that the politician who led the charge for gun control back in those days was none other than Ronald Reagan. Reminds me of the time when abortion opponents were almost entirely Democratic voting Roman Catholics; in the 1950s Pat Robertson proclaimed that it was “not a Christian issue but a Roman Catholic issue”.

          • Jack B. Nimble says


            You are right about Ronald Reagan. There’s irony in the fact that Reagan and Barry Goldwater were widely thought of as extremists in the 1960s and 1970s, but they look like wussy moderates compared to today’s Republicans.

            Note also that today it is often right-wingers who are calling for cops to be shot:

            “Reddit quarantined the “The_Donald” subreddit on Wednesday, citing threats made on the popular forum for Trump supporters against law enforcement officers.

            “Recent behaviors including threats against the police and public figures is content that is prohibited by our violence policy,” a Reddit spokesperson said in a statement. “As a result, we have actioned individual users and quarantined the subreddit.”

            The new quarantine was brought on by anti-police threats posted on The_Donald. Some users had apparently encouraged violence against law enforcement, angry that officials in Oregon were trying to bring back GOP state senators who fled the state to avoid voting on a climate-change bill. In a note to The_Donald moderators, Reddit administrators said they had “observed this behavior in the form of encouragement of violence towards police officers and public officials in Oregon.”

            It’s not clear what posts prompted the quarantine, but on Monday, Media Matters detailed a number of anti-police messages posted on The_Donald.

            One user posted that they would have “no problems shooting a cop trying to strip rights from Citizens.” Another wrote that “rifles are the only way we’re going to get any peace in our lives ever again.”

            With roughly 754,000 subscribers, The_Donald is one of the largest forums for Trump fans on the internet, and by far the largest on Reddit. The site became so prominent in the Trump movement that Trump himself answered questions from the forum’s members during the 2016 campaign……”


  2. Colonel of Truth says

    Terrific article – very informative. I only wish Professor Fels and others like him didn’t require 50 years of maturity before recognizing the dangers of extremism, blind idealism, appeasement, white guilt, etc etc etc. Will 60 year-old AOC and her coterie say “We were so young” in apologizing for the destruction they unleash?

    • Amin says

      @ Colonel of Truth

      White guilt? So why didn’t it kick in to prevent this right from the start? Why didn’t it recognize that over the years that a seprate legitimate black culture had developed – which might be worthy of study. And if we scoot over a bit and allow it space within the academy and help to nurture it then such culture might, just might, develop to something truly special and universal.

      Tony Fels is an old hand at this. He always hits out at others, rather than being more reflective of the “crimes” his own side committed. For him civil rights movement and feminism are just geat tragedies. Yet, unsurprisingly, he has no solutions how else civil rights would have been achieved, etc.

      • What do you have to say about how the author points out that the extremism of the students probably contributed to the rise of conservatives and Nixon later on?

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Amin

        I remember a point during the mid to late 90s when International Development was the most lucrative degree qualification any student could get in the UK University system. This was because there was a fundamental shift in thinking about the future of Africa, and whether any amount of foreign aid, without the mechanism of market-driven prosperity, could ever lift Africa out of poverty. Now cynics may counter that this was also a period when finance sought to secure land rights in Africa, engaging in what has been described as a form of Agricultural (or Trade) Imperialism, amid fears over the future of world’s supply of food- but regardless of the intent, there can be little doubt that this period created the intellectual infrastructure which frames the meteoric rise of incomes in Africa today.

        But it is also important to note, that of those countries participating in economic expansion, all maintained their European Institutions and none fell victim to either socialism or attempts to innovate more culturally traditional models. This is because the enlightenment is essentially a set of cultural technologies founded in economics, politics and the scientific method, rather than an embedded culture in and of itself. Within the diverse cultures of the West, and the Anglosphere in particular, there are a growing number of dissenters who believe that the only way to remove the structural disparities that exist within countries, is to apply a similar form of cultural appropriation at a community and personal level.

        Trevor Philips the former head of the the Commission for Racial Equality under New Labour in the UK, probably stated the case best in his excellent documentary for Channel 4, ‘Things We Won’t Say About Race (That Are True)’. Like many heretics and dissenters, who often find that once they confess their doubts to the world about conventional wisdom they can’t bide their tongue, he subsequently went on to make some rather poorly received comments about Britain ‘Sleepwalking towards Self-Segregation’ and has since observed that of all the diverse groups in the UK, only British Chinese children achieve persistently high academic results regardless of parental income. His point being, what are they doing right that everyone else could copy?

