[Editor’s note: this article is part 2 of a primary source, historical deep-dive into the San Francisco State University student strike, the longest campus strike in the history of the United States. Read here for part 1, part 3, and part 4.]
In February of 1968, President Summerskill made an important choice, one that belied the feelings of the administration about the crisis. In spring, Summerskill quietly appointed a Black Studies Coordinator as chosen by the BSU, his next step in addressing grievances. So, who had the BSU selected? This man was Nathan Hare. Hare was charged with developing the curriculum for the ESD. Summerskill hadn’t consulted either the Vice President for Academic Affairs or the Council of Academic Deans, essentially bypassing the normal hiring process. What about the situation warranted this cryptic act? As Summerskill put it, “…this college is going to explode wide open…if the blacks do not get what they want soon.” [i] There’s that tone again. Unless the unenforceable or impossible demands of radicals were met there would be no peace. Was he right? Well, he was at the very least right about the explosion part.
Who was this Nathan Hare? On paper, he was the perfect candidate and eloquent man with a Ph.D. in sociology. However, any cursory examination of his history or his writing would reveal a different picture. [ii] Dr. Nathan Hare had just been fired from Howard University for being a militant activist. Did Summerskill really expect a different to get a different result from a historically black school? [iii] Nathan Hare employed the typically extreme rhetoric common for this period of the BSU. For example:
The revolutionaries had lost faith in the routine means of righting wrong. They were crippled, though, by a feeling of powerlessness against the white power structure. It’s like today. They say we are too few to fight. We should vote. But I can kill 20 (white) men. I can cut one’s throat, shoot another, drop a hand grenade in the middle of a whole bunch. I get only a single vote, and that’s between the lesser of two evils. [iv]
This was a recipe for disaster. On February 22, 1968, Summerskill announced his plans to resign in September. Summerskill explained his reasoning for resignation by charging Governor Ronald Reagan with “political interference and financial starvation”. [v]
The Board of Trustees was not happy with the situation at State and began to assert its control over the college. First, it proposed a revision to the State Education Code that would give the Chancellor, not AS, control over student fees. This would more than likely decimate the Tutorial, Community Involvement Programs, and The Experimental College, and eliminate funding for recognized student organizations such as the BSU and TWLF. [vi]
This proposal never got off the ground and the Associated Student’s money continued to flow. In one stroke of the pen, the Board could have sucked the wind out of those sails. Alas, it was not to be.
Just as the BSU had gained their slice of power, the Third World Liberation Front asked for slots to be reserved for unqualified Mexican students (under the Educational Opportunity Program). The TWLF wanted its piece of the pie. So, on February 29th, in the middle of Vietnam War protests, Professor Juan Martinez led a cadre of 300 high school students to, as before, demand special admission to the college (these demands were also met before the strike happened). In what was some of the first blood drawn in this conflict, Juan’s contract was not renewed. The TWLF did not stop there. [vii] [viii] [ix] [x]
The Community Program kept on paying dividends. Student protesters took it upon themselves to randomly interrupt classes. On March 23rd, the SDS and TWLF occupied “liberated” the YMCA for five days. The TWFL’s initial demands are particularly instructive regarding their relationship with the SDS. The SDS led this operation, but had enticed the TWLF in by tacking on its demands. This initial concession to the SDS is absent from the final demands and, increasingly, even as the TWLF leaned on the SDS for warm bodies, its use of anti-war demands slowly fell by the wayside. The TWLF used the YMCA as its office, kicking out the staff, until our craven Summerskill finally and politely asked them to leave. [xi]
Summerskill’s conciliatory methods had still gained him no allies with either the radical students or the Board of Trusties. [xii] Once again, the TWLF occupied the administration building. This time Summerskill made sure the campus was open for 24 hours, students could not be charged with trespassing. The chancellor’s office (of the state college system), sick of the drama, was ready to clear the buildings if Summerskill wouldn’t. Summerskill rejected this demand and the chancellor backed down. Instead, Summerskill met with the TWLF and agreed to admit the 400 students and also agreed to allocate the new faculty positions available for 1968 (9-12) to help these special admissions. In addition, the TWLF would be given a voice on who these new professors and staff would be (just like the BSU). Lastly, Summerskill agreed to host a referendum on the question of ROTC on campus. [xiii] The “real causes” must be addressed. On May 21st, Summerskill finally called in the police when 400 students were staging to clear these students out of the administration building. [xiv]
On the evening of May [21st], with soon-to-be ex-president Summerskill tearfully apologizing, police entered the building and through a bullhorn stated that the sit-in constituted an illegal assembly and that if the demonstrators did not leave the building immediately they would be subject to arrest. [xv]
Summerskill clearly wore his heart on his sleeve that day. He had acceded to the radical’s demands for naught. The concession had changed nothing, addressing the grievances had changed nothing. It was only under threat of arrest that most of the TWLF and SDS had left (25 were arrested). [xvi] Summerskill might not have believed in force, but the students understood it well enough.
