The Class of ’68 takes a look back
At Homecoming, an alumni panel will ponder Berkeley’s legacy of political involvement
| 01 October 2003
During the first month of 1968, North Vietnamese forces launched a surprise offensive against the South and its American allies. Then came the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the general strike in France by students and nine million workers; the Poor People’s Campaign and the erection (then destruction) of Resurrection City; the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy; the trial in Oakland of Black Panther Chairman Huey Newton; the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the violent clashes outside between protesters and police; the attack on student protesters by government forces in Mexico City; and the election of Richard Nixon to the first of two terms as president. Not to mention, for young Berkeley students, the impact of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll.
Veterans of the class of ’68, now in ripe midlife, will look back on this time of headline events and cumulative trauma when they converge this Friday through Sunday for Homecoming & Parents Weekend. They’ll cheer the Bears against Oregon State, recall their salad days, and take stock of the intervening 35 years.
A time for formal reflection on the protests, marches, sit-ins, teach-ins, be-ins, and die-ins of the ’60s is set for 9 to 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 4, in 155 Dwinelle. Alumnus Dick Beahrs ’68 — a former ASUC president who has since been president of Court TV and the Comedy Channel — will moderate a panel discussion on “The Legacy of Berkeley’s Activism.” He’ll share reflections with a roster of panelists who, whether or not they tuned in or turned on, most certainly did not drop out: David Corvo ’72, now executive producer of NBC’s Dateline; J-School faculty member and former New York Times Congressional reporter Susan Rasky ’74; Vanity Fair senior writer Maureen Orth ’64; and Jonathan Rodgers ’67, president of the New Urban Network and recently retired head of the Discovery Networks.
Agents of change?
The question at hand: Political activism at Berkeley has had a significant impact on American culture since the 1960s, but has it helped propel social change? Did it spur the growth of the civil-rights and feminist movements or help put Ronald Reagan into the White House? Or both?
Beahrs extols the energy and optimism of the first half of the ’60s,when activism “was delivering results” — most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As head of a campus speaking series before he was ASUC president, he introduced talks by Robert Kennedy (who was “greeted like a rock star”) in ’66 and Martin Luther King in ’67.
In the eight months between their visits, says Beahrs, “the change in the campus environment was palpable.” Following a meeting between King and the campus’s small minority of African-American students, he drove the civil-rights leader across the Bay Bridge. “Dr. King was extremely upset and concerned” by black students’ sense of alienation from the university, Beahrs recalls. “It was almost like he saw a vision of what lay in the future.”
What lay in the immediate future was deepening American involvement in Southeast Asia, deeper student alienation, an extraordinarily polarized campus, and, in 1968, the silencing of what he calls “the most visible voices of conscience.” Others speak, too, of a weakening commitment to nonviolent resistance by many campus militants and a tendency to idealize leaders of distant Third World struggles.
“We became uncritical of things communist, socialist, and Vietnamese,” says Student Affairs Officer Hal Reynolds, who in 1968 was a Cal grad student in comparative literature. “I think Ronald Reagan was voted in [as governor] very much because of a conservative reaction to the protest movement…The California voters said ‘we need to put a stop to this.’”
Close to home, the protests of the ’60s brought changes still evident today. Students agitated for an expanded role in curricular decisions and government of the university. Their efforts led, eventually, to student inclusion in many Aca-demic Senate committees, a student seat on the UC Board of Regents, student-initiated courses (currently under the umbrella of De-Cal), and the campus’s unique American Cultures requirement.
Berkeley students “started looking outward to the community, instead of inward to the academy,” Reynolds notes. The ASUC started and ran several small businesses in the community, among them an arts-supply store (Rainbow Arts), a music store (Leopold’s), and a bike shop (Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative). Students also sought opportunities for direct involvement in the local community — the outgrowth of which, in 2003, is a booming program of service and service-learning opportunities through organizations like Cal Corps. The numbers of student activists are down today, says Reynolds, while community service is up. “People have a way they can channel their idealism,” he observes.
The Class of ’68 panel is free to Homecoming registrants and to those with a weekend pass (which covers admission to other faculty seminars, open houses, campus tours, and athletic events). Sign up for the $10 pass at the Homecoming registration tent, just west of the Campanile, on Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. For details, see homecoming.berkeley.edu or call 888/UNIV-CAL (888-864-8225).