Remembering Days of Change


I’m a bit disappointed that the University of Missouri, my undergraduate alma mater, has made no mention of the 50th anniversary of the student unrest of 1969. Other Universities have. Harvard has a retrospective underway, and there is an indie movie in circulation called ‘Underground 68’ which views those days of student protest through the eyes of one of today’s Harvard undergraduates.

I think that sort of retrospective is useful. To look back from time to time to see who we were and how far we’ve come. For many of us the student protests of 1968 and 1969 were life-changing events, even though we may not have realized it at the time.

And I believe protest was justified then, since in those days the University of Missouri administration still felt that its control of the student population should be firm, sometimes excessively firm. You remember dorm hours, dress codes, etc. Freedom of speech was the central issue at first, protests against the war in Vietnam came later.

Talking about freedom of speech vs. firm control…in 1968 several MU students were arrested and given 45 day jail sentences (later commuted to public service) for chalking ‘Gentle Tuesday is coming’ on sidewalks.

The irony of this harsh sentencing was apparently lost on Columbia police and University administrators, but not on the students and faculty.

Soon a ‘chalk-in’ was organized and some 1500 students from MU, Stephens, and Columbia College (then Christian College) marched from the MU campus to the Boone County courthouse where they chalked quotes from the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence on the courthouse steps. No one was arrested.

The ‘chalk-in’ march was particularly notable in that it was led by an MU faculty member and the president of the student association.

In April, Gentle Tuesday did come. It was a non-violent gathering on the University quad in support of freedom of speech. It was probably the first large scale gathering in Columbia of the people who would later come to be called ‘flower children’.

The University administration also frowned on faculty members making what could be conceived of as anti Vietnam war statements. This over-control resulted in the so-called brain drain: professors were leaving MU for more liberal colleges. Tellingly this situation was reported not by Columbia’s mainstream media but by the underground Columbia Free Press.

But to its credit, the University did change. Freedom of speech did improve, and, associated issues like diversity made progress. If my memory serves me correctly, the University of Missouri hired its first black professor in 1969.

Columbia Missouri’s first alternative radio station, KOPN, also had its roots in the quest for greater freedom of speech. Founded in 1973, it was the voice of the counterculture in Columbia for a time. Ten years after its founding in 1973 the Columbia Tribune newspaper carried an article about KOPN, titled ‘A Dream Comes of Age,” making the point that the radio station had moved beyond its ‘flower child’ beginnings.

I wonder now if that ‘coming of age’ was a good thing or a bad thing.

Speaking of 1960s student unrest, there is an interesting 2011 French film called ‘Something in the Air’ which is a nicely done picture of those days of change, in France. Days of youthful idealism, and then the inevitable choice that we all had to make: continue to be a rebel protester, or move into the mainstream.

I was one of those who moved into the mainstream and I have no regrets. But I think back to 1969 and like to think we made something of a difference for the better. They were great days.

But today is not so bad either. The University of Missouri is doing great things, especially the College of Engineering. I’m proud to be an alumnus. But I confess that I am a little disappointed that 1969, that exciting, threatening, change-provoking time, seems to be forgotten.



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