        This argument becomes particularly salient when one considers that in the 90s Northern Irish Catholics experienced social conditions and disproportionate levels of relative poverty very similar to those experienced by African Americans today, but have since gone on to outperform their wealthier Northern Irish Protestant contemporaries in educational outcomes, drawing level in income. The primary modus of this educational miracle is claimed by the educational establishment to be a result of greater community and parental involvement, but I suspect that not ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ in relation to the deeply flawed progressive education model, has a great deal to do with it, as well, particularly in relation to teaching methodology.

        Your broader point about cultures having value is well-taken though. I often think that African American communities would benefit more from having the wealthy parents of ‘woke’ liberals patronise their shops, bars and restaurants, than having their children protest on behalf of the oppressed. The great thing about a cultures food, art, music, clothing and literature, is that it can often be leveraged into economic opportunity for those most in need of it.

      • Jeremiah says

        Did you read the article. The university was in the process of creating an inter disciplinary black studies program. The stickibg point was whether or not AAS extremists could use a completely autonomous black studies department to hand select uber radicals while the administration wanted a black studies program led by professors selected for serious intellectual achievements not their commitment to a radical separatist system.

        Cornell didnt have enough black students to realistically sustain a full black studies department yet. They were only then getting any significant number of black students after the Presidebt they hated so much began to use selective enrollment prefetences to increase the amount of black students

        Any sane person would recognize that Cornell was at this point run by committed pro diversity progressives. This was no battlr between reactionsry right wing administrators and progressive black students. This was between a commited pro diversity progressives administration and outright radical edtremsits who rejected the basic tenets of liberalism.

        Conservatives (much less reactionary racist conservatives) played essential zero role in this situation.

  3. Chip says

    I look at that picture and see open carry patriots ensuring the people’s freedom from a tyrannical state.

    • hail to none says

      Yes, a facile analogy. So, even taking your argument that they are equivalent, are you in favor of their tactics or not?

    • johnhenry says


      LMAO !

      I first saw that acronym (LMAO) in hard print on page 28 (column 2) of the June 8th edition of The Economist, and I thank you for the chance you’ve given me to use it.

    • Stephanie says

      Chip, would be true, if they weren’t the ones acting like tyrants, and they had an actual grievance against the state.

    • GregS says

      As I stated above. “Open carry” does not give one the right to brandish a weapon. What they are doing is called “Improper Exhibition of a Firearm” and in most states is punishable by up to a year in prison.

    • j'accuse says

      Carrying a rifle is not ‘brandishing’ which is displaying a firearm in a threatening manner as if you intend to use it to commit a violent act. In the US firearm laws differ in every state and it wouldn’t surprise me if some do require long guns carried in public to be in cases. It is perfectly legal in my state to open carry any rifle or handgun but to carry concealed you need a permit.

      • GregS says

        Carrying a rifle is not ‘brandishing’ which is displaying a firearm in a threatening manner as if you intend to use it to commit a violent act

        The photo above clearing illustrates what the word brandishing means.

        It is perfectly legal in my state to open carry any rifle or handgun but to carry concealed you need a permit

        Clintonesque language will not save you here. I suggest you test your theory by carrying an uncased weapon on the nearest urban street. Good luck.

  4. Barney Doran says

    This would never happen today in one of our ‘elite’ universities. Administrators now have gladly turned the keys over to the students and support, if not lead, any left wing protest arising within the academy. This might be because many of the professors in these schools today were probably active SDSers (or worse) in the day and couldn’t be happier than this leftward turn of events since the fall of the cherished Soviet Union. BTW, the article mentions the fading of the SDS from relevance. This was because it was revealed it had been totally infiltrated by the CIA and FBI. Choose your enemies carefully.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Barney Doran

      We can be fairly confident the FBI has infiltrated the Antifa, today.

  5. Marc Domash says

    The author states:

    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.

    The Paris student riots of 1968 were also in this time period, which the author does not mention. I think the author needs to be reminded of the Jefferson quote “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Anytime a political system does not address underlying concerns (such as racism or an unpopular foreign war), mass demonstrations and violence are likely to ensue. The adjustment to a new equilibrium (which may or may not be better) is rarely without disruption.

