April 20, 2009

Straight Takeover Still Ignites Heated Debate

Print More

In April 1969, 80 African American students took over the Straight to protest the lack of minority rights, spurred by a culmination of events along with the tensions of the time period with the tumultuousness of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. In commemoration of the Straight Takeover’s 40th anniversary, The Sun hosted a panel on Saturday with people involved or affected by the event in order to discuss the history and its ramifications.
Two of the panelists were undergraduates at the time — Zach Carter ’72, who participated in the taking over of the Straight, and Robert Gottlieb ’72, who witnessed it and was one of the first students on the Board of Trustees. The electing of students to the board was established after the takeover. The other panelists were former Prof. Dan McCall, English, who taught the first Black literature class at Cornell; David Burak ’67, who was a grad student and president of the Students for a Democratic Society; and Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, former vice provost for diversity.
Ed Zuckerman ’70 and Stan Chess ’69, former Sun editors in chief, questioned the panelists, focusing on the details of the event. In particular, Chess wanted to clarify how the students in the Straight had obtained guns and if it really was the burning of a cross outside of an African American female residence hall that sparked the event. Tensions ran high when Chess asked to verify the rumor that black students burned the cross to instigate the Straight Takeover the following day.
“I think there were a lot of people who wanted to believe that, Carter said. “But I’ve talked to a hell of a lot more black people involved than you have, the cross burning was not contrived, there were not African American students involved in that,” Carter said.[img_assist|nid=37041|title=Get it ‘Straight’|desc=Panel members, left to right, Burak ’67, Gottlieb ’72, Carter ’72 and McCall, debate the contentious history and implications of the Straight Takeover on Saturday in Goldwin Smith Hall.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
In response, McCall said that he knew the police officer that first responded to the fire. According to the officer, the women came out of the house late at night in heels and stockings. Moreover, McCall said his wife talked to a black female student who claimed that she knew the male who started the fire. Carter attacked McCall’s statements by asking what kind of women would be wearing heels and stockings on a Thursday night, implying that the report was false.
While many saw the nit-picking over details as taking away from the message of the event, the panelists did touch on the fact that Cornell was so close to experiencing a tragic catastrophe. McCall related how he had seen a large team of riot officers getting prepared to “take back” the Straight the following morning, and 400 cots set up in Lynah Rink to accommodate them. For­tunately, Vice Provost Dale Corson dissuaded the team from carrying out their plans.
“Corson won, if he hadn’t, Cornell would have made Kent State look like a picnic,” McCall said, referring to the Kent State massacre of May 1970 where national guards shot several students in response to a rally held by a group of protesters.
Audience members’ questions focused on the repercussions of the Straight Takeover today. One audience member, who matriculated two years after the incident, said that he had the perception that Cornell has not yet recovered from the incident. Moreover, compared to others in the Ivy League, Cornell is at the bottom in terms of educating black students.
“My view of this is that to make real change comes very slowly, and oftentimes, goes backwards before it goes forward again,” said Gottlieb. His example was that a result of the takeover, [Cornell’s] Board of Trustees was forced to have four students serve as voting members with one of them sitting on the executive committee, “where the real decisions are made.”
However, since there is no more pressure, they reduced the number of students to two and removed the stipulation that one had to be on the executive committee. “They have retreated. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves in thinking that we have not slid backwards,” Gottlieb concluded.
Harris pointed out that in 1969 Cornell was in the lead in terms of laying the groundwork for African American education and had a higher percentage of African American than any other Ivy League university, but it now has the lowest. The suggestions that Harris offered for this phenomenon were that “others entered the game and it became a lot more competitive,” and “we perhaps relaxed and assumed that the change that had taken place was going to perpetuate itself.”
Audience member Carol Chock ’72 said that she was a student who witnessed the takeover and asked the panelists what the lessons were for students today. Carter’s response was that the most important lesson is that the process never stops; a sign of progress is not inconsistent with the fact that there is a lot more to do.
“Cornell’s legacy is wonderful,” Gottlieb said in reference to Ezra Cornell’s motto, “any person, any study.”
“The ideal will never come to life unless students and faculty members here fight to bring it alive,” he said.
After the panel was over, Chock said that she was disappointed that the discussion did not center more on the issues, the history, and the essence of the motivation for the takeover as well as where it has led the University today. However, she went on to say that “The panelists were quite good, and I think there really is hope that we are starting to see a new era of discussion and recognition of the issues that we still face as a society.”
Imani Day ’11 also expressed disappointment that the panel focused so much on the minor details, “instead of the actual issues and how they can be related to what we have to deal with today.”
“It’s important to take action, some of the issues are the same that we’re facing today,” Tia Hicks ’11 added.
Other students also had the same sentiment that students today can learn from the takeover, as many of the problems are still the same, albeit more subtle.
Ola Williams ’10, Student Assembly vice-president elect, said, “I loved listening to the different perspectives, how activism on campus was – it makes me think that it can be like that again one day.”
Zachary Murray ’11 agreed, saying “their bravery is the reason why a lot of us are here today. We deal with a lot of the same apprehension that they did but they were brave enough to stand up for a purpose.”