Given Summerskill’s dismal performance in May of 1968, the Board of Trustees accepted his early resignation. Before the ink was dry, John Summerskill disappeared off to Ethiopia (brought there by the Ford Foundation), leaving the campus without a president and the Board rushing to find a replacement. [xvii]
Within a couple days the students were back again leading another protest. This time, the protest was under the banner of “campus reform”, while still harping on all things military: recruitment, ROTC, the selective service etc. [xviii] [xix] Again, at this point, any casual observer of events would have to make quite the logical pretzels to conclude that the protests were about an ESD. In the middle of this mess, Nathan Hare began designing the curriculum for the Black Studies Program.
On the heels of Summerskill’s departure, Dr. Robert Smith stepped in, being officially named president of the College on June 1st. [xx] By September, the new school year admitted 400 “special” students and the Board of Trustees had increased the admission for the EOP from 2% to 4% of admission for the 1968 academic year. [xxi]
George Murray was hired to provide introductory English classes to these “special” students to help them integrate. Murray’s qualifications included being a graduate student and the Black Panther Minister of Education. If you hadn’t forgotten, Murray was also involved in the assault on The Gater staff. A week later, President Robert Smith officially announced the creation of the Black Studies Department and named Hare (first brought in by Summerskill) as Acting Chair. [xxii] [Sept 18th]
In case you’re wondering, yes, this is still two months away from the start of the strike. So if the Black Studies Department was already in the works, what actually did initiate the official strike? What distinguished this strike from the other countless protests and shenanigans? There is some indication that the strike was planned well in advance of any casus belli. As the semester started, the BSU declared: “In the coming semester we will be engaged in revolutionary political activity.” [xxiii]
So what casus belli did the BSU find? Well, as it turns out, the Black Panther Minister (George Murray) of Education wasn’t the most level-headed or wise employee (if assaulting fellow students didn’t convince you before). In fact, as the local papers discovered, George Murray had just returned from Cuba with a new set of Marxist rhetoric. The papers ran with the story reminding the public of his involvement in The Gater incident. That might have been the end of it, had the Los Angeles papers (where the Board of Trustees was headquartered) not also picked up the story. The Board was unaware that Murray was an instructor in the first place and had assumed this had been dealt with when he was arrested and suspended the previous year. How had he come back in the first place, anyways? Our favorite former president, Summerskill, had against the recommendations of the English Department, reinstated Murray. In fact, his reinstatement had been conditional on further disciplinary proceedings. Unsurprisingly though, Summerskill, believing in the futility of discipline, let Murray off the hook. The Board, already concerned, was further alarmed when news of Murray’s statements at Fresno State spread. [xxiv]
At a Fresno State College rally, he [George Murray] allegedly had stated, “We are slaves, and the only way to become free is to kill all the slave masters.” At San Francisco State College, he allegedly had said that black students should bring guns to campus to protect themselves from white racist administrators. [xxv]
This statement left the Mayor of San Francisco and the Chancellor of the State System scrambling for cover. The mayor soon in touch with the district attorney and Chancellor Dumke was consulting with the trustees. A whopping 16 days after he was formally hired, the Board of Trustees asked for Murray to be assigned to a non-teaching position pending an investigation. [xxvi] [xxvii] Representatives from professor and teachers’ organizations across the state and the nation cried foul at this breach of procedure and called it an attack on the “principle of delegation of authority.” Smith interpreted the command as a request and interpreted his responsibility to follow “established procedures.” Unfortunately, these procedures were theoretical at best, but Smith needed time to address grievances. After all, one wouldn’t want to upset the professors or students, as the unrest might continue.