    • Mr. Gear says

      @ Marc Domash
      It’s a fair point that disruption, and sometimes even violence is inevitable when a government refuses (or is unable) to address important problems, but in this case it seems that the political anger of AAS and SDS was entirely disproportionate and directed at the wrong institution. It was not (and still isn’t) Cornell’s fault that there are racial biases in America, and it appears from the article that even in the 60s Cornell was already a remarkably liberal institution. As such, political violence directed against its administration was unjustified, misdirected, and possibly irreparably damaging to both the University and academia in general.

      • Marc Domash says

        There is a theory in political science (and in de Tocqueville’s writings on the origins of the French revolution) that those who are most oppressed are not those who are most destitute or marginalized, but those who are one (or more) steps above that and for whom the future looks even better. In market economy terms, you need some capital to start a company. Members of the AAS doubtlessly had it easier than most African-Americans (though they were young enough to have experienced Jim Crow (the South) or legal discrimination (the rest of the country)). And they took it out on what was at hand (Cornell). Were there worse injustices? Of course. So we have not the most oppressed attacking not the worst institution.

        One might consider the case of Thomas W. Jones, who was a leader of the takeover and twenty-five years later head of TIAA! He obviously learned something more than black power slogans at Cornell (such as how to succeed in a heavily white society). Or, to take a case more dear to many Americans, consider how George Washington would be portrayed in our history books had the American Revolution failed. Violence is unpredictable and rarely optimal but it occurs on a regular basis.

        • neoteny says

          <>One might consider the case of Thomas W. Jones<>

          Thank you for this tidbit; it is indeed instructional.

        • Mr. Gear says

          I guess it makes sense that they were just attacking the institution that was readily available, but that doesn’t make it right (both in the sense of morally right and strategically effective) or change the fact that the unintended consequences of their action (making universities more partisan and inflaming the reactionary right) have caused a lot of damage to our civic culture. The one place where it seems the students’ criticism of Cornell was valid was the disinvestment movement, the universities actually WERE profiting from the apartheid government, and by applying pressure to them the students got the meaningful change they wanted, instead of new rules and departments that do very little to alleviate racism.

        • Charlie says

          Unemployed lawyers caused the French Revolution . Younger sons of the merchants and aristocracy who became lawyers harboured feelings of spite and resentment towards the wealthier members of their family. In the UK younger sons entered the RN, lesser regiments, became merchants and work overseas and were expected to use the education they had received to better themselves. In France , the younger sons hanged around the home towns or moved to Paris and lived off meagre family allowances and being unable to live in style associated with the family name. One coverts what one sees but cannot have. The poor cousin often resents the wealthy more than those born and living in poverty because they understand what they do not have.

    • Elliot Neaman says

      the blood of tyrants? really?
      University administrators? This is the insane and dangerous kind of left wing nonsense that gave us all the horrors of the twentieth century. Remember Pol Pot who wanted to get rid of all “intellectuals?”

    • Sean Leith says

      Be thankful that someone dare to speak the truth.

  6. markbul says

    Not mentioned: the black students involved were affirmative action choices. They were far below their white fellow students in both achievement and intelligence, and often found themselves lost in the classroom. How would you feel? Resentful? Knowing that you just couldn’t cut it? Of course they wanted a special black-only department. Would black professors really flunk them out of school? And better still, how many white students would enroll in the classes and compete with them?

    • Sean Leith says

      Mr. Gear, I challenge you to find a single black society that advanced human civilization in even a small tangible way, just one.

      • Kevin Herman says

        He will dodge the question by saying it’s too racist to even consider or bring up a popular black myth like Egypt.

  7. Tom Shen says

    When I was a college freshman in 1970, they had a 10,000 person march against the Vietnam War at my school. I would be surprised if more than a quarter of those marching actually gave a tinkers’ damn about the war. Most were protesting because it was “cool”, and a romantic image of being a rebel; also a good opportunity to scream obscenities, maybe do some vandalism or shoplifting, etc/, all for the “cause”. Thus the dilemma: If the local college and town authorities showed a little backbone and dealt with the mob, most would just go back to being smug students, concentrating on their grades, weed, and hooking up. However, the remaining true believers would decide to up their game, resulting in real violence and destruction.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Tear gas those protesters! Freedom of assembly is for losers. How dare anybody protest who isn’t ready to die for the cause, right? Maybe when the police dogs are done with the blackies we can sic them on those damned hippies.

