Shutting the Campus Down for the Black Student Union

DC Politics Education
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Black Student Union members and supporters outside the UW Administration Building

July 28, 2021

            New Orleans     I skim the Arts section of the New York Times.  As I was taking it to recycling yesterday, something caught my eye.  It was a picture of young Black men raising their fists in front of a stately red-brick building.  The caption read: “Above, cast members of ‘Alien/Nation,’ partly about Black student protests at Williams College in 1969, at the Williamstown Theater Festival.”  “Alien/Nation” was a play it turned out that was something of an acting and walking tour across the Williams College campus.  The reviewer, Maya Phillips, accompanied by her mother across the hilly expanse, was something other than fawning in her piece, liking the idea of themes of blackness, but not a whole lot else, at the festival where there seemed to be nothing but white people and rain in attendance.

The scene had struck me because I had been there then when the Black Student Union occupied Hopkins Hall, the administration building early on a Saturday morning on April 5, 1969. I had returned that semester, my last as it turned out at Williams, after having dropped out in 1968 to organize draft resistance against the Vietnam War.  I wasn’t there physically, because I was living off campus, having gotten married five days after turning twenty, while I was in Louisiana, not Massachusetts.  There weren’t a million activists or folks with any organizing experience at Williams then.  We had a small SDS chapter.  We had tried to organize a draft counseling center in the area when I returned.  I wasn’t a big fish in this small pond, but my flippers were roiling the water where others sought the calmer pools.

I can remember talking tothrough the window at Hopkins early that morning.  Preston was heading up the Black Student Union then.  He, Clifford Robertson, another BSU member, and I had lived in the same entryway, as they called it, throughout our freshman year in 1966-67, and had become friends and comrades through long discussions into the night.  I asked “What needed to be done to support you?”  Preston asked it we could shut the campus down?  Clifford called out that they needed food.  Bob Lee, who had worked with me on the draft center, and I got together.  Thinking about professors that might be able to get a message to the administration we met with Robert Gaudino at his house, along with Craig Brown, who taught me political philosophy that semester.  Moratoriums with teach-ins had been common then to discuss the war.  We asked if they could get that demand to Dean Hyde to shut the school down for two or three days for a teach-in around the issues being raised by the BSU.  And, it happened.

At the end of that time, the 34 BSU occupiers were able to negotiate with growing campus support a successful conclusion to the takeover.  Black studies and a cultural center were significant commitments.  We played a bit part.

It may not be the best play for the Williamstown Theater, but it was a good play by the BSU in 1969.  Afterwards, everyone went their way.  I lost touched with people quickly because those were among my last days at Williams.  Preston passed away way too early as a minister in Harlem who also was involved in community development.  Gaudino also died before his time.  I found Brown in Arizona, I think.  Lee and Robertson, who knows.  For me, it was another milepost on the road that led me that summer to my organizing welfare rights in Springfield, and then by 1970 in Boston, and that summer hardly a year later in June to founding ACORN.

Memories come and go.  Struggle is eternal, even if hardly recognized.  It’s good to be forced to remember.  We all need to be watercarriers on the peoples’ march to justice.