Sunday, August 7, 2011

Trinity College and Student Unrest, 1964-1969

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 8.5
Trinity College, Junior Year 1967-1968

Trinity, Demonstrations and Student Unrest.
The sixties were a turbulent period on most college campuses, and Trinity was no exception. As a member in good standing of the "Little Ivy League," Trinity had a good academic reputation, but for all that, it was known more as a party school than a haven for disaffected intellectuals.  Before the 1960's, Trinity had been a relatively quiet place where most students focused either on getting good grades or finding good parties.  For most students, a road trip was a much more likely weekend diversion than a political demonstration.  Even after the first stirrings of student unrest began as the Vietnam War escalated, Trinity remained a conservative school at its base, and it was not in the forefront of the student movement, unlike places like Columbia or Berkeley.

An Intemperate Protest.
It might be considered appropriate, therefore, that Trinity's first demonstration of the 1960's was not over the rights of downtrodden minorities or the Vietnam War. It was instead a virtual riot against Trinity College's President, Dr. Albert Jacobs, who in the fall of 1964 had very ill-advisedly banned liquor at fraternity and college mixers. Shortly after the shocking news spread among the student body, about 300 irate fratboys gathered in front of the President's House chanting “We Shall Overcome!,” “We want booze!,” and “Transfer!” Jacobs eventually backed off from his anti-alcohol pronunciamento and campus life returned to normal, i.e., to non-stop partying on the weekends.

The Bad Food Saga.
In 1965, just before I arrived for my Freshman Year, there was a demonstration of a similar sort, this time against the truly execrable food served in the college cafeteria at Mather Hall. Students boycotted the cafeteria, which was run by a dubious outfit known as “Saga Food Service,” until the Dean of Administration, Leonard Tomat, received promises from Saga that food quality would improve. By the time I got there, people were again using the cafeteria, but I usually preferred the Cave, a snack bar that was also in Mather Hall, or one of the many fast food restaurants, like Friendly's or ABC Pizza, that surrounded the college. Later on, as an upperclassman, I was able to eat at Hamlin Hall.  I found the food there even worse than Mather Hall's pedestrian fare, improbable as that may seem.

Anti-War Demonstrations.
Trinity entered the era of political awareness in 1965 with the first stirrings of student protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment of a chapter of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in 1966. From the beginning, as a person who took a very conservative line on foreign policy, I was not in sympathy with the Vietnam protestors.  Their demonstrations were pretty feeble in any case when compared to those on other campuses. I did, however, observe the demonstrations and speeches just out of curiosity. For example, when Carl Oglesby, the SDS national President, spoke at Trinity in February 1966, I attended.  I was not particularly impressed. My own feeling was that, despite the idealistic student declarations of the time, the overwhelming majority of students were more concerned about getting drafted than they were about our policy in Vietnam. Truth be told, I doubt if many of them could have even found Vietnam on a map. This feeling on my part was borne out by the history of the anti-war movement at Trinity, which rose and fell to the degree that students were getting drafted after college. With the beginning of the draft lottery in December 1969, and the end of the draft itself in 1973, the driving force behind student activism ceased. Trinity’s SDS chapter closed down in 1970.

Sleepwalking Through History.
I was not politically active while at college, and in many ways I walked around in a comforting cocoon of non-involvement in campus political and social life. I wanted to keep my privacy, and was getting more enthusiastic about my studies, and that was enough for me. All the same, however, even I participated in some activities. In Sophomore Year, I joined the Revitalization Corps, a kind of domestic Peace Corps that did social work in the poorer areas of Hartford and New Haven. Paradoxically, at around the same time I also briefly toyed with the idea of joining the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom. I decided against the latter, however, after concluding that the organization was not particularly effective or rational. Instead, I oscillated between the Young Republicans and Young Democrats, and eventually gave up on both.

In 1968, I did become a strong supporter of Senator Gene McCarthy, although it was less for his anti-war rhetoric than for his erudite, soft-spoken and matter-of-fact style of campaigning. It helped that he was more a poet than a politician. Prior to the March 12 New Hampshire primary Senator McCarthy was speaking all over New England and I joined a group of Trinity students to greet him at Bradley Airport where he held an impromptu rally. He gave his usual calm and reasoned speech – hardly a stem winder, but everyone was enthused about him anyway. McCarthy ran so well in New Hampshire that President Johnson was persuaded not to run for re-election. Later, a rumor circulated around Trinity that many of the people in New Hampshire who had voted for Gene McCarthy had actually thought that they were voting for the late Senator Joe McCarthy. I normally wouldn't put anything past the American electorate, but this seemed a bit far-fetched.

