April 16, 2009

Tom Jones Reflects on a 'Selfless Revolution'

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Thomas W. Jones ’69 was the chief spokesman for the Afro-American Society during the crisis of 1969. On April 15, Jones sat down with The Sun to reflect on the 40 years since the Straight Takeover.

The Sun: You’re here at Cornell today to grant the The James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony, which you endowed in 1994 to recognize diversity initiatives at Cornell. Why is the award named for former University President Perkins? What contributions did Perkins make to improving minority rights while serving as president of Cornell?
Tom Jones: Well when I came to Cornell in September of ’65, there were 35 African-American students in my freshman class [which were] more African Americans than there were in the sophomore, junior, senior and graduate schools combined. This effort to significantly increase the presence of African-American students at Cornell was an initiative started by President Perkins. He was a good friend of African American students in trying to broaden educational opportunities in the Ivy League.
And then, this year is also the 40th anniversary of the takeover of Willard Straight Hall … One of the great ironies of the events at Willard Straight Hall was that the faculty fury about what happened, and some of the alumni anger was aimed at President Perkins. I also felt a sense of obligation and unpaid debt [to Perkins]. In many respects he was one of the most significant victims of Willard Straight Hall. Perkins, who had been one of the most significant friends of African American students. It took me a while, and it was the maturity of time that ultimately led me to come to the idea of naming a prize in Perkins’ honor to represent people trying to make a major contribution to improvement of racial relations on campus because that is something that Perkins stood for.
Sun: What was your relationship with Perkins as a student at Cornell?
T.J.: One of mutual respect. [In terms of] the issues that developed in the ’60s, there is always a thematic or programmatic element but then there’s an emotional element. I was always more focused on the thematic or programmatic, so the quest to get a Black Studies Center. I always thought that Perkins and I could have sat down across the table and worked out all of those issues very amicably and in a real win-win resolution. But it’s difficult to work out programmatic solutions when many issues also have emotional concepts, because then the emotional dynamics take on a dynamic of their own.
Sun: How can you evaluate the progress that has been made in terms of diversity initiatives since you were a student in 1969?
T.J.: More broadly in America, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had [just] been passed … All the forms of pity apartheid that were intended to dehumanize people, those were the kinds of things that were made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the Voting Right Act of 1965 had just been passed. … Those things were very fresh in America. So here we are 40 years later, and you know America has an African-American president. … So this country is dramatically different than what it was.
And I can say the same thing for Cornell. That there are now 700 or more large enough community to then have diversity within that community.
Sun: This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Straight Takeover. What was the goal of the takeover? Why did you take part?
T.J.: Well the goal — let’s sketch the broader social goal and then the narrower campus goal. These dynamics, they don’t occur in isolation. So what happened at Willard Straight Hall was in this historical context. … Martin Luther King had been assassinated [in] April 1968, there were riots in major cities throughout the country. There was a division within the Black community of whether to pursue the kind of non-violent system, the non-violent activism that Dr. King represented and personified, or the more aggressive, more militant activism represented by the Black Panthers, who talked about armed revolution and self-defense. … And Malcolm X who talked about armed revolution and self-defense. And there was a question about what direction America was going to take. … The country was in turmoil over resistance to the Vietnam War. So there was a real question if America was going to erupt, socially, over tensions. That same historical context was reflected on campus.
So on campus, we’d end up with fights over things like an African-American Studies program, because when we came here, none of the curriculum said anything at all about our story. There was nothing … about our history or the fight for freedom that we had undertaken in terms of slave rebellions, there was nothing about the economics of slavery. None of that was in the curriculum of Cornell.
Sun: What would you say to the argument that the takeover threatened the viability of academic freedom on this campus?[img_assist|nid=36934|title=Armed exit|desc=Thomas Jones ’69 emerges armed from the Straight. (Photo Credit: Brian W. Gray / Sun File Photo)|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
T.J.: I’m not quite sure what the direct threat to academic freedom would have been because there was nothing in the takeover that was directed at any specific threat to any professor or any specific textbook or any specific teaching. It was more about what wasn’t being taught. … I’m not quite clear how trying to get new information, new subject matter into use, abridges anyone’s academic freedom. … We were simply saying that the full story needs to be told and Cornell is not telling the full story.
