Saturday, April 17, 2010

Burning Kansas - circa 1970

Forty years ago this month the University of Kansas in Lawrence was the site for some of the most radical, and violent, demonstrations which took place nationwide in protest of the war in Vietnam. The anti-war mood across the country had grown increasingly more impatient and with it came more extreme displays of protest.

On April 8, termed "Strike Day," many students boycotted class and reportedly several thousand people stormed Strong Hall, the administration building, to protest the denial of a promotion to a faculty members who spoke out against the Chicago 8 trial. That night, activist Abbie Hoffman spoke before a crowd of 8,000, wiped his nose with an American flag and was quoted as saying "Lawrence is a drag."

In the time period between April 13-22, young white radicals (called "street people") and black liberation militants started what amounted to a small guerrilla war. Arson, firebombing, shots fired by snipers and bombings took place, primarily in the predominantly black sections of east and north Lawrence, as well as an area near KU called "Hippie Haven." Three nights of emergency curfew were imposed as a result and the Kansas National Guard was called in to assist in patrolling the streets. On April 20, an arson fire destroyed part of the Kansas Union, inflicting over $1 million (in 1970 dollars) damage as students assisted firefighters in trying to stop the blaze.

The anxiety caused by these various events, and the fear for student safety, caused then Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers and university officials to put into place a procedure in early May where students were allowed to leave campus early--they were allowed the choice of skipping the last three classes and taking the final, taking an incomplete and finishing the work later, taking the letter grade already earned, taking credit/no credit for the class, or attending classes and taking the final as usual.

The controversial decision, refused by many faculty, not surprisingly was embraced by students, most of whom took the grade already earned, avoiding the final and allowing them to leave campus in order to start summer vacations early.

The spring of 1970 was one of the darkest periods in the history of KU--the events of that spring helped eventually force out Chancellor Chalmers (who Kansas Board of Regents members thought was "too permissive), it caused both parents and students to question attendance at the school, and it drew the nation's attention to a campus that became dubbed "Little Berkeley." It ultimately took the calming leadership of Chancellor Raymond Nichols (1972-73) followed by Chancellor Archie Dykes (1973-1980) to bring students, faculty and the community back together.

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