Sitting in and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960-1970

Sitting in and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960-1970

Sitting in and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960-1970

Sitting in and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South, 1960-1970

Synopsis

In Sitting In and Speaking Out, Jeffrey A. Turner examines student movements in the South to grasp the nature of activism in the region during the turbulent 1960s. Turner argues that the story of student activism is too often focused on national groups like Students for a Democratic Society and events at schools like Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. Examining the activism of black and white students, he shows that the South responded to national developments but that the response had its own trajectory--one that was rooted in race. Turner looks at such events as the initial desegregation of campuses; integration's long aftermath, as students learned to share institutions; the Black Power movement; and the antiwar movement. Escalating protest against the Vietnam War tested southern distinctiveness, says Turner. The South's tendency toward hawkishness impeded antiwar activism, but once that activism arrived, it was--as in other parts of the country--oriented toward events at national and global scales. Nevertheless, southern student activism retained some of its core characteristics. Even in the late 1960s, southern protesters' demands tended toward reform, often eschewing calls to revolution increasingly heard elsewhere. Based on primary research at more than twenty public and private institutions in the deep and upper South, including historically black schools, Sitting In and Speaking Out is a wide-ranging and sensitive portrait of southern students navigating a remarkably dynamic era.

Excerpt

In May 1970, Jerry Rubin, the infamous Yippie activist, delivered a speech at the University of Alabama. By then, Rubin was a national figure, admired by some, reviled by others. The University of Alabama also had claims on the national consciousness—as the scene of the segregationist Governor George C. Wallace’s audacious 1963 attempt to block the school’s integration and as the home of the Crimson Tide, Bear Bryant’s football powerhouse. Neither, however, meant much to campus progressives who rejected hidebound traditions and sought to move the university and the state toward their vision of racial progress—those, in short, who envisioned the emergence of a new ‘Bama. To activist students, the fact that someone of Rubin’s renown had come to Tuscaloosa symbolized the dawning of a new era. “Just his presence meant something,” recalled Mike O’Bannon, at the time an undergraduate psychology major and campus activist. “To a lot of people it meant that we had, in a lot of ways, arrived” Alabama activists, according to O’Bannon, believed Rubin’s Tuscaloosa appearance said to the rest of the country, “Look, the University of Alabama is part of this whole thing.” In May 1970, a reporter for Time magazine wrote, “Consider the University of Alabama, which has long been a bastion of idolized athletes and lionized coaches, pretty coeds, fervent fraternity men and racism. Today, Alabama is aroused—and politicized.”

The Time reporter’s assessment of ‘Bama’s student culture was true as far as it went. Football, frats, and belles had long dominated student life. And, in fact, the campus political culture had undergone a significant transformation, making space for new forms of dissent. But the university’s politicization—its status as a battleground for conflict over serious political ideas—was nothing new. Since at least 1956, when rioting by segregationist students and community members blocked the attempted entrance of an African American student, the campus had been politicized, though in ways that varied from the examples set by “Berkeley, say, or Cornell, or Columbia” —schools that seemed to provide the model the Time reporter used to understand the emergence of “aggressive moderates” at the University of Alabama and similar places.

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