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March / April 2009
Getting It Straight
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Tuesday, 03 March 2009

Mass Exodus
Mass exodus: In a view from Olin Library, AAS members march toward the temporary Africana Center.

TOM JONES: I was in the Class of '69, so I came to campus in the fall of 1965. That was a short while after Dr. King's march on Washington in 1963. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Then, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. The mood was one of being in an era where important things were happening, and where others were making enormous personal sacrifices to fight for freedom and equality. It looked like the black community was beginning to achieve significant breakthroughs. My class was the first with a substantial number of black students. And by substantial, I mean there were thirty-five.

ANDREE-NICOLA MCLAUGHLIN: People were not ready for our presence, and that was made known repeatedly by fraternities and sororities excluding students of color from social events. We had professors or instructors who openly advocated racist concepts like eugenics. We also met a lot of apathy or ignorance on the part of Cornell's administration. They didn't know how to deal with a diversifying student body. It was like many of the colleges and universities at that time. They accepted students of color, but they didn't know what was required to make the campus comfortable for them.

JONES: There wasn't one experience. I had come from a highly educated family; my father was a nuclear physicist as well as an ordained minister and my mother was a school teacher. I had lived in integrated communities. But there were many black students who had very uncomfortable experiences. Not always malicious; I remember incidents where black girls were doing their hair in the dorm and the police being called because people thought they were smoking marijuana, because of the smell. White people just weren't accustomed to that. It's an innocent mistake in one sense, but on the other hand, it's one of the reasons why some black students wanted a place that was a relief from those kinds of interactions. I did not personally have a lot of grievances or complaints. But as each year went by, I felt more and more that I had a duty to be part of this larger fight.

By 1969—with the war raging in Vietnam and the battle for civil rights in full tilt—campus unrest was hardly new to American universities, Cornell included. As early as 1965, protesters had disrupted a speech by Averell Harriman, then U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. In the spring of 1968, black students took over the economics department to protest allegedly racist teachings by Father Michael McPhelin, a visiting lecturer. That December, demanding an autonomous black college, protesters held a sit-in in Perkins's office, among other actions.

JOHN MARCHAM: I was struck by how quickly the campus broke apart and how everyone realized it had been a gentlemen's agreement under which the University had run. You could feel that the place was gradually losing its ability to do anything. A student would get up and interrupt a speaker and a committee would say, "This is heinous. You're the last student who's going to not be disciplined for doing this." And the next one would be the same. The faculty just didn't have the stomach for this stuff.

WALTER LAFEBER: The student politics leading up the occupation were the kind where the farther out you were, the more likely you were to maintain control. The more extreme elements were increasingly taking over in both the African American and white student movements—which made them less rational, more driven by personal relationships, and more threatening to the kind of rational discourse that should be conducted at a university. You could see that discourse becoming unraveled.'We voted, and the majority thought it was necessary to do something that would shock the University. The Straight was a good target.'

In February 1969, in the most shocking incident to date, Perkins was removed from the podium and physically shaken by two AAS members during a symposium on South Africa in Statler Auditorium. LaFeber recalls speaking to the president that evening.

LAFEBER: I said, "What happened to you tonight was quite horrible and shouldn't be allowed. What are we going to do about it?" Perkins said, "I don't think we need to do anything. This will all work itself out." He refused to do anything to the students. I think one reason was because if he tried to bring them to account, there would have been an explosion. I came away thinking that there was no longer any limit as to what might happen. Perkins had misjudged, if not lost control of, the whole situation. I go back to that conversation as the point at which I realized that this was going in a direction that was not good.

As the semester unfolded, the students involved in the December protests faced disciplinary action, but refused to participate. In March, when the University declined to punish white students who had disrupted recruitment by Chase Manhattan Bank in Mallott Hall to protest its business with South Africa, it was seen as a racist double-standard. Campus unrest surged with assaults on three white students, allegedly by African Americans, and the burning of a cross outside Wari House, a residence for black women. At about 5 a.m. on April 19, the first AAS members entered the Straight.

JONES: To be totally honest, I was not in favor of taking over the building. We voted, and the majority thought it was necessary to do something that would shock the University, grab its attention. Parents' Weekend would be a perfect time. The Straight was a good target.

MCLAUGHLIN: Most of us didn't know where we were going. Only key people in the leadership knew what was going to happen. So we got in there, and we were excited. Willard Straight Hall was our social hub—that's why it was strategic. The University would have to deal with our issues, because they couldn't function without that hub and it was Parents' Weekend. On a practical level, most of us saw this as a short-term action, taken while parents were there, to get the administration's attention, and that it would be resolved in a matter of hours or days.

ART SPITZER: It came as a complete surprise to almost everybody. There were rumblings of dissatisfaction by African American students. There was controversy on the pages of the Sun. But the vast majority of students were going about their lives, dealing with their problems—academic problems, boyfriend and girlfriend problems, all the usual stuff—or being happy. I don't think most people were aware or gave much thought to all this.

JONES: I think I could've sat down with President Perkins and, in short order, worked out the specific issues on campus in a mutually satisfactory way. But there were elements within the black student community who rightly felt, "No, this is a symbolic element of a bigger battle."'The administration was not going to risk having armed students in the building one more night. That meant we'd have to be expelled, and we would try to repulse the attack.'

The occupying students tussled with employees and took over WVBR; the station would eventually broadcast from downtown Ithaca. Visiting parents sleeping in the Straight were ousted from their rooms in the early hours, some forced to leave with nothing but their nightclothes.

SKIP MEADE: There was a delegation of responsibilities. One of mine was security, trying to make sure that the doors to the outside were secure. There were some early sections of the New York Times bound by bailing wire, so I used it on the doors. I was never with the group. I was constantly moving around, checking to see that things were secure.

JONES: At first, it was kind of fun. Then the guys from Delta Upsilon came in. I was playing pool and I heard this commotion. I went to see who it was, and here were some frat boys who had decided they were going to throw us out. Something clicked inside of me: "This cannot end this way. Not with some frat guys deciding they're vigilantes." I went up to the first guy and I punched him. There was a fight, and we threw them out. After that, the atmosphere changed, because now there was an element of "Are they going to come back with more people? Are the police going to do something?" That ultimately led to the decision to arm ourselves for self-defense.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 March 2009 )