      And you probably shit yourself when somebody suggests that Nazis shouldn’t be allowed to post on FB, you sorry hypocrite.

      • Heike says

        It’s really strange to read the article and find that the Left was so strongly in favor of free speech. Whoda thunk it? Today’s Left is solidly associated with censorship and free speech is a curse word. How to explain this 180 degree turn?

        Easy: they took advantage of free speech because it was according to our values. Today they take away free speech because it is according to their values.

  8. Kevin Herman says

    I must admit I laughed when the author talked about the white students and faculty enjoying there “punishment” and that enraging the black radicals. It’s almost a perverse comedy skit. It’s one thing to empathize with a groups struggle but to blame yourself for something you had no part in to the point that you feel you deserve some kind of punishmet? And enjoy it? That’s some sort of mental illness.

    • Nate says

      The entire theatre of Leftism is a comedic farce

  9. Colonel of Truth says

    @ Amin
    “White guilt? So why didn’t it kick in to prevent this right from the start?”

    White guilt didn’t “kick in” because it was a different time – holding earlier generations to our current ethical standards is a common conceit of the Left. By the same token, why have most countries, especially developing nations, failed to acknowledge the sins of their past?

    And the Civil Rights movement was successful because of its adherence to nonviolence, not because of the actions of a few violent extremists.

    • Amin says

      @ Colonel of Truth

      “White guilt didn’t “kick in” because it was a different time”

      Of course it was. In the US blacks didn’t have the same rights as whites. You do realize we are speaking of that era don’t you? In this situation large part of blame lay with the universities for not resolving the situation wisely. And it still lies with them – for appeasement and actually being largely adherent to idiotic ideology. Fels takes that out of the equation, completely.

  10. johnhenry says

    The author, Tony Fels, is Professor Emeritus, as seems to be the general rule when it comes to academics who eventually decide to speak up against things they finally decide to speak up against. Forgive the redundancy. It needed to be repeated.

  11. Sean Leith says

    What the hell Quillette, you deleted my comments for what? I thought political correctness is what you are preaching, or is it? Shame on you!

  12. johnhenry says

    Sean Leith:

    Usually when websites ban you, there’s a message to that effect. I’ve been banned from several and they’ve always paid me that courtesy. Otherwise, it’s best to first consider whether you’ve typed something that was technically irreproducible. Whatever. Plenty of fish. Plenty of sea.

  13. Pingback: Open Thread, 06/25/2019 – Gene Expression

  14. Nakatomi Plaza says

    It takes an incredible capacity for self-serving revisionism to remove this event from its historical context. The Civil Rights Act was only 5 years old. Vietnam had become a complete disaster and the draft was a huge driver of discontent. MLK had been murdered the year before.

    And the racist comments on here? Damn, guys. You’re just sowing the seeds for more revolt with your ignorance and hatred. Then again, maybe that’s the idea, eh? Oh, to go back to the 1950s when blacks knew their place and women knew to just shut up while the white guys talk.

    • Macca says

      Thoughtful commentary and an open discussion of controversial ideas (including those I disagree with) is why I come to Quilette. A beacon of free thought and open discourse, where many other sites have shut down their comments sections.

      Insults and derogatory name calling say more about yourself than anyone could here. You make some good points worth discussing – unfortunately they get lost in the hyperbole.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Nakatomi

      Great comment on the broader historical context, less so in your second paragraph. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you politically, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are racist or sexist. The fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals, in the way they see the world is that liberals care more about social issues and conservatives care more about economic issues- so when you see a MAGA hat, you may well see a clan hood, but when they see one it evokes a period of economic opportunity (not to mention job security) that was far more prevalent in the past, than exists in an era of (admittedly well-paid) contract work and the gig economy.

      And yes, before you say it, I am perfectly aware that the economic opportunities of the Reagan and Clinton eras, existed more for some, than for others. If Democrats really want to start winning over independents, libertarians and even some conservatives to their side, they really should start talking about freezing federal, state and local expenditure on personnel (apart from COLA), and find ways of allocating that labour in ways that results in less government intrusion, regulatory cost burdens and bureaucratic rent-seeking and providing more services that the market doesn’t want to provide, but people nonetheless value. You could even use the money saved to pay high-performing teachers better. Plus, it’s worth noting that total PSW’s as a percentage of total employment in the US really is quite low, at around 17%.

