Rummaging through some old college notebooks from a box in the attic the other day, I came upon a protest flyer from my senior year at Iona College, in New Rochelle, New York. It was May of 1970, and I was weeks away from graduating. “ON STRIKE” the flyer proclaims.
I lifted it to my face for a whiff of the familiar purple smell of the mimeograph ink, but the scent had long-since faded, much as the memory of that year has receded into our collective national unconscious of that fateful time.
But the flyer brought rushing back the angst that roiled American campuses 46 years ago this spring. Just eight months earlier, in September of 1969, Lt. William Calley had been charged with leading his platoon in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians—including women and children—in the village of My Lai the previous year. That atrocity surely did not reflect the actions of most American troops in Vietnam; but in the virulent outrage that resulted, many in the anti-war movement unjustly vilified all American soldiers as “baby killers.” It got that ugly.
Three months later, in December of 1969, President Richard Nixon reinstituted a draft lottery. Nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were serving in
Southeast Asia and nearly 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese had been killed. Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon went on television to announce to a weary nation that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crossed into Cambodia to launch preemptive strikes against North Vietnamese supply lines. He also declared the need to draft 150,000 additional men. This escalation of the war provoked mass protests across American campuses. Days later, on May 4, twenty-eight national guardsmen opened fire at an unarmed crowd of protesters on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were shot dead.
The news stunned the nation: for the first time in our history, American students were being killed by American troops on an American college campus. In response, colleges all over the country erupted in furious protests. Hundreds shut down or canceled classes as students went on strike. On campuses across the nation, ROTC buildings were set ablaze and students clashed with police and National Guard units. Within weeks, Neil Young’s song “Ohio” blared from radios across the land, stoking the flames of outrage:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio
On May 14, just ten days after the Kent State shootings, without warning police shot dead two students during a protest at the all-black Jackson State University, in Mississippi. That unprovoked attack garnered comparatively little national attention. Some blacks complained at the time that maybe black lives didn’t count as much as white ones. This grievance sounds eerily familiar today.
On the whole, college campuses in 2016 are very different places from what they were in 1970. They are communities where political correctness and nurturing of perceived slights prevail. A far cry from the university as a place to broaden one’s perspectives, American campuses have become bastions of intolerance for opposing points of view. Just ask Condoleeza Rice or the growing number of other controversial figures who have been disinvited to speak on college campuses because some group or other is offended by their role or viewpoint. Or ask Erika Christakis, a former lecturer at Yale who resigned in the face of student protests over her suggestion that perhaps they might themselves be better suited than the administration to decide what Halloween costumes they should wear. Ask the college professors who are required to give “trigger warnings” when they are about to broach a topic that may provoke unease or trauma in any of their students. Assigning a reading of The Great Gatsby or Hamlet without trigger warnings about their possibly disturbing issues of physical violence or dysfunctional families would be considered a “microaggression” against vulnerable and unsuspecting students—college students, mind you. Or ask the professors in Texas and the seven other states that allow students to carry concealed weapons on public campuses what the impact is likely to be on free and open expression of ideas or on grade inflation.
Yet, as spring approaches in 2016, the most enduring protests on American college campuses are those over issues of persistent racial tensions. Nearly 46 years after the killings of American students at Kent State and Jackson State, numerous incidents of black men killed by police in the streets of American cities have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has galvanized minority student protests. Beginning at the University of Missouri over the slow response of administrators to a series of racist incidents, the protests and their demands for equality have spread to campuses across the land.
But just as the vast majority of American soldiers in Vietnam were not “baby killers,” most American police officers do not shoot young black men in our streets. The truth is that police lives matter too, white lives matter, Latino lives matter. All lives deserve respect. Still, time after time, black men—often unarmed—are killed at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace. The point of the protests is that black lives matter too, and enough is enough.
Perhaps, then, some progress has been made in the spirit of dissent on our campuses amid what seems at times a national regression. The Black Lives Matter movement is a protest that speaks for its time. In the midst of an indulgent culture of trigger warnings on campus, it seems heartening that some college students today are clamoring for justice and equality, demands that echo the high moral ground of bringing an end to an unjust war and the killings of innocent students. Such protests are today what my generation’s reaction to the killings at Kent State was—a defining moment, a time to take a stand on what you believe in. As Neil Young would put it,
What if you knew [them]
And found [them] dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?