Whereas Smith was concerned with unrest, the Board was concerned with the rising anger of the public with the higher-education system. In late October, the Chancellor of the California State University system ordered Smith to suspend Murray. Smith again refused, but capitulated after one day, finally suspending Murray. We have found our proverbial straw. [xxviii] [xxix]
That did it! Black students and their white sympathizers viewed the administration’s action as racist and authoritarian, and the administration itself as weak, controlled by conservative, uncaring politicians in Sacramento and conservative, rich, white Trustees in Los Angeles.[xxx]
In an unsurprising show of tribalism, we have found our excuse for the strike. The revolutionary political activity was on its way. The re-hiring of Murray became just one entry on the long list of the official demands for the student strike. The BSU wanted more special admissions, more autonomy, and more professors for the ESD.
“Among other things, the black students ordered the college to establish at once a black studies department with 20 full-time faculty members. They insisted that the new department be controlled by its faculty and staff, free from interference by college administrators or the statewide Board of Trustees.” [xxxi]
If we are to believe the standard narrative about the strike, it would be clear that there were escalating tensions surrounding “unresolved issues.” If we are to trust in the unnatural response to unrest, then the real causes must be addressed. So far, we are no closer to understanding the “real causes.” After all, the ESD was in the process, how could a granted request be a casus belli? Also, if there were already plans for revolutionary political activity, were the demands merely a pretense? This is getting quite complicated. So, what would an average observer think three months before the strike? We are fortunate for this report from the chancellor’s office summarizing the issues as seen by “most observers”:
(1) War protest, (2) racial discrimination, (3) desire to use the colleges and universities as vehicles for social change, (4) curricular irrelevance, (5) institutional inertia and resistance to change. [xxxii]
I’m not seeing the ESD. We are on the eve of the strike, and our casual observer of events has yet to discover the “real cause” that our ethnic studies experts have so praised. No matter, we must address these sundry grievances: so what next? As was reported to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, there is little a college president can actually do to alleviate these issues. [xxxiii] He didn’t have the power to stop recruiting on campus or cooperation with the selective service system. He could not end the Vietnam War. He could not end racial discrimination. Smith could only encourage social change, not enforce it. Summerskill had tried his best to address “curricular irrelevance” and finally, the institutional inertia and resistance to change came largely from the Board of Trustees. In other words, the panoply of issues surrounding the campus before the strike shared in common the qualities of being impossible demands. The “real causes” of the strike could not be addressed: quite the dilemma.
