April 16, 2009

Guarding the Straight as Anarchy Reigns

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Anita Harris ’70 was an undergraduate majoring in English at Cornell during the spring of 1969.

In the Spring of 1969, I was living in the Prospect of Whitby — a small living unit that had been a sorority until it was kicked out of its national chapter for admitting some women of color. I was sort of dating Ed Zuckerman, the editor in chief of The Cornell Daily Sun, and studying creative writing with Prof. James McConkey, who required his students to keep journals. I was also taking a French Lit seminar called “Existentialism and Revolution,” which was one of the first courses offered in Cornell’s fledgling Afro-American studies program. Its students had been specially selected by the professor, Dorothy McCall. Half were white and half were Afro-American, as they were then called. Several of the latter were deeply involved in racial politics and in the Straight Takeover.
Over the course of the semester, I wrote in my journal about escalating tensions on campus with the idea that, one day, I would write a book about the experience. 40 years later, I’m working on that book. Here are a few excerpts from my journal. Current writing is in italics.

Saturday, April 19, 1969: The Takeover
At 7:30 a.m., as I was preparing to go and play tennis, I [received a phone call and was told that] the Afros had taken over the Straight. There had been a 6 a.m. Students for a Democratic Society meeting and they were calling for a 10:00 a.m. rally.
I didn’t know what to do. I kind of slept or something and then went to the rally with mixed feelings.
I supported the demands for amnesty and revocation of the penalties set by an unrepresentative judicial system — but really did not think these things justified the takeover of the Straight. Then I thought about the cross-burning the night before and of the breaking in of some white fraternity guys who injured some of the black demonstrators and decided that I wanted no more violence. I would stick with the thing because there were rather militant people in SDS who wanted to take over another building and I wanted to be around to vote no. I picketed for several hours — in the rain and snow — until I could no longer feel my feet. I was so tense that I left after the last meeting of the day and did nothing but fall asleep.
Kids stayed up all night to guard.

This morning, I went out at 6:10 a.m. to guard the steps of the Straight — just to add numbers in case jerks thought of attacking — a fat lot of good my 105 pounds would do. I played handball at 7 a.m. with a kid from the crew team against the wall of the Straight.
Somebody called The Sun a mouthpiece for the administration. Ed’s editorial was rather anti-SDS — he called the takeover “irresponsible.” I’m glad I don’t have to write those things.
At 3 p.m. more than 100 black students marched out of the Straight, many with rifles, fists clenched high in the black power salute. That evening, I wrote:
Thank God the Blacks have left the Straight … .
I keep thinking about Skip [Meade ’69] standing up there with a rifle — and the kid yelling — “If any of you white motherfuckers tries to set foot in this place again. …” I am a white motherfucker. … I can’t understand why the SDS supports a black state and not a Jewish one.
Everything is confused in my mind — don’t care to go back over any of it.

Monday, April 21
The morning after the blacks got out, I woke up too stiff to move. I went to hit tennis balls but was practically crying the whole time.

Tuesday, April 22: Barton Hall Takeover
The blacks left the Straight after the administration agreed, among other provisions, that reprimands that had in part precipitated the takeover would be rescinded. But on Monday, April 21, the faculty refused to approve “the deal” — on grounds that it sacrificed academic freedom to force. The administration and many students pressured the faculty to change its vote. A black student leader issued death threats against certain professors. Police continued to amass on campus.
On Tuesday evening, at a teach-in in Barton Hall, radical leaders urged thousands of participants to remain in the building until the faculty yielded. I was hesitant because University President James Perkins had prohibited building takeovers and I wasn’t one to break the rules. At Barton, James McConkey, my creative writing professor, told me that he was going to stay.
McConkey was sure the faculty would vote ‘no’ again and he, among others, had signed a pledge to bodily protect any building occupied by students for the purpose of assuring that the black demands be met. If he was willing to risk his life for me — and it might have come to that, as so many police had been mobilized — the cause was damn well worthwhile.

