Attacks on the Campus Left Then and Now: Fighting Student Activists on Illinois’ Campus in the 1930s

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In the 1930s, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was home to a thriving anti-war and anti-imperialist community of different radical, socialist, and communist groups. The National Student League (NSL), later called the American Student Union (ASU), the Communist Youth League, the Left Forum, the Socialist Study Club, and the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom formed a consistent opposition to the university’s support of US imperialist warmongering through its mandatory Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs; promoted progressive economic responses to the Great Depression, like unemployment benefits and minimum wage laws; and fought racial, ethnic, and gender oppression.

Thirty years before the massive wave of campus activism in the 1960s, these students formed an alternative to the liberal capitalism that had allowed the Great Depression to destroy millions of lives, supported and reproduced class, racial and gender oppression, and was increasing the likelihood of another global war. In response to the students’ efforts, the liberal-bourgeois establishment—university leaders, business and community members, and, on occasion, even other students and student groups—fought to crush the student left with a variety of tools. This article will discuss a few of these tactics, and it will highlight the historical continuity between these attempts to dismantle the student Old Left and those against the contemporary Left on campus.

As one of the largest and most successful groups on campus, the NSL/ASU was the one of the prime targets of the establishment.¹ Since its inception at the City College of New York in 1931, the NSL had become a menace to the ruling order on campuses across the US. Its militant opposition to ROTC programs, which were mandatory for many public and private universities across the US at the time (Illinois did not lift its mandatory ROTC requirements until 1964), placed its members squarely against administrations everywhere. Later, the ASU’s “Negro Student Problems” committees investigated and protested discrimination on campus and in the community, attracting the ire of both administrators and community members.

Published in a March 13th, 1934 Daily Illini editorial, this list of the NSL’s platform points shows the broad sweep of the organization’s concerns:

  1. Lower tuition fees across the board, and a free college in every city.
  2. Academic freedom for all students and instructors.
  3. Abolition of all forms of compulsory religious services in college.
  4. Abolition of R.O.T.C.
  5. Opposing fascism.
  6. Abolition of the “star” system of athletics.
  7. Full social and political equality for Negroes and other racial minorities.
  8. Unemployment insurance for students.

At Illinois, the NSL/ASU, like other radical and progressive groups, found itself in a struggle for recognition as a legitimate student organization on campus. The NSL/ASU was denied status as an official student group for several years, finally getting recognized in 1936 by the Committee on Student Affairs (akin to being a Registered Student Organization today).

Being recognized by the university then, as it does now, would have granted the NSL easier access to university resources, especially space for meetings and other events. It may have also stopped the university janitors from tearing down posters put up for NSL events, a complaint that the Communist Youth League also shared. The fact that the NSL/ASU was several times denied the same status that the Ku Klux Klan chapter on campus held speaks volumes about the politics of university legitimacy at the time.

On April 12th, 1935, 150 individuals took part in the NSL’s student strike against the ROTC and the university’s support for US imperialist warmongering. In a statement, President Arthur Cutts Willard again attempted to delegitimize the NSL, painting the group as agents of senseless chaos by writing that “… one of the best ways to obtain peace is through education. Striking students only deprive themselves of that time they might have spent in class and encourage the disorder which supposedly their mass meeting was intended to discourage.”

Apart from delegitimization, intimidation and threats of violence were used to discourage radical student organizing. Edward Berman, a professor in the economics department who frequently spoke at meetings of the Left Forum—a study and discussion group that advocated unemployment aid, minimum wage laws, housing assistance, and other progressive responses to the Depression—was publicly charged with being a communist by a local lawyer. Berman refused to go to court over the issue. Berman would resign within about a year of the accusations, taking a job at the Works Progress Administration in Washington D.C. in 1936.

Another act of intimidation came when Samuel Hammersmark, a Communist Party candidate for Illinois governor, was slated to hold a campaign event at the old University Hall (where Gregory Hall stands today). Hammersmark cancelled at the last minute, perhaps because he was warned of what was going to happen. Members of the far-right veteran’s group, the American Legion, showed up to the event as an angry mob, threatening and jeering the dozen or so students who had come despite the intimidation to hear Hammersmark speak. In a letter written to the Daily Illini, a witness wrote that it had been a good thing for Hammersmark that he had not appeared, for fear of what the mob would have done to him.

When threats and violence were not enough to quell the student Left, community members stoked the flames of xenophobia and racism. A 1934 Daily Illini editorial berated the local NSL for being “so thoroughly Jewish,” adding that “one glance at the list of leaders of the entire national organization will show how near Hitler comes to the truth.” The Left’s efforts to desegregate campus cafeterias, recreational spaces, and other university events also offended the sensibilities of those who had made white supremacy a staple of life in Champaign-Urbana. At one point, complaints were even made to Sheriff Walker’s office by local business interests because of the ASU’s outspoken advocacy for the desegregation of local shops, restaurants, theaters, and other businesses that practiced segregation, such as the Hanley-Lewis Confectionary and the Park Theater (formerly located where the Art Theater is today).

Today, delegitimization, intimidation, threats, violence, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are all tools still used to destroy the contemporary Left on campus. The experiences of the Old Left are shared with the Left presently; the university administration, community members, business interests, and other students are using the same tactics today that they used over eighty years ago.

Turning Point USA and the Illini Republicans promote confrontations with student activists and faculty members; the university withdrew its offer of employment in 2014 to Steven Salaita due to his pro-Palestine comments; and the administration tried to label the GEO “agents of chaos” during their twelve-day strike for a fair contract last year. Meanwhile, websites like Canary Mission or Key Wiki try to intimidate local activists by publicly listing their personal information, and absurd rules limit the use of campus spaces like the quad by student organizations. It is plain that many of the tools being used to destroy the campus Left now have been employed for decades. Understanding the history of these tactics is critical to developing new responses and preventative measures against them.

Nick Goodell is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied history and philosophy. He co-hosted The People’s History Hour on 104.5 WRFU for two years, and currently organizes with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Central Illinois Jobs with Justice, and CU Food Not Bombs.

  1. A 1935 Daily Illini article estimated the group to have 50 members at Illinois.
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