I also attended other political and civil rights meetings, and was particularly inspired by a speech given by civil rights activist Julian Bond at the Krieble Auditorium. Bond’s speech occurred in December, after the Presidential election, but it nonetheless occurred to me that he might someday be Presidential material, and there was a lot of talk about the possibility in those years.

Scholarships for “Negroes.”
Trinity's first and only true civil rights demonstration of any size took place on April 23-24, 1968, when 168 students briefly blockaded the trustees in their meeting room at Williams Memorial and demanded $150,000 in Trinity College scholarships for inner city African-Americans, or “Negroes,” as they were called in those days. The demonstration had been preceded by widespread outrage at the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. There were massive riots in several American cities, and disorders on many college campuses. At Trinity itself, one of the more left-wing faculty members, Dr. James Gardner, staged a three-day hunger strike, sitting in a tent on the Quad and proclaiming that he was “bearing witness.” There had also been numerous heated meetings between students, faculty and college administrators, and the general perception had grown among students that the trustees were dragging their feet on real reform in Trinity’s admissions policies, which still favored those who were white and well off.

Typically, even though I lived in Jarvis 27 at the time, which was right on the Quad, and several of my friends participated in the sit-in at Williams Memorial, I was oblivious to its purpose. I thought it was just another anti-war demonstration that had gotten out of hand. Some of my underclassmen friends, however, like Nick Booth, participated in the sit-in and began spouting all kinds of radical jargon. It was as if they had all suddenly gone nuts. I didn’t trouble myself at the time to figure out what all the fuss was about.

As for the demonstration itself, everything was settled amicably.  After a few hours, the trustees were allowed to leave, while the demonstrators continued their sit-in, led by TAN, the Trinity Association of Negroes. I did not know it at the time, but there were only about 20 African-American students at Trinity. They did not move in my circle, and I was not even aware of them. In fact, the only black student I knew was not an African-American, but fellow classmate Ebrima K. “Ebou” Jobarteh, a student from Gambia. I don’t think Ebou knew any of the American black students either. It was a curious situation, to say the least.

SDS strongly supported the sit-in, but not out of great concern over civil rights.  Instead, SDS began maneuvering to use student outrage to boost support for its own activities opposing the Vietnam war.  This culminated in a general meeting at Mather Hall auditorium during which SDS leaders tried to whip up sentiment for more anti-war demonstrations.  I considered the SDS leadership to be self-serving and egotistical, and I think that in the end most of my classmates came to agree with me. In any case, the Williams Memorial sit-in was never allowed to get out of control, and reason prevailed among students, faculty and administrators. In particular, the students soon realized that it was a mistake to blockade the trustees, and so they let them go.  The administration had briefly considered calling in the Hartford police, but in the end decided to de-escalate by using campus security to cordon off the demonstration area.

Eventually, the students called off their sit-in and a scholarship fund was set up – something that had, in fact, already been agreed to before the demonstration had begun. It was suggested initially that the six ringleaders of the protest be expelled, but in the end, after much debate among the students, faculty and trustees, little if anything was done by way of punishment for any of the 168 demonstrators. I would have been for stern measures for the ringleaders, such as expulsion, and lesser penalties for the rest, had I been paying any attention at all, but realism prevailed among those actually charged with making the decision. After all, Trinity ran on money, and expelling students en masse was a sure path to bankruptcy. Reports from local newspapers claimed that Trinity was paralyzed during the two days of demonstrations. If so, I never noticed. My days were the same, and my classes continued as before.

The Hartford Courant, in an editorial, later claimed that the whole demonstration, and especially the blockading of the trustees, was a “harebrained idea” that reflected badly on the students who took part in it. Dr. George Cooper, the head of Trinity's History Department, came closer to the mark, I believe, when he called the protesters “Dude Ranch Moralists” who lacked a real understanding of the issues about which they were demonstrating. While I sympathized with the higher motives of some of the protestors, at the time I couldn’t have agreed with Dr. Cooper more.

In the final analysis, Trinity remained true to its conservative roots. The demonstration of April 23-24 was but a pale reflection of the ferment going on elsewhere in the country, with serious riots in Washington, DC and Baltimore and disturbances on many college campuses. Trinity’s demonstration was in keeping with its pattern of “gentlemanly” dissent throughout the sixties, and a reflection of most students’ real priorities. In the end, far more Trinity students demonstrated against the abortive ban on liquor than ever demonstrated against discrimination or the Vietnam War.  At Trinity, at least, self-interest almost always trumped idealism.

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