Wednesday, April 23
At 4 a.m. I had slept, some on the floor at Barton but I felt lonely with all those 5,000 people.
Hundreds of police were there from all over. I could see the Ithaca Police Department picking up its weapons when 10 delegates from a group of 5,000 came to ask for information and got really panicky.
In the afternoon, the faculty voted to rescind the reprimands. President Perkins, who at some point during the night had given permission for the crowd to stay in Barton, addressed the gathering.
Perkins said that this meeting — the sit-in turned teach-in — was the most educational and constructive thing that had ever happened to Cornell University. While he is a fine politician and the faculty only did what it had to, I believed him.

Thursday, April 24
I felt as though Perkins was giving the students almost free rein to plan — along with professors and administration — their University. I only hope this fucking student body takes him up on it — which, as is obvious already, it won’t: most of the girls here are still asleep.
It’s 9 a.m. and I decided not go to the discussions to be held in Barton Hall but I’ll damn well be at the English Department caucus at 10. I am so exhausted but a little exhilarated. Fuck it. I just want to graduate — but I feel as though the bureaucracy has a crack in it, at least. It’s not just pomp anymore, reaching from here to Perkins to God.
Last night on the phone Daddy said three times, I think, “We’re proud of you.” Or maybe, even, “I’m proud of you.” It wasn’t the same as his usual “well, we’re proud of you” — with a sort of “but I don’t really mean it” in his voice. All the things I’ve ever done to hear him say that — not say that —FEEL that — have never done it. And now I do something he would never have done — broken the law — and that’s what makes him proud?
Three professors have resigned — due to lack of academic freedom because of coercion. I really think they are behaving immaturely. Berns, Rossiter, Sindler — the men of reason — gave really emotional speeches — tear-jerkers. It’s like a dream — not a nightmare — just one of those confused things. People are concerned because racism isn’t really the central issue any longer. So many things have been opened up. Now it’s not merely a crack —more like a bursting open. It’s wild — I like it now.
The place has gone mad — students in faculty council, planning constitutional or total University reform — continuous one-hour meetings daily of English faculty, students, grads; teach-ins all the time on everything. Classes non-existent. At the SDS meeting I lost the guys I was trying to talk to about an interim structure for the University — to [radical leader] Chip Marshall’s rhetoric. Absolutely ludicrous but really fun now. I don’t know what is happening but I would say it is anarchy — total freedom. Very secure as it is still within the confines of the University, but free.

Friday, April 25
I have spent time guarding the Straight and circulating fliers and going to meetings and being sick and sitting in buildings and now I feel like studying again. The [Straight Takeover] was necessary, I think, for the blacks. I don’t like guns and neither do they — but self-defense — OK. Once. No more. But there certainly was a need for the racism on this campus to be brought into the open — and for a lot of other issues to be aired. The faculty, student, administration relationships — or non-such — should be revamped. And, today, at least, plans for constructive discussion of the possibilities are being made as many classes have been called off and professors have announced that they are open to talk with anyone who wishes to speak with them.
I would really like to stay here all day and write but it is my responsibility to see that Perkins’ whatever it was is met with some support. I wish I were a freshman again, almost, because then I wasn’t tired. It is really much easier to be a revolutionary than a responsible citizen. Unfortunately, I don’t make it as the former — what do you know — a pun! But a victory means just more work.

Sunday, April 27
I feel angry and my anger is directed everywhere. I have thought all week that maybe I could help work on changing the University. Unfortunately, the students are people. It is easy to change a structure, but I can’t change people.
I went to SDS last night and they won’t even work on the University, but only will on demands [that the Reserve Officer Training Corps not be allowed on campus] and [for an] open admissions policy.
This fighting business is terrible. … Why smash the University? Why not use it to — if they must, and as they put it — smash the state? I don’t understand.
This week has been a fine learning experience… .

Monday, April 28
We have been talking about revolution at dinner and all day has been chaos. Courses are reverting to pass/fail grading. Prof. Kagan [who is leaving for Yale] said he wished he hadn’t resigned earlier because he would like to do it now. SDS is pushing for admission of 50 percent working class students for the class of 1974 and some of those guys are really militant. All of the faculty is upset.
What an uproar. … The literature departments are really fine — the people. No blacks but one in Mrs. McCall’s seminar — it’s awful. I am hysterical inside. I don’t know what is happening — all these professors resigning and kids leaving. Yeah, it’s bad, but isn’t it all over the place bad and why can’t they stay and help us.
Must call home.