March 26, 2009

Student of Straight Takeover Reflects on Cornell Activism

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Correction Appended

This is the second in a series of four interviews with people involved with the Willard Straight Takeover of 1969, in which black students took over the Straight to demand greater equality for minority students at Cornell. The interviews, along with a newspaper supplement and panel discussion in April, will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the takeover.

The takeover had a lasting impact on everyone who was associated with Cornell at the time. For Steve Wallenstein ’69, currently a professor at Duke, he made peace with the event by researching and writing a 600-page manuscript detailing the history of the takeover. The book was never published, but currently has a “cult status among the few Cornellians who know of it,” according to the book, Cornell ‘69. The Sun chatted with Wallenstein about his manuscript, his Cornell experience and his assessment of the takeover.
The Sun: You graduated from Cornell just as racial tensions at Cornell boiled over in the form of the takeover. What was that like?
Steve Wallenstein: Yeah our final exams, I think, were canceled. There were all these things going on on college campuses. Ithaca is very isolated, and Ithaca was in some sense an unlikely place for what happened, given that there may have been 50 blacks on campus, and Ithaca was not a metropolis, and it was just sort of tucked away.
When the black students took over the student union and brought in guns, I think that was sort of over the top. I guess it was a lot of stuff building and things sort of finally took center stage. And, you know, 40 years ago we didn’t even dream of having a black president. I think the black students at Cornell felt particularly out of place, given that there was no community in Ithaca. And I guess the political climate was just crazy.
There were a lot of professors that I was sort of close to in terms of the research, and some of whom were considered fairly right wing. A lot of the government professors were really outraged by the University response. In not pursuing charges and claiming it a victory when the black students left the Straight. Well, Perkins didn’t last, right? He was sort of forced out because of the way he handled the situation
Sun: What was the defining moment of the takeover for you?
S.W.: I think I was outside watching because I was so fascinated. They had encouraged students to stay away. And you could see from a distance the black students walking across the campus with the guns, with the ammunition, that was an amazing moment. It was such a sense of relief that the incident ended without any shots being fired or anyone getting hurt because it was so crazy that they had machine guns.
Sun: When the takeover happened, did it immediately occur to you that this was history in the making?
S.W.: Yeah, sure. It was on the front page of The New York Times.
Sun: What led you to turn your experiences into a book?
S.W.: I was on the faculty committee for student affairs that had disciplined the students [involved with the takeover] from the beginning, and I was intrigued by the reaction of the government department and the resignations of some of the professors who I had a lot of respect for, since I was a government major, so I was trying to figure out why some people reacted the way they did.
And the political climate was just unbelievable. We had Nixon as president. Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. The Vietnam War was going on, people were burning draft cards, and Cornell was a hotbed of that radicalism, with David Burak from [Students for a Democratic Society] and so on. I remember counterculture, pot smoking, the usual.
There was all this stuff going on, and I probably wrote the book because I was trying to sort it out in my own mind. I think I had an oral history grant from the library or something to do oral histories with people that summer. And I think that sparked my interest.
The New Yorker was interested in publishing the book as a two part series. There is an edited version that I can no longer find. It was edited by The New Yorker, and there was all this pressure on The New Yorker not to publish it by Cornell, because Cornell didn’t want all the press. They didn’t want more disdidn’t want all the press. They didn’t want more discussion about it. I was also in graduate school, and then I took some time off to try to finish it. Then I gave up and went to law school.
Sun: Even though the book was never published, it is said to have a cult-following. How many people have seen the manuscript?
S.W.: I think there are probably a fair number. I mean a ‘cult-following’ is cute. What are we taking about, maybe 50-75, people? Not a lot. It’s not like we have secret meetings or anything.
Sun: But there are a lot people who are really into the history of the takeover.
S.W.: I think you’re right, absolutely. I think people were really affected by it. A president resigned, professors resigned. A professor became so depressed that he killed himself over this. He was in the government department, and [he] supported [President James Perkins’ decisions during the takeover] initially, and he received the scorn of a lot of his colleagues. I think that [he] became very isolated and depressed and killed himself.
Sun: So who is this group of takeover followers?
S.W.: I think it’s, you know, a bunch of liberal Jewish kids from New York, for whom SDS was just a little too radical in terms of burning draft cards and going off to live in a commune. But we were sympathetic because of the war and the draft and all of that terrible stuff. And there was this war in Vietnam going on, and they were drafting people really out of college. There’s really nothing like it today.
Sun: So did all of the activism of the ’60s make a difference?
S.W.: Sure.
Sun: What was the most lasting change?
S.W.: I think that it probably had a lot to do with the end of the war in Vietnam and the resignation of Nixon. I think it sort of helped change American foreign policy.
Sun: With the NYU building takeover in January, do you think activism is coming back?
S.W.: As economic times get hard and as jobs become really difficult for people like you, who are graduating –– and the unemployment rates are really high for young people –– it’s usually that sort of thing that drives it and makes a movement out of it. So perhaps we will see more activism.
Sun: Can you tell me about how you put the book together?
S.W.: I had interviewed everybody I could find. I guess I interviewed a lot of people for this oral history project. I was influenced by some of the government professors. I talked to people in the administration. I talked to students.
I guess I had this opinion. I was really sort of skeptical about the way that it was handled and the opportunistic nature of, well, certainly bringing guns. It’s one thing to take over a building, it’s another thing to bring in guns. And then, you say you bring in the guns in self-defense. If you’re afraid you can always leave and get a police escort or something like that. Some of the people like Tom Jones, who were the real leaders of this, who I think are brilliant oratory kind of guys, took advantage of a radicalized situation for their own agenda.
I think it didn’t have to be dealt with this way. The things that were being protested, they were questioning the whole legitimacy of the system and you know, the system had students on it. I think it was a tremendous overreaction to whatever the disciplinary action was, which I don’t recall, but taking over the Straight with guns was certainly a world of excess to the proper reaction.
I was relieved when the book never got published because it wasn’t politically correct. It was going to be a more balanced version of things than just one side. The white student leaders also took advantage of the situation. It was a real power thing; it was way overboard.
Sun: Was this ever said it your manuscript or is this your personal conclusion?
S.W.: That was the conclusion of doing all the research, and the book was skeptical. I was confused. I was 22-23 years old, and I was trying to interpret a reality that I had just lived through, and that I knew was important and so on, but I think in the process of writing it, I didn’t know what to believe.
Sun: So this was more of a personal discovery for yourself than anything else?
S.W.: I think that’s a good way to put it.

Read excerpts of Wallenstein’s book in the Straight Takeover Commemoration Issue to be published on April 16.

This article incorrectly stated the year of the Kent State massacre, which in fact occurred on May 4, 1970. In addition, the article stated that John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated. In fact, Prof. Wallenstein, the subject of the article’s interview, had been referring to the death of Bobby Kennedy, whose assassination had contributed significantly to the context in which the takeover took place.