What constitutes a revolution? How does one decide whether a life-changing moment has changed the world as well? 40 years after the fact, Cornell is still struggling to answer that question. The Straight Takeover of 1969 is considered by many to be one of our University’s darkest and most perilous days, and the events that precipitated from the takeover of Willard Straight Hall nearly brought Cornell down along with it. The University eventually emerged strong from these events, and today Cornell is one of the most prominent colleges in the world. But the question remains: was the takeover key in bringing the University into a new era of racial equality, or was it a stain on Cornell’s storied past?
As we commemorate 40 years since the takeover, these questions have never been more important. Cornell has made strides in bringing about racial equality at Cornell, but the percentage of minority students at the University has fluctuated greatly since the ’60s. With the election of the first black president of the United States, some say the world is moving towards greater racial equality, but can Cornell claim the same thing?
The takeover stemmed from diverging ideologies that prevailed in the ’60s. As liberalism reigned on college campuses nationwide, Cornell was a breeding ground for such progressive thought. The University’s academics sought to address practical problems facing the world, unrestrained by codes or censures on speech. But as the concurrent movement for racial justice aimed to make institutions of higher education bastions of Utopian equality, the two creeds clashed.
The crisis that ensued — from the takeover of the economics department, to the Straight Takeover, to the Barton Hall Community — gained national attention as Cornell became embroiled by the polarizing conflict. But was the barrier between academic freedom and racial justice ever broken? Was there a middle ground that could help steer the future of academia?
Did the revolt by the Afro-American Society trigger a turning point in Cornell’s history? No. Rather, the iconic image of the militant students toting firearms became a symbol of changes already taking root. It is easy to overlook the tumult as a historic protest, but issues underlying demand more discussion than what is brought to the table every 10 years as a symbolic commemoration.
Why do we revisit the Spring of ’69 every 10 years? By doing so, we run the risk of oversimplifying the complex issues surrounding the takeover. This supplement seeks to provide a more comprehensive look at the issues facing us today, in addition to the events as they unfolded in 1969. Writers examine whether there is more academic freedom now than there was in the ’60s and whether students are more involved in University governance. We also explore what steps Cornell has taken to prevent future takeovers and the legacy of the Pulitzer-prize-winning Associated Press photo of the takeover. People involved with the takeover have also given their input, attempting to put the events in the context of their time period, and the whole of American history.