To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Willard Straight Takeover, Harry Edwards Ph.D. ’73, a noted sociologist and civil rights activist, held an open conversation about social justice in Bailey Hall with Frank Dawson ’72, who participated in the protest.
Dr. Edwards has become an important figure in the civil rights movement, with the body of his work primarily dealing with the relationship between race, sports and society. He is currently a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dawson was a freshman involved in the Willard Straight occupation, and is now the Interim Dean of Career Education at the Santa Monica College Center for Media and Design. He is the co-director and co-producer of the film Agents of Change, which discusses the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University in addition to the 1969 Willard Straight takeover.
The keynote event began with an address by Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur.
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one. Or it may be both. But it must be a struggle,” said Pendakur, quoting Frederick Douglass.
He described the legacy of the Takeover, citing its place in the civil rights movement and Cornell’s own history, before introducing Dawson as “a passionate advocate for social justice and a kind and generous colleague.”
Dawson began with a joke, saying that while “he has not been a stranger to Cornell over the years, it’s a pleasure and actually a bit sobering to recognize that your first year of college was 50 years ago.”
After Edwards was introduced, the conversation began with Dawson’s contextualization of the time period.
“As students coming in 1969, we were children of the civil rights movement. We had seen the issues that our parents’ generation and their parents had to deal with. We felt a responsibility to make change on our own part as well,” Dawson said.
“Over the course of a five year period, I saw things happen that you’ve only seen in a situation that’s a state of war,” Edwards added. “Six months after my last in-person ‘hello’ to Malcom X, he was assassinated. I met with Dr. King on January 4th, 1968. We were supposed to meet on April 28th. On April the 4th, he was assassinated.”
Dawson talked about the demonstrations of the time and how Black protests were ignored by the wider community.
“We have to be loud, otherwise we will not be heard,” Dawson explained. “Willard Straight came about when it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he continued, citing events including a cross burning outside Wari House, a cooperative for Black women students, that led to the takeover.
“There’s always a cost,” said Edwards, talking about the toll the movement took on students. “I think about Malcom, I think about Dr. King, I think about those students at Orangeburg.”
“There’s never been a protest where the American mainstream stood up and said, amen. We support that. That’s why they call it a protest rather than a picnic,” he continued.
The conversation then shifted to the current state of social justice at Cornell, which Edwards called “different” from his days as an undergraduate, but not necessarily “better.”
“People say that we’ve made a lot of progress. That’s true in one sense,” he explained. “But the struggle continues.”
At the end of the discussion, both Edwards and Dawson fielded questions from audience members, who pried the pair for their thoughts on the relevance of the occupation today.
One of the first questions asked was whether anything different would be done if the Willard Straight Hall Takeover were redone.
Dawson replied, stating that “no matter what issue we had to deal with, and there were a lot of issues in that building, we reached a consensus,” citing his experience during the Takeover as one of the drivers behind his career.
“I really appreciate my education at Cornell,” he said. “But I learned more outside the classroom than I did in the classroom.”