Matthew F. McHugh was serving as Tompkins County district attorney at the time of the Straight Takeover. He played a key role in helping to guide the response to the situation on campus from downtown authorities, in consultation with University officials. Subsequently, McHugh oversaw a grand jury investigation of the takeover, which led to misdemeanor convictions against several of the black students involved.
After serving as county district attorney from 1969 to 1972, McHugh was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and served nine terms until January 1993. McHugh was interviewed on March 31 by Barton Reppert ’70, managing editor of The Sun at the time of the April 1969 campus unrest.
The Sun: After the black students occupied the Straight, to what extent and in what ways were you involved in consultations with Cornell officials or others regarding what to do about the situation?
McHugh: Well, after the building was taken over, by early Saturday morning, at some point later that day the Mayor [Jack Kiely] contacted me. He established in his office downtown a group of law enforcement types, who met on a regular basis and were in touch with the people at Cornell. The people downtown, as I recall, included the mayor and myself as district attorney, a representative of the New York State Police in that region, the sheriff of Tompkins County, a representative of the City Police and the police commissioner. We met on a regular basis to communicate with Cornell, in view of what was going on, and make decisions about what was appropriate in terms of law enforcement. … The contacts were primarily by phone with the Cornell authorities, like [Provost] Dale Corson, [Vice President for Public Affairs] Steve Muller and people like that.
Sun: What course of action did you yourself recommend — and how did it compare with recommendations offered by other officials, both at Cornell and downtown?
M.M.: I think the general feeling on the part of our group was that to the extent possible, we wanted to avoid a direct confrontation between the police and the students — and to the extent possible, allow Cornell to manage this problem without the risk of violence. At the same time, we were very conscious of our responsibility, by the mayor and the police, to protect public safety. And so we needed to monitor the situation carefully, to be sure that public safety was not at risk and did not require the introduction of police forces. In order to be prepared for any eventuality, we had to mobilize police forces in the event they were needed. After the students introduced guns into the situation, that significantly escalated the risk, from our point of view. And therefore, among other things, there were police agencies brought in from outside of Tompkins County to bolster the police presence in town.
Sun: Amid the crisis at Cornell, how close did it come to outside police being deployed on the campus?
M.M.: It’s hard to quantify, but we brought these police in as a way of being capable of dealing with the situation, if it became worse — and by that I mean if there were more direct threats to public safety by the introduction of guns by students. But there was a very strong desire, certainly on the part of the Cornell officials, but also on the part of our group downtown, not to use police unless it was absolutely necessary. Because clearly there could have been a lot of people hurt or killed. So we were in a position where we were responsible for being prepared, and therefore having these police available, but also a constant desire to allow the Cornell people to try to negotiate this thing out. Fortunately, they ultimately succeeded.
Sun: On balance, do you believe the University community was well served by not sending outside law enforcement officers onto the campus?
M.M.: Yes, because the risk would have been great that people could have been hurt or killed.
Sun: Cornell Safety Division officers stationed in the Straight parking lot witnessed black students bringing rifles and shotguns, in carrying cases, from cars into the rear entrance of the Straight, but they did not stop them. Do you believe that the officers should have taken action — including seizure of the weapons — to prevent the black students inside the building from arming themselves?
M.M.: Yes. I never understood why the campus police did not attempt to seize these guns when they were being brought in — or at least determine what was being carrying in. First of all, there had been crimes committed, initially when the parents were forcibly removed from their quarters in Willard Straight. That was a crime — coercion, which is felony under New York law. Then, of course, the building was seized and controlled by the students, which was a violation, trespass. So the campus police had authority to act under these circumstances, but chose not to. I’m not quite sure why they chose not to. Maybe they felt they were not capable of doing it. I don’t know. But in any case, it was a mistake, in my opinion to permit guns to be brought into the situation.
Sun: Looking back now, how would you assess the agreement which senior Cornell officials reached with the black students, and the stipulations which the students insisted upon — including amnesty for the occupation and permission for them to carry their weapons with them as they exited the building — as conditions for their leaving the Straight?