Sun: What was going through your head as you exited the Straight? Did you think at that point that change had been instigated?
T.J.: Well, I did not realize it would be a turning point in Cornell’s history because at the moment I was not aware of the dramatic photographs that were being taken, and that’s what really elevated it into a more than a local campus story. … At that moment I did not realize the story was being framed that dramatically and that vividly. … My immediate focus was enormous pride. … It was an enormous act of selflessness … in terms of saying we’re going to fight this fight as part of the larger battle.
I was also aware of the symbolism … and that the cumulative impact of these events, hopefully, would be to shock America and say that we were going to become a different kind of country. But at the moment I did not know that that was how history would unfold. I do think that Cornell did shock the country. For people to see what looked like the specter of armed revolution — because you know it’s never the peasants that lead a revolution, it’s always the intelligentsia. … The takeover was one of the events that made that chain of history that lead directly to Barack Obama being elected.
Sun: What did the University gain as a result of the takeover?
T.J.: I think the University gained in the symbolic picture of 10,000 white students taking over Barton Hall in support of the black students. That is, white students who could have said, “This isn’t my fight,” … [instead] said, “This is our fight too and we are not going to let the black students be isolated.” I think that as history ultimately winds its way, it is the recognition of the symbolic beauty of this majority of white students reaching out like that saying, “We’re going to stand with the African-American students.”
Sun: What did Cornell lose?
T.J.: There was an enormous human toll. There were many black students who never graduated. You know, the emotional toll of being in this armed occupation, which could have ended in bloodshed, really took an enormous emotional toll. There were faculty members who quit the University. There was enormous anger amongst faculty. Some of them left the University. As I’ve said, President Perkins lost his presidency in the anger and recrimination that unfolded. And on the short term, the University’s reputation was damaged, because the prevailing attitude was that this was a bad thing that happened at Cornell.
So yes, I think there was enormous human damage and suffering amongst the students, the faculty and the administration. I personally felt a debt to President Perkins.
Sun: What can you say about the face of student activism today? Could the takeover happen again?
T.J.: Could it happen? Yes. Is it likely to happen? No. And the primary reasons being that you don’t have the same social conditions. America is certainly not a perfect society, we’re all in stages of evolution. It certainly is different to make the same case that could be made in the mid-’60s of severe grievances against this country. … You were really talking about denying the right to live a life of dignity … and then naturally you have conditions that breathe revolution. And so it’s not surprising that revolution, in effect, erupts. To the extent that we have an America now that is so changed … it’s hard to make a case of that kind of societal, systemic oppression and injustice.
The closest community to feeling a real sense of grievance and injustice would be the gay community on these issues of gay marriage, in terms of rightfully feeling that being able to have contracts of commitment doesn’t take away anything from anybody else.
Sun: What did you do following your graduation from Cornell?
T.J.: To be honest with you, I thought that I was a marked man and that the odds of success were very low. I thought that I might very well die in what might appear to be an accident. … I thought that I was a marked man in terms of somebody that looked like they might be capable of leading an armed revolution.
The early part of my career, I did a masters at Cornell. I stayed at Cornell after the Straight because ironically most of the people who actually led the group into the Straight, they quit Cornell right afterwards. Some of them for emotional reasons, some of them because they wanted to start something called Malcolm X University. But one of the whole points of what had happened at the Straight was to create an African-American Studies program, and then here it was and everybody was leaving. I felt like we needed to come out of it with something tangible to show for it. … I did most of the work writing the proposals to get the African-American Studies program started, recruiting James Turner to be the first director.
Editor’s Note: Jones later went on to be the chief financial officer and president of TIAA-CREF and was the head of investment management for Citigroup. He now works at his own private equity firm, which he started in 2005. Jones also served on Cornell’s Board of Trustees.
Sun: When you think back to the events that unfolded in 1969, what comes to mind? Do you have any regrets?
T.J.: My only regret is the personal toll. I regret those black students who didn’t finish their degrees. And I regret those professors who quit in anger. And I regret Pres. Perkins losing his job, losing the presidency. But I don’t regret being one of those who stood up for the fight that we fought that we thought we had to engage in. … The only place I ever achieved the real selfless satisfaction of being part of something so much bigger than me was at Cornell. So I don’t have any regrets about that.