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‘The conscience of the country’: Alumni reflect on activism, past and present, at UNC

(DTH Photo Illustration/José Valle; original photos DTH file/Barron Northrup and courtesy of UNC Archives)

(DTH Photo Illustration/José Valle; original photos DTH file/Barron Northrup and courtesy of UNC Archives)

The 2.9 million of January’s Women’s March were a part of the largest protest in history. This month’s HKonJ had its highest attendance ever. In the first two months of 2017, UNC students have protested the inauguration, controversial Cabinet picks and a Trump travel ban.

At the forefront of many of these is college campuses, something that doesn’t surprise UNC Entrepreneur in Residence Buck Goldstein.

“Students have a long tradition of being the conscience of the country. They have, you might argue, a little less to lose by taking a risk,” Goldstein said. “I think students generally have this responsibility to push the older generations into questioning, that’s just kind of what students have always done.”

And Goldstein is no stranger to campus protests — the class of 1970 graduate was a leader in the anti-Vietnam war protests at UNC. But he said there was one major factor that made those protests different than today’s.

“The biggest difference is that students, classmates, were being drafted and killed,” Goldstein said. “That created a different dynamic than even what we have now. People were turning in their draft cards in religion classes.”

Charles Jeffress, also a class of 1970 graduate, said he was involved with Black Student Movement, the “Dump Johnson” campaign to unseat then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and the anti-war campaign.

“I would say a significant percentage of students on campus were sympathetic to the anti-war movement,” Jeffress said. “We at Carolina hosted a lot of speakers who talked about the war and the injustices of that war, and why the United States should not be involved.”

One of those speakers was then-congressman and UNC class of 1949 alum Allard Lowenstein.

“He was saying on college campus after college campus, including this one, that if students can lead a protest, they can unseat a sitting president,” Goldstein said. “And so the idea was that maybe the protests, the concern about the war would be so great that the president would have to resign.”

The protests didn’t just stay on campus. In November 1969, Goldstein said more than a hundred buses went from Chapel Hill to Washington D.C. as students across the nation gathered to hold an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.

“There were hundreds of thousands of people nationwide, so it kind of rolled out from campus to the country,” he said. “And what’s interesting in retrospect, is that one of the leaders then was this soldier who came back from Vietnam and was extremely eloquent and who had testified before Congress, and became one of the spokespeople for that movement — that was John Kerry.”

But not everyone on campus supported the demonstrations. Jeffress said there was a group of Young Americans for Freedom who vocally supported the war. Goldstein said it was easy to tell where students stood on the war just by taking a walk across campus.

“Politically, it was, are you for the war or against the war? Culturally, it was, did you wear bell-bottom blue jeans or tassel loafers and khakis,” he said.

Jeffress said that although there were differences of political opinions, it didn’t create the hostility that accompanies political debates today.

“It wasn’t the kind of name-calling and the kind of the sometimes ugly violence that we see today,” Jeffress said. “It seemed to be a difference of opinion, and treated as such, not, ‘You’re a bad person because you think that way,’ which we hear too much of today.”

But, differences in opinion did turn violent a few states away on May 4, 1970, the day after Nixon announced the U.S. would invade Cambodia.

Four students at Kent State University were killed during a protest when National Guardsmen opened fire on the crowd.

Nationally, UNC history professor Benjamin Waterhouse said there’s still no general consensus on how the shootings affected the college campus protest movement.

“There’s debate, and I’m not sure if it’s resolved, over whether Kent State revitalizes campus protest culture or stomps on its neck.” he said. “There are plenty of people who are outraged and saddened and horrified on behalf of the protesters, and yet at the same time there’s a very vocal group that basically backs the government, backs the national guard and says these kids had it coming, you don’t disrespect authority, you don’t throw rocks and bottles at armed soldiers who are there for you.”

Class of 1971 graduate Todd Cohen remembers its effect on UNC’s campus vividly.

The shooting happened right around finals time, and he led a movement to get the university to cancel finals that year.

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“Within a couple of days, most of the area between South Building and Wilson Library was filled with people who slept there,” he said. “It was a long time coming in a place that has a strong tradition of having a sense of civic duty and engagement in the issues that were important in whatever the era was.”

Cohen said he believes students have that strong sense of civic duty because college is where students discover what they want to do and who they want to be, which involves envisioning what kind of world they want to live in.

“So when they see discrimination, when they see violence and intolerance and dishonesty and hypocrisy and corruption and war, they take that very seriously,” Cohen said. ” And at UNC, as much if not more than many colleges throughout the country because of the very nature of its history and traditions, that has always been the case.”

Cohen said as his classmates graduated, many of them had to prioritize keeping jobs and raising families over their college ideals — a shift Waterhouse said led to a sharp decline in campus protests, even though events like the oil crisis, Pentagon papers and Watergate led to a decline in national trust in the government as well.

“People weren’t in the streets over oil prices — they were ticked, they were really upset about it, but it was almost a collective giving up,” Waterhouse said. “And that doesn’t lend itself to protest if you don’t think that the protest is going to accomplish anything.”

Both Waterhouse and Goldstein said campus activism has been recently revitalized on a grand scale.

“If there’s any good news, the silver lining to our current situation is that it’s reenergized students on issues that they thought had been settled long ago,” Goldstein said.

Cohen said he believes college students have the same ideals that he and his peers did, but that the use of technology has allowed students to come together in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

Sophomore Mistyre Bonds, who led an anti-Trump protest on Franklin Street and in Carrboro, said that while technology has been a way to mobilize student activists, it also has its drawbacks.

She didn’t fully realize it existed until the protest in Carrboro, when an older woman got out of her car to join the march. She thanked Bonds for organizing the event and said people in her generation don’t often hear about the demonstrations going on.

Bonds said social media, along with only hanging around people of the same age, has led younger generations to leave out older ones.

“They have insights to what works, the best tactics when it comes to protesting, the other areas of activism like writing to lawmakers, things like that,” she said. That’s why we need to reach across the generational gap because they have the know-how that we don’t.”

Goldstein said the cross-generational respect is mutual.

“I thought the Women’s March began a process that hopefully will lead to a lot of political change too,” he said.

“I have a lot of confidence in students and their ability to figure out what’s gonna work in the current environment.”