1969 by
100
(133 Stories)

Prompted By Strikes

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I spent the night of April 9, 1969 with my friends in Wigglesworth dorm in Harvard Yard, which had been closed off.  The day before, students had occupied University Hall, also in the Yard, and removed deans and staff. It was the culmination of years of political work, organizing with SDS, petitions and requests ignored which crystalized into a list of demands:  End ROTC and Vietnam war support at Harvard, reform Harvard’s landlord policies in the community, and give students a role in developing an Afro-American studies program.

Imagine being in that stadium with thousands of other university students and faculty, all roused up, politically aware, wanting a path forward.  The emotional energy was contagious and overwhelming.  Surely the concerns of so many people coming together could not be denied. 

It is hard to recreate the moment but the elements are familiar.  The civil rights movement had been brutal and galvanizing both.  The Black Panther Party was active.  Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in the spring of 1968.  Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago followed, while the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching”.  Young men were being drafted to fight and die in the Vietnam War, a war few understood or supported, particularly as the body bags added up.  Popular culture was changing—folk, blues, protest and rock music, drug use, racial relations, women’s roles and sexuality.  It was an intense time to be coming of age.

My freshman year was peppered with leaflets stuffed into mailboxes for one cause or another but largely about the war, teach-ins, political meetings, demonstrations, dining rooms discussions with rival analyses.   I had volunteered with a project through the Graduate School of Design, interviewing tenants in poor neighborhoods in Boston threatened with development and loss of their humble dwellings–and learned about the role of the Harvard Corporation as landlord.   The occupation of University Hall was not entirely a surprise. I supported the list of demands, and timidly participated in a picket line around the building before retreating to Wigglesworth for the night.

Early in the morning the word went out that police were attacking—we rushed out from the dorm half-dressed to witness students being dragged from the building and beat up as we shouted from the sidelines in protest.  It was frightening, and raw, my heart beating fast as I tried to register what was happening and avoid being attacked myself.

The aftermath was strangely quiet, music from Dylan floating from a dorm window over the stunned quad, but the storm was coming.  Without texts or internet, word still spread rapidly throughout the university.  I was angered to see that the reports in papers or TV did not reflect my experience or understanding.  Call for a university-wide strike went out immediately and three days later a massive meeting was held in the football stadium—packed full—which endorsed the strike.

Imagine being in that stadium with thousands of other university students and faculty, all roused up, politically aware, wanting a path forward.  The emotional energy was contagious and overwhelming.  Surely the concerns of so many people coming together could not be denied.

The strike lasted over a week but was packed with meetings and debates, so I was busy learning, even if not according to the curriculum.  Many classes never resumed or became forums for discussing the political situation, issuing pass grades.  Something had shifted.  As the academic year dissipated into the summer break, the mark left by the strike turned into a strong sense of commitment;  change must come, personally and politically.  The challenge was how to follow through and what to do next.

Some of the demands of the strike were ultimately, at least partially, met.  Lives were changed while history moved on. But the strike, and all that led to it and followed, taught me a few things.  There is incredible power when people come together en masse.  Leaders and followers are both necessary. Change that seems elusive can come very quickly when conditions are right.  The historical moment is critical.  Inflection points in a country or a life can be long-lasting.  Following through to institutionalize change is a very long road.

 

 

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. An inspiring conclusion. I apricate your detailed description of the strike.
    At that time I lived in Holden Green width my family while I complete my Ph.D. in Chinese history. (I was a gradate student from U. Penn. My wife was a graduate student at Harvard. I helped a few anti-war activists to escape to Canada.
    You brought back many memories. thanks.

  2. Suzy says:

    Khati, thanks for your perspective on that unforgettable time. I moved my story to this prompt to go with yours. Mine focuses more on the night I spent in University Hall, because it was written for the prompt “That NIght” but I also have the famous strike poster created by the Design School students,, listing all the reasons to strike.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I’m glad you reposted this Suzy, with the great poster. Somewhere I have a T-shirt with the first silk-screened on it–they had a set-up where you could bring whatever and they would silk-screen for you. That was the methodology of the day for the posters too, and I learned how to do that as well. I imagine it is all digital now. The combination of your story and mine gives a fuller picture. I looked for an actual copy of the demands to no avail, but am not the best researcher.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I totally relate to your story, Khati, although I was at the University of Michigan in that era. Of course, SDS was a huge presence as it was founded at the university in 1960. I attended many teach-ins and rallies. I think I learned more from these than in my classes. You captured those tumultuous times perfectly.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    You give us great historical accuracy, plus a sense of “you were there”. Now, with more than 50 years of perspective, you also understand what took place and can evaluate the moment. I was still in high school, but you’ve crystallized an important moment in our collective consciousness.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      It certainly made a big impression on me and the others who were there, and I know that different events have done that for others before and since. We all have our stories and this prompt reminded me of an important one for me.

  5. Thanx Khati for sharing your visceral memories of that scary time at Harvard and in the country. I’ve written about how MLK’s assassination precipitated my decision to marry as a way of somehow assuaging the sorrow and the fear.

    And now this country seems to be really imploding – can you grant us asylum up there?

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