M.M.: I think it was a big mistake, number one, to permit students to come out of that building with guns. That inflamed the Cornell community. I can tell you that it inflamed people throughout the country and around the world. It was the cover of Newsweek, [the photo of black students] coming out of the building with those guns. That should never have been agreed to. And I’ll tell you, I got a lot of calls and contacts from people around the country about this situation, because they saw those pictures of the students coming out with guns. In terms of amnesty, that was a matter for Cornell to decide, with respect to amnesty on campus. But that certainly did not affect my responsibilities as district attorney in prosecuting crimes that had been committed.
Sun: Although the black students who occupied the Straight were not punished by the University’s judicial system, several of them did face action by courts downtown. Do you believe that these legal proceedings constituted sufficient legal action against the violators?
M.M.: It was clear that crimes had been committed. That’s why we undertook a grand jury investigation. And I presented the cases to the grand jury. The problem was that the primary witnesses were the parents themselves, who had been forcibly removed by the students from their quarters [in guest rooms at the Straight]. But the parents, in many if not most cases, had a hard time identifying who did what when. It was clear that these students who occupied the building had participated in the crimes. But when it got down to people identifying individuals, it was very confusing. The parents didn’t know these people. They were awakened from their sleep. They were forced out quickly, in their nightclothes in many cases. So when they came to testify, even in the grand jury there was some confusion as to who individually could be identified. But there was enough to charge some of the individuals with certain offenses, even if they couldn’t establish everything. These cases were ultimately transferred to the City Court for prosecution because the best that could be done with respect to the witnesses was criminal trespass, rather than felonies. … So ultimately there were convictions in City Court. One could say, well, they weren’t sufficiently harsh or sufficiently strong convictions, compared to what was done. And that’s probably true. But at least there were some convictions. My recollection is that they were given probation or suspended sentences. … Ultimately the disposition of these cases was reasonable in the sense that the justice system worked.
Sun: President James Perkins and other senior Cornell officials were heavily criticized — particularly by some members of the faculty — for appearing to capitulate to pressure tactics by the black students as well as other militant students mobilized by the Students for a Democratic Society. On balance, to what extent do you believe these allegations were justified? Why or why not?
M.M.: In terms of whether they handled it properly or were too easy with the students, I don’t know. That’s a Cornell question. It wasn’t my business, in a sense. I was interested, like everybody else. I can see arguments on both sides. The fundamental thing is that this was the first instance, at least at Cornell, of this kind of volatile situation. It’s clear that they had not thought this kind of circumstance through in advance. … There was a real sense among some faculty members that the administration had simply been weak and capitulated, and that the integrity of the University was compromised in the process. … Perkins had to resign. Those who were left had the job of somehow trying to get things back to a stable situation. So it’s easy to second-guess those officials, who were under enormous pressure from both sides and had the responsibility of bringing things back to normal. I would hesitate to criticize the University people, even though I think the black students, regardless of whatever legitimate concerns they had, went beyond what was reasonable. … I think that if the University officials had decided to take a tougher line with respect to the students, that kind of stance would have been justified too. I can see it either way. So I’m hesitant, under the circumstances they had to deal with, to be critical of them. But I certainly believe that what the black students did was excessive and could have justified tougher treatment.
Sun: In its March-April issue, Cornell Alumni Magazine quotes Tom Jones ’69, MRP ’72, one of the leaders of the Afro-American Society at the time of the Straight takeover, as saying: “Frankly, I do not think Barack Obama would be president today without what we did in Willard Straight Hall in 1969. I believe Barack Obama stands on our shoulders. The Straight was part of a series of historical events that began with Rosa Parks in 1955 and continued through the sixties with the Freedom Riders and the marchers at Selma, Alabama, and made possible this magnificent thing that happened in Januay 2009. I think we’re part of a chain of history. I’m not saying the most important part, but we’re one of the links.” To what extent would you say that you agree or disagree with Jones?
M.M: I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I think it’s a stretch to associate the takeover of Willard Straight Hall with Rosa Parks. I realize he’s not saying they are commensurate. But I think it’s a stretch to say that what happened on the Cornell campus was very significant in terms of the progress that the country has made over many years in race relations. I think the Cornell incident was a manifestation of the tensions on race in those days. But in terms of what happened and its impact on the progress of race relations, I don’t think it’s very significant.