The Fog of Youth: The Cornell Student Takeover, 50 Years On

tags: 1960s, Cornell, student protests

Tony Fels is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of San Francisco and author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). He can be reached at felsa@usfca.edu

On April 20, 1969, an era of student rebellions that had rocked American campuses at Berkeley, Columbia, San Francisco State, and Harvard reached a culmination of sorts with the triumphant exit of armed black students from Cornell’s Willard Straight student union building after a two-day occupation. The students had just won sweeping concessions from the university’s administration, including a pledge to urge faculty governing bodies to nullify reprimands of several members of the Afro-American Society (AAS) for previous campus disruptions on behalf of starting up a black studies program, judicial actions that had prompted the takeover. White student supporters cheered the outcome. And when the faculty, at an emergency meeting attended by 1,200 professors, initially balked at the administration’s request to overturn the reprimands, the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led a body that grew to six thousand students in a three-day possession of the university’s Barton gymnasium. Amid threats of violence by and against the student activists, the faculty, in a series of tumultuous meetings, voted to reverse themselves, allowing the crisis to end. Student protestors claimed victory for a blow successfully dealt to what they held to be a racist institution.

This positive interpretation of the meaning of the Cornell events has surprisingly remained mostly in place among the left-leaning participants (all within the SDS orbit) with whom I have kept in touch over the past 50 years. Most other former New Leftists whom I have spoken with or who have written about the crisis see it roughly the same way. One might have thought that decades of personal maturation would have produced profound doubts about the wisdom of such extreme actions taken when we were still in, or just past, our teenage years.

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