University of Illinois “Old” Alums Return for a Conference on the 1960s Protest Movement

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A Saturday morning panel at conference on ’60s activism at UIUC

About 50 literally “old” University of Illinois alums returned to campus from around the country (and in one case, from Switzerland) to attend an October 4-5 conference about the 1960s UI student protest movements for free speech and against the Vietnam War. The conference was held in conjunction with the UI Press’s publication of a book by ’60s alum Michael Metz, entitled Radicals in the Heartland: The 1960s Protest Movement at the University of Illinois. The UI Press and the Library Archives Team organized the conference.

A total of six panels or talks were presented, along with a “walking tour” of on- and off-campus sites prominent during the protest movement (organized by ’60s protest leaders Vern Fein, a retired Champaign-Urbana teacher and food bank founder, and Vic Berkey-Moheno, now a California lawyer), and social events on Friday and Saturday evenings organized by UI alum Vince Wu (now a retired San Francisco IT guru) and Fein. The panels included two on archiving materials from the ’60s protest movement; one on contemporary high school student activism (led by ’60s alum and retired Urbana high school teacher Penny Hanna); a panel led by Metz on  his book (with responses by ’60s alums/protest leaders Wu, Fein, Berkey-Moheno, Phil Durrett, who came from Switzerland, and Patsy Englehard, who followed her protest and feminist activism by also becoming a lawyer); and a panel on the impact of the Vietnam-era draft (featuring ’60s draft-card burners Steve Schmidt and Rick Soderstrom, as well as Engelhard). In addition, the present writer gave a lecture on the history of free speech and academic freedom struggles at UI before and after the ’60s period covered by the Metz book.

My own reflections were generally in accord with those expressed by others, and can be summarized as: 1) the conference was a profound and moving experience for many participants, especially in allowing folks to reconnect with friends from 50 years ago; 2) many participants were encouraged to discover that their ’60s compadres are still committed to fighting for peace and social justice; and 3) several participants expressed regret over some aspects of the ’60s protest movement, and/or of the conference and the present political situation.

Conversation in between panels

To elaborate on these points:

1) Among the strongest memories that some carried away from the conference were witnessing Schmidt and Soderstrom reunited for the first time since they publicly burned their draft cards together outside the Illini Union on October 16, 1967. Schmidt was subsequently imprisoned for refusing draft induction, while Soderstrom left for Canada to avoid the same fate. Another memorable scene was Berkey-Moheno breaking down while talking about his UI experiences. In response to my later query as to why this happened, Vic e-mailed that he “became very sad when I realized that we have a President who is a racist, narcissistic dictator.” Fein e-mailed that he especially enjoyed the social gatherings “not just because I was able to see and engage so many in a personal way, though that was beyond special, but just to watch the interactions of people who had not seen each over in 50  years relate like old friends. The joy of the emotions that I saw and felt was probably what I will remember the most.” He added, in response to my comment that I found myself on the verge of tears while walking and driving around campus and C-U because the emotions connected with my experiences were so intense and numerous, that “tears welled for me also,” partly due to the “understanding that many may not see each other again.” Wu said, “It gladdens my heart to see so many compatriots after so many years,” while Metz e-mailed, “Any expectations I might have had for the [conference] were greatly exceeded and the warmth, comaraderie, excitement and strength of people was more than palpable. It was inspiring.”

2) Metz declared that the struggle that “began in the sixties is far from over,” while Berkey-Moheno said that while the ’60s protest movement had an “enormous impact, our work is not done,” and that “getting rid of Trump is my number-one political goal,” as “otherwise we will live in hell for the next four years.” Fein added that he was pleased to “hear the astute political interactions and realize that this group of radicals will never quit, will never stop pressing hard for the dreams and visions” of the ’60s. Wu declared, “We may become old, but our  hopes for a better world will live on!” Englehard said, “We did change the world, but not enough. And now is not our time to lead, but our time to follow and support. We await the activism of the young and [hope to] help them change the world.”

3) Soderstrom expressed disappointment that, with the exception of Penny Hanna’s panel about contemporary high school activism, presentations were overwhelmingly attended by old alums, with few younger people in evidence; and that there was little recognition that the Black-led civil rights movement of the ’50’s and early ’60s paved the way for the 60s protest movement. Wu’s public comments and Englehard’s e-mail expressed strong regret about the subordinate treatment (and sometimes severe sexual abuse, including rapes), that women endured during the ’60s UI protest movement. Engelhard declared that, although “women are not all perfect, white men have ruled our culture for generations,” including the “board rooms and the bedrooms”; and that women need to “say that the patriarchy has had enough chances and led to disasters,” such as “wars, gun violence, climate change and health care,” leaving us “confounded and demoralized. What motivated and kept student activism going was optimism,” but “there seems little sense of hope now.”

Local high school students join a discussion about contemporary student activism

4) Some miscellaneous comments by retired UI Political Science professor Belden Fields: in response to comments expressing appreciation for the support that faculty provided the protest movement, he declared that it was the students “who taught us, not us who taught you.” He added that before about 1970 there was “not of lot of faculty action on the war,” but that after the May, 1970 American invasion of Cambodia, 15 UI Political Science faculty publicly termed the American government a “criminal regime,” and that subsequently the UI Board of Trustees (BOT) told Urbana Chancellor Jack Peltason that the 15 faculty would be fired if they failed to “retract the statement,” which they refused to do, instead issuing a new statement explaining the earlier one in “greater detail.” Fields related that Peltason “told us it was worse than the original,” but “nonetheless got the BOT to settle for a censure, an action which led the Academic Freedom Committee of the American Political Science Association (APSA) to declare that “our academic freedom had been violated. The next year the APSA dissolved the committee.”

I want to add that this action added to a long list of sad failures of the UI’s leadership to support basic concepts of academic freedom, as in the 1960s’ DuBois Club and Clabaugh Act controversies (the 1947 act banned “subversive” organizations from UI facilities, and it was cited to deny the club University recognition); and the 2013 Stephen Salaita affair, when the University withdrew a  job offer to Salaita after his twitter comments criticizing Israel. Several wealthy donors had threatened to withhold future funding. This led to the formal censure of the University by the American Association of University Professors, repeating an earlier censure for the UI’s 1963 summary firing of untenured biology professor Leo Koch, in response to his published letter condoning intercourse among committed unmarried couples.

Videos from the conference are available here.

Robert Justin Goldstein is emeritus political science professor at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, and author/editor of over 15 books. He lived in Champaign-Urbana between 1965 and 1974 while a UI undergrad and U of Chicago grad student, covering the student protest movement for the Daily Illini and the now-defunct Champaign-Urbana Courier (1966-68).


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