The Social Problems Club Riot of 1935: A Window into Antiradicalism and Antisemitism at Michigan State College

Article excerpt

In April 1935 Michigan State College (MSC--now Michigan State University) made national news. On April 13 the Associated Press reported that during a nationwide student strike for peace the day before, in which thousands of students all over the country rallied, a mob of about five hundred MSC students marched on the small local peace rally held across from the college campus in East Lansing. The mob heckled and jeered at the speakers, threw rotten fruit and eggs, and finally grabbed five of the rally participants, dragged them across campus, and dumped them in the Red Cedar River. (1) In his 1935 book about the national student peace movement, Revolt on the Campus, student journalist James Wechsler offered a detailed report about these antiradical events on MSC's campus. He also described a related incident: the night before the rally two hundred MSC students marched on the Jewish fraternity on campus, shouting antisemitic insults and threats. This effort appeared to be an attempt to intimidate the leaders of the planned peace demonstration. (2)

Despite the national attention directed at MSC students' conduct in 1935, histories of the school have said very little about these reports of mob activity. (3) This silence is unfortunate because research into these reported mob actions offers insight into the history of Michigan State University, as well as into the history of both antiradicalism and antisemitism in the United States in the 1930s. The events of April 1935 occurred on a campus that was relatively quiescent politically, dominated by an antiradical administration, a powerful Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and a conservative student body primarily from Michigan. Yet these reported mob actions suggest that this conservative campus felt threatened: the recent establishment of a radical student organization, the Social Problems Club, and the increasing numbers of Jewish students--many of them from out of state--appear to have disturbed MSC administrators and students and may have provoked the violent reactions of 1935. These events, on a campus where radicalism was fairly mild and where Jews represented a tiny minority, demonstrate the extent to which antisemitism and antiradicalism had become a part of American campus life in the 1930s.

Michigan State College's campus in that decade seemed an unlikely one to make national news. The student body was relatively small--only about four thousand students--and the school's emphasis on agriculture, as well as its mandatory two years of military service for male students, attracted a conservative population, mostly from Michigan. (4)

Social life at MSC mainly revolved around fraternities, dances, sports, drinking, and college hazing rituals; only a small number of students were politically or intellectually engaged. "There is a decided dearth of culture and intellectual activity on this campus," complained one MSC student, Jon Young, in a 1935 diary entry. "Some outsiders still look askance at us at the so-called cow college and claim we still carry wisps of straw on our socks." (5) Young's journal, which he began when he was a freshman and continued through his graduation from MSC, contains detailed descriptions of the vicious hazing that sophomores inflicted upon him and all his classmates during their first year at MSC. (6) David Cleary, the editor of the State News, MSC's newspaper, told James Wechsler that "there is no faculty repression of student thought [at MSC] because there is no student thought. Students are free to get roaring drunk at any time and thus work off their discontentment, if they have any." (7) Although intellectual and political activities did take place at MSC, the overall spirit of campus life was narrowly focused on the pursuit of amusement.

Male students' mandatory military service had a powerful impact on MSC's campus life. President Robert Shaw was vocal in his appreciation for military service: "I have always been strongly in favor of required military drill for freshmen and sophomores. …