University of Illinois students and faculty went on strike 41 years ago this May in response to the killing of four students at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard. The killings at Kent State were seen by many at the time as an extension of the same violence that was being perpetrated against oppressed people at home and overseas in Southeast Asia. For this reason, a call to strike sparked by the incident in Ohio soon morphed into a protest against the greater societal ills of racism, militarism, and imperialism. Taken together, these events in the first weeks of May 1970 constitute one of the forgotten chapters of activism at the U of I.
When news of the events at Kent State reached the U of I campus, the situation evolved quickly. On the night of Monday May 4, the first proposed plan of action was put forward by the Undergraduate Student Association (UGSA). As reported in the Tuesday, May 5 edition of the Daily Illini, the UGSA planned to hold simultaneous rallies at different locations on campus Wednesday to protest the shootings at Kent State as well as U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. On Thursday, Senator Albert Gore was to give a talk on the subject of Cambodia. Only on Friday was picketing planned for University buildings.
In reality, events turned out quite differently as students met Tuesday night at the University Auditorium (now Foellinger Auditorium) and decided to go on strike the morning of Wednesday, May 6. Other organizations endorsed the strike including the Graduate Student Association (GSA), the American Association of University Professors and the Black Coalition. Taken together, these different groups had a diverse number of issues they organized around, ranging from withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia and the abolishment of ROTC to the hiring of more Black police officers in Urbana-Champaign. Following the meeting, a body of some 2,000 students marched through the campus to raise support for the strike. University and Campustown buildings had their windows broken during the march.
The next morning saw the beginning of pickets at buildings on campus. Picket lines and bail funds necessary for a successful strike were coordinated from a room on the second floor of the Illini Union. Money collected from student organizations and individuals totaled $4,000. According to Ed Pinto, the chairman of the UGSA, the goal of the strike was to shut the campus down completely. Accordingly, pickets were set up around the main academic buildings on campus, the Illini Union loading docks, the University Power Plant, and Central Receiving. Students from the Law School volunteered to act as monitors to ensure that police acted in a lawful manner. Unfortunately, the day’s events did not end peacefully as clashes with police led to many people being beaten and arrested, among them Philip Meranto and Michael Parenti, faculty members in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science who were seen by many on campus as leading experts in the political affairs of the day.
The University Administration issued statements Wednesday informing students that they had “the right to non-disruptive protest,” but that a strike was out of the question. Chancellor Peltason wrote, “I mourn the deaths and senseless violence that are so much in evidence today. But neither this nor other problems that this society faces will be solved by disrupting our educational institutions.” Peltason and other University and Champaign-Urbana leaders became so concerned at the “generally tense atmosphere” on campus that on Wednesday afternoon they asked for assistance from the Illinois National Guard. A curfew was also imposed from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning.
On Thursday May 7, picketing continued on campus but with the addition of the Illinois National Guard to maintain order. Beyond keeping the peace, the Guard and police were also used to break picket lines at the Illini Union in order to ensure that food trucks made their deliveries on time. Thursday saw the largest single event of the strike with 10,000 students attending a three hour peaceful evening rally on the Main Quad. Ed Pinto told the crowd that more than one third of all classes were cancelled on Thursday and claimed the strike was a success. The curfew was lifted because of the relative calm that had been restored to campus.
On Friday, May 8, a rally of 2,000 people took place on the Quad. According to the Daily Illini, most students either stayed away from classes or actively participated in the strike itself. The strike was most effective on the west side of the Main Quad with Gregory Hall, Lincoln Hall, and the English Building almost empty. Other parts of campus, such as the Engineering Quad, saw less successful numbers with about half of the students staying away from class.
By the end of the week, many of the strikers had turned to activities besides picketing and holding rallies. These included canvassing in the local community for peace candidates and to “inform local citizens of the reasons behind the strike.” According to students interviewed at the time, many, though not all people in Champaign-Urbana were receptive to what the students were doing, provided it was peaceful.
Saturday, May 9 saw the largest single arrest of the strike with over 100 people caught in a sweep on the Main Quad. According to the Daily Illini, many of those arrested had been singled out before hand by the police for arrest. They were held in Memorial Stadium before being released on bail. The mass arrest was an attempt by administrators to clamp down on the strike. In spite of this effort by the police, 6,000 students met on the Main Quad the next day and in the words of the Daily Illini, “declared themselves liberated from the University.” A University official also announced that the National Guard would be demobilized and state police would not intervene on campus again unless violence occurred. Students were also informed by the Dean of Students Hugh Satterlee that the University administration would not take punitive measures against the striking students.
Instead, a statement released by Chancellor Peltason acceded to the demand for “liberation classes” to be held in the following week. Taught by professors, these classes were held on the Quad or in classrooms and designed to “carry on discussions of the many problems which face our society.” This move was welcomed by most, if not all, students simply for the reason that the strike was winding down. The UGSA steering committee had ended the picketing of buildings on Tuesday, May 12, “because of lack of participation and to allow picketers to attend liberation classes.” Participation in the strike had dropped down to about 50 per cent. Mike Real, chairman of the GSA noted that it would be unwise to continue the strike any further because of the concessions given to the students by the administration.
By the end of the second week of actions on campus, the strike was over. The militancy of the actions taken by students and faculty on the issue of the war had an effect as the Nixon administration pulled out of Cambodia shortly after a national strike wave on May 13. As one of the high points of activism during this era, the strike at the University of Illinois was a local manifestation of a national movement. It is a story that deserves to be told and remembered by activists today.