Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University

By Donald Alexander Downs | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE OVERVIEW OF THE CRISIS

Sunday, April 20, 1969, was perhaps the most infamous day in the history of Cornell University and a watershed day in American higher education. At 4:10 p.m. over eighty members of the Afro-American Society (AAS) marched in solidarity out of the student union, Willard Straight Hall, fists clenched in Black Power salutes. The march stood apart from all other upheavals of that era for one conspicuous reason: the protesters brandished rifles and other weapons. Never before had students introduced guns into a campus conflict. 1 The AAS did not take the guns into the Straight when they took it over; they smuggled them in for defensive purposes after some fraternity brothers broke in and the AAS feared further vigilante action. ( AAS members and allies had purchased the guns earlier that year, encouraged to do so by the burgeoning Black Power movement.) 2

As they walked across campus to their headquarters, the students held their weapons on high in salutes that imitated the famous Black Panther march into the state capitol of California in 1968. Thomas W. Jones, an AAS leader, boasted, "that was a moment in history--armed black people marching out of the student union at Cornell University in military formation. That was a moment that galvanized black people across this nation!"3 The AAS minister of defense, one of the first students out of the door, wore a bandolier of bullets across his chest. The Associated Press photographer who captured the rifles, the bandoliers, and the exit in what came to be called "The Picture" won the Pulitzer Prize for the best photograph of 1969.

Two events precipitated the seizing of the Straight early the previous day: the burning of a cross in front of Wari House, the black women's cooperative, and the Cornell judicial board's issuance of sanctions against five AAS activists for disruptive demonstrations undertaken the previous December. The AAS's most immediate objectives were to get the sanctions--which it considered tools of oppression at the hands of the all-white board--nullified and to avenge the cross-burning. But

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