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Strike of 1970

The Strike of 1970

Historical Context

The 1960s and early 1970s were a tumultuous time for college campuses. With the escalating and unpopular war in Vietnam, skepticism of the Nixon administration, and domestic injustice and civil unrest, student activists enthusiastically engaged various social movements through protest. Student protests were often contentious and sometimes violent. On May 4th, 1970, a large group of Kent State protestors gathered to protest the escalation of troops into Cambodia. After already several days of agitation and tension, the administration decided to bring in the National Guard to disperse the crowd. Guardsmen had limited experience in dealing with riots and panicked, shooting bullets into the crowd. Four students were killed, with several others injured. Outrage spread across the country. Almost 450 campuses across the country closed with both violent and non-violent demonstrations. Smith College was among the striking colleges.

Strike Narrative

Sue Griss of the class of 1972 returned home to Northampton on May 3rd, 1970, after hearing a speaker at New Haven call for “a national student strike to protest the oppression of minority groups and dissenters, and the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia” (Sarah Gordon). She felt motivated by the speech and returned to Smith to discuss the possibility of a strike on campus with other interested students. On May 4th, the college gathered at a regularly scheduled all-campus, and, with the breaking news of the Kent State shootings still freshly in their minds, a few students and professors spoke about strike issues. The interest in a strike continued to develop, and students met with Professor Donald Robinson at Paradise pond to create a plan for lobbying congress. Opposition to a strike also grew. Approximately 30 people against the strike gathered in front of Neilson Library to demonstrate.

Nearly 300 students rallied on Davis Lawn to hear speeches against U.S. action in Cambodia and in support of Bobby Seale on May 5th. The committee handed out ballots, and the students voted to strike, 1547 to 437 (12 abstentions). Furthering support of the strike, the faculty decided to suspend all normal college activities from May 6 to May 10. Students and professors stood outside the president’s house later that evening controversy surrounding whether President Mendenhall announced the results of the student strike at the faculty meeting. Student ambassadors were finally allowed into the President’s house and shared their demands and grievances. An hour later, President Mendenhall announced to the eagerly awaiting crowd that there was a failure of communication, and he promised a faculty meeting would be held the next day.

Early the next morning, Sid Waller and a member of BSA delivered speeches to an audience at John M. Greene auditorium. The assembly was followed by a series of meetings, which students chose to attend according to their interests. The strike continued into the next day with Government Department-sponsored lectures on President Nixon’s policy in Cambodia. A student statement of purpose was read to 14 area clergy and 40 Smith students at a meeting in the Helen Hills Hills Chapel lounge lead by Reverend Richard Unsworth and Rabbi Yechiael Lander. On May 8th, a memorial service was held in the Helen Hills Hills Chapel for the Kent State dead.

Students from Smith and other local colleges canvassed local Northampton residents on May 10th. A crowd of 300 people met in the Quad to hear Black Panther Doug Miranda speak; students raised $1,000 to pay Miranda for his appearance. Activities continued throughout the rest of May, eventually dying out as students began to study for and take examinations. Commencement exercises brought the Student Strike at Smith College to a close. However, many of the strike events occurred the week of commencement to show alumnae and parents what the students had been doing for the past month. Additionally, many organizations and students remained active throughout the summer.

The Strike’s Focus

Tremendous tension resulted from the students’ decision to make the focus of the strike Cambodia and the Vietnam War. Sarah Gordon ’72 was influential in convincing committee members to emphasize Cambodia and de-emphasize the Black Panther and Women’s Liberation movements; she thought the anti-war sentiment was something to which everyone could relate and championed its political pragmatism. The decision outraged many students, especially Black Student Association members. Students spoke in favor of focusing the strike’s efforts on improving racial inequality in the United States and abroad. A few times these conflicting interests incited confrontation among the students. Sarah Gordon remembers, “I sat in a chair in the corridor to wait 5 minutes, when suddenly the front hall was deluged by angry black girls. They went into the main office (Mr. Green’s office) and an angry exchange was started, interspersed with apologetic hand washings. A girl came wandering out and I asked her what the trouble was. She said that BSA was angry because the ad prepared for the New York Times dealt only with Cambodia and not with Political repression. I cringed, thankful that they didn’t know who had argued in favor of changing the emphasis to Cambodia for political expediency.” Interestingly, support for the Black Panther and civil rights movement was more substantial than for Women’s Lib.

There was, however, a presence and consciousness of Women’s Liberation on campus. Syd Waller addressed the special role women’s colleges assume in activism. She explained, “This is a national Student Strike. Each campus is supposed to have its own version. Ours is a Strike on the campus of a college for women, and although it is being by and large run by women, men from other campuses have been trying to take it over. We need the help of all, men and women, for this is a strike on behalf of all humanity. Smith is a women’s college – run predominately by men just as the Strike might give the impression of being directed by men – but still, a women’s college. We need to run our own Strike. We’re capable of running our own strike. We as women have a particular vision of what war can mean to humanity. This is a Strike to end the torture and massacre in Cambodia and at home, to end the usurpation of power by President Nixon. Students all over the country have been striking, and women students have only just begun to realize our political power, and our responsibility to make full use of it. Women in our culture are considered and trained to be more compassionate and sensitive than men, thus we may be able to sympathize more fully with the victims of atrocities. It is seldom pointed out that for every male soldier killed, nine women and babies die. We’re women, we strike as women, and we unite on behalf of the entire human race, not in a neo-militaristic violent strike, but in a peaceful humanitarian way.” The speech recognizes the unique opportunity Smith students had to interact with the war as women. Nevertheless, Women’s Liberation remained on the periphery of strike activity.

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