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Prompted By Protests

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Harvard students meet in the football stadium to declare a campus-wide strike, 1969

When I filled out the college roommate preference form in the summer of 1968, I decided to challenge myself. “I’d like a roommate who’s radically different from me,” I said. Without stating it explicitly, I was inviting them to match me with an African-American student—the respectful term was Negroes then—or at least someone with a different ethnic background from my white, suburban, Jewish, liberal, middle-class upbringing.Nixon

Joe's hat sported not only a Nixon-Agnew campaign button but, beside it, a Goldwater button from four years earlier.

Still, when I moved into my freshman dorm in the fall, I knew I was in for it. Joe wasn’t there, but he had placed a straw hat on one of the beds to claim it. It sported not only a Nixon-Agnew campaign button but, beside it, a Goldwater button from four years earlier. “In your heart, youGoldwater know he’s right.” Far right. The hat foreshadowed a year of debates and discussions in which Joe, an Irish-American Catholic student, valiantly held his own against the lefty Ivy leaguers who surrounded him, never convincing us but never being convinced.

In the spring, student radicals occupied the administration building in a nonviolent takeover. The university president, determined to avoid the endless standoffs that had plagued Berkeley and Columbia, pledged to act decisively. And so the next morning, just after dawn, we watched from the fourth floor of our dorm as hundreds of helmeted police quick-marched into the central yard. They formed a cordon around University Hall and dragged out the radicals. When one resisted, or when the assembled crowd tried to obstruct them, the cops didn’t hesitate to use billy clubs. From our vantage point, the battles looked like Xs and Os in a football playbook. By the time the building was empty, the yard was littered with injured bodies and spilled blood.

The “bust” tore the campus apart. Not many students had supported the radicals’ demands, but we couldn’t tolerate such treatment of our classmates. A campus-wide meeting was called at the stadium. And there, marching next to me, was my roommate Joe in a T-shirt bearing a raised, clenched fist. Strike! we chanted in chorus. We shut down the campus. The strike forced a compromise with the radicals and eventually toppled the administration. By senior year we had a new university president.

Joe’s radicalization lasted precisely a week, when he resumed his defense of Nixonian conservatism. But I know it shook him, even to this day. It’s not every investment banker who spent a week as a campus radical.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: College, Harvard
Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. KCS says:

    Here’s to all the Joes out there who have a moment of clarity once in their lives and may again experience same. Great piece!

  2. Suzy says:

    Interesting perspective on a time I remember oh so well. Thanks for sharing your experience with Joe-the-roommate.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting that even Joe would join the protest. Those were wild times and you paint a vivid portrait.

  4. rosie says:

    Your room mate had heart and soul. He believed what he believed, but was willing to put himself on the line when there was severe abuse going on. Very interesting.

  5. Marian says:

    Seeing often is believing, John, and Joe observed an injustice that was un-American, beyond liberal or conservative–very much like what’s happening now. Your experience must have been challenging, even if each of you didn’t convince the other.

  6. Thanx John for that story,
    May more like your conservative roommate come over to the right side of our history in our current national struggle!

  7. At least Joe was willing to walk a while in your shoes…even though, as it turned out, it wasn’t a good fit. It’s hard to imagine someone doing that today, especially in good faith.

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