      The most popular government institution in Sweden is the Tax Office, because when you go to their website you get to see exactly how your taxes are spent. People may grumble about having to pay a fee, when they rent out their house through Airbnb- but less so when they find out the fee is used to run a background check, to see whether the person renting their house is a fraudster or arsonist.

      • CAY says

        @ Geary

        As a conservative, I say bravo.

        I don’t mind that we are taxed for things we need or should have. It’s just most of the taxes do not end up where they supposed to – or that we are taxed for something we should have known ahead of time is not going to work.

        Taxes for school supplies – sure / fatter admin pension – hell no.
        Taxes for road repair or infrastructure – great / new bike lanes – ugh no

        (again if you voted for bike lanes – fine but not under the guise that the taxes were for road repairs – if you get my drift)

        I feel like a lot of conservatives are not against all the taxes. It’s just the money is not spent honestly.

    • Za says

      Where do you think egalitarian human rights come from. White men. Were would you like to live? What other society. The mid east islam. No your comfortable and safe nestled in the warm embrace of technology, medicine & rule of law made entirely by white men. You know what we didnt invent. The critical theory that has destroyed your mind and made you hateful person.

  15. Stephanie says

    Eye-opening article. Here I was assuming that there were good reasons for all those university protests. Were they all for such trivial, immature, things? A comment above seems to have the best explanation: kids let in because of affirmative action sensed their own inferiority and thought self-segregating themselves into their own department would make them feel better. It’s hard to imagine black students in the 1960s couldn’t find a legitimate grievance to rally behind.

      • Bill Miller says

        “Radical Chic” is online available. What a preposterous word-salad.
        One of those Black Panthers should have better told him to STFU!

        • neoteny says

          One of those Black Panthers should have better told him to STFU!

          I’m sure there were Black Panthers who told him to STFU — just couldn’t make it stick.

    • Robin (taupepope) says

      Theirs weren’t good reasons but they were significant. AAS wanted to create an enclave and sinecures for themselves/people like them using other people’s resources. They wanted to insulate themselves from offensive economic truths (as pronounced by Dr. McPhelin) and promote their own Studies as a legitimate academic discipline. One could call it a Foucauldian coup as it was an attempt to convert visceral power into power-knowledge relying on the narratives of white guilt and black resistance.

  16. Peter from Oz says

    It’s interesting to see that the authorities back then were just as spineless as those in American colleges now.
    The left loves violence. They believe that if anyone resorts to violence it must be proof that his cause is just, for why else would one break all social conventions unless one was really aggrieved.

    • Photondancer says

      As mentioned in a post up thread, there’s a lot of conformity going on. Reminds me of when I first started looking at SJW blogs: they were all saying ‘fuck’ all the time, apparently under the impression this demonstrated how cool and yet serious they were. Even breaking a minor speech convention seems very exciting to these people.

      Of course what it’s really demonstrating is how bourgeois they are.

      • Kencathedrus says

        @Photondancer: completely agree. In fact, the more expletives a comment or article contains the less likely it is to have a positive impact on me. My mother always told me that swear words were usually evidence of low intellect. Of course, there are situations that really do warrant good curse words now and then.

  17. At a certain point in our history, actual civic engagement became confused with protesting. All reasonable adults are expected to cheer enthusiastically when the young act out and “make demands” — demands whose only real power lies in the adult’s susceptibility to intimidation and guilt.

  18. bob goodwin says

    I went to Cornell 77-80. The question that should always be asked about the events is what is the longer term outcome. I was not there during the protests, but saw the aftermath. In fact I took a year at Dartmouth before Cornell, and the contrast was obvious. Neither race nor war are small issues, and of course they would spill onto campus life. Students are still adolescent, so do stupid things. Ivy league universities are jealous of their reputations. It was a toxic brew that hurt Cornell meaningfully.

    Cornell is an Ivy, but at the bottom of the stack. Unlike the best Ivies, which are more selective at entrance, Cornell in the last 70s flunked a lot of kids out. Suicide rates were very high. The tension on campus at the time was noticeably higher at Cornell than Dartmouth. But because of the campus ‘riots’ (as we called them) there was a much larger distance between the professors and the students. At Dartmouth, Professors would joke in lectures, and have back yard barbeques. The professors felt a bond a responsibility for the students. At Cornell things were much colder, I often sensed that professors feared students. Given the violence, loss of institutional process and loss of reputation, I think this is a fair assumption.

    I was outgoing and a little mischievous myself. At one point we discovered the old Tree trunk that had been in front of Willard Straight hall, while speakers stood on and proselytized. It was found in a dump, and we brought it back onto campus. I saw the horror in the campus polices eyes, as they did nothing to stop us from bringing (and keeping) this pest ridden rotting stump back into a campus building. There was a large campus demonstration in 1977, that mostly dealt with the fact that the skies were grey, and weeks were long, and the semester calendar compacted studies into too long a period without a break. Students on the verge of flunking out were the most expressive leaders of this gaggle of students that grew into a parade that marched on the presidents house.

    Nobody stopped us. Nobody addressed us. Nobody mentioned anything. They did add another vacation week in the fall the following year. But they just wanted us to go away. The following Monday, classes proceeded with cold dispatch, and the students resumed grinding away to see if they could salvage their ivy dreams.

    The 70s were a time of high inflation and the oil crisis. After Vietnam the countries confidence was low. Professors were not well paid then, and campus repairs and upgrades were put on hold. It was an unquestionably beautiful campus, that was falling apart at the edges. The professors were fighting for their own ivy dreams, and holding on by even fewer fingernails than the students. None could afford a scandal. Cornell had capitulated to student demands a mere 8 years before at Willard Straight. Professors just disengaged from students, and this was a loss for the University.

    The black students on campus had become completely segregated from the white students. The only black students I knew were the same ones that we attended prep school with. A special summer program was created for them to help them bridge the educational gap with the white students before freshman year, but it didn’t matter. They lived in different dorms and took different classes. The idealistic hopes of reintegration through education had been undermined through the best of intentions.

    Cornell is very different today. 40 years is a long time ago. The school is less of a grind, better integrated, and has healthy relationships across all stake holders. The education is (and was) first rate, and I am proud to have been part of all of this. But there were costs to the student riots. Cornell, its teachers and its students were all hurt for years.

  19. dave says

    aside from the casually held guns, what i found striking in the pic is the difference in girth between students then and students now.

    • Morgan Foster says


      Even the cops were less obese back then.

  20. BT Justice says

    I’m grateful that this takeover prompted Allan Bloom to write The Closing of the American Mind, the best book I ever read.

  21. Pat Narcisi says

    I wish I could forget it and recall the losses caused by my idiotic left turn into the scrub.

  22. cc says

    Some things just never change…spineless university administrators & black activist bullies…

    That said, my husband was at Harvard during this period and experienced riots, etc. In hindsight, this generation was a rather lost (and pathetic one); there’s a Red Book that Harvard alums contribute to and receive every five years…I flip through it when it arrives…and the tales of not just woe but of really ‘wandering-in-the-wilderness’ is tragic. Which makes me think about the new round of ‘woke’ activism that’s being inflicted on the country now – I say, have it – but these BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) should realize it never turns out like you think; discipline, performance and hard work are what makes anyone succeed in the end and that has to be acquired by the individualize – BIG GOVERNMENT can only give you so much. The only reason why students who majored in ‘Black Studies’ have jobs today is because the ‘Diversity Counselor’ industry has been formed…which in essence is just another shakedown of the culture at large.

  23. Carl Smith says

    I guess I may well be the oldest contributor on this site but I MUST admit that when I was in my 20’s (50’s) I was one of the Smartest SOB’s on the Planet. Wisdom sometimes comes with age and realizing True Wisdom is knowing we know NOTHING–Socrates. The unrest in America today is in my opinion the result of a 100 years of fascination with Socialism and Equal Outcomes in results measured by a particular Ideology. History can Never and will Never be changed by destroying history itself. America is a unique nation Founded by Geniuses, being administered by Morons, elected by ill or Un- Informed voters whose attention span is demonstrated by thier inability to stay focused past a 15 second Sound Byte. Now add that to people wanting Fame and Control espousing Ideas so Absurd only Intellectuals can believe them and we are heading for the Perfect Storm. Destroying our Constitution for WANTING a different Outcome will lead to our becoming MORE of a Bannana Republic than we already are.

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