For SFSC, there could be no salvation. There was nothing they could have done to prevent the strike short of stopping the protesters–stopping the attackers being the natural response to political violence. The two years of tension had not been a negotiation; they had been merely a buildup, a search for a pretense for an assault. According to Smith, when the BSU’s ten demands were finally presented to him, the BSU declared that they would strike regardless of whether the demands were granted. No salvation without works, no salvation obtained from works. [xxxiv]
The Strike Begins Nov 1968
So, on November 6th, the BSU had declared a strike, but what exactly did that mean? What did it look like for a bystander? Every day from around 11 to 1, the protests blared on. [xxxv] According to the librarian:
There were all sorts of strike-connected events happening in the Library, from students rushing in the front door while being chased by police, students pouring glue into the card catalog, to striking students pulling large numbers of books from the library shelves and piling them on the floor, bomb threats to the Library, etc. Everything was unsettled, and one never knew what to expect from day to day. Some things seemed to happen on a regular basis, e.g., the daily marches from the Speaker’s Platform to the Administration Building, but one never knew. [xxxvi]
The significance of these events is often lost on the modern narrative. Rather than focus on the violence, the modern narrative focuses on the righteousness of the cause. Fortunately, we can draw on a report by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence to get a better picture:
On November 6, the strike began. Roving bands of black students in teams of 5 and 10 entered classrooms to ask teachers and students why they were not supporting the strike. Some professors and newsmen reported that these teams threatened that tougher groups would be along to enforce the strike. President Smith closed the campus that afternoon for the day after announcing that he had reports of several small fires and other destruction, including a typewriter thrown through a window in the Business and Social Sciences Building. [xxxvii]
Certainly, the BSU’s persona seemed to convey aggression: militant garb and attitudes (snarling at opponents) were the norm for the BSU and indeed BP group of the era. These militant personas were not just for show, but were backed up by a campaign of violence. [xxxviii] The justifications for their actions echoed the rhetoric of Hare. From Murray:
“Black people cannot commit any crimes against white people. Anything we do to the ‘dog’ cannot be wrong. The only crimes we can commit are crimes against humanity. And white people aren’t part of humanity.” [xxxix] [George Murray]
and Jerry Varnado:
The BSU’s “on-campus coordinator” Jerry Varnado, told Hurst, that a white man “asked me why they (BSU members) called him a racist dog, and he said it hurt him. I said that shouldn’t hurt him because if somebody came up to me and called me a man, it wouldn’t hurt me – because I am a man.” [xl]
The influence of the Black Panthers can be seen in the BSU’s insistence on being constantly armed. For them, it was a symbol of resistance and defense against the “aggressive police.” The BSU and BP began to function more as a continuum, rather than as distinct groups on campus. [xli] [xlii]
The 2nd day of the strike (Nov. 7th) again a mob of students marched on the Administration Building:
There was one arrest. A 28-year-old Nigerian student, enrolled in two drama courses, was arrested for carrying a small bomb. Police said the bomb was about the size and shape of a transistor radio, and was filled with black powder. Another bomb made of .22-caliber shells wired together in a can exploded in the Education Building. There were no injuries and no arrest in connection with this bomb. There were several fires in wastebaskets, a telephone booth, and in a coach’s desk, but all were quickly extinguished. [xliii]
We can start to see the war of the flea strategy play out. As the protests marched through campus, bombing and arson were conducted clandestinely. The protests continued and by the end of the week, radical New Left faculty were joining the strike, while the AFT was officially staying out of the mess.
Friday, November 8, the student militants accelerated their guerrilla tactics. The administration reported that approximately 50 fires were discovered and extinguished on this day. Black raiding parties some wearing stocking masks invaded campus offices, overturning desks and smashing equipment. Most of the vandalism was done at noon while a strikers’ rally was going on at the center of the campus. [xliv]
As has become the standard operating procedure since this era, every riot needs a cover story–that is to say, every violent action needs a “peaceful” pretense to lend it legitimacy. Make no mistake, the organizers of the strike, the SDS and BSU, were fully ready to use any means necessary: revolutionary rhetoric and revolutionary means. Of course, a bunch of radicals running around campus make for bad optics. Worse, a protest of a few dozen often fails to impress, unless you have a friendly press with the right camera angles (something the SDS and BSU lacked). The moderate students were the motte to the SDS and BSU’s bailey (a campaign of violence). By recruiting moderate students with saccharine and vague platitudes, they could build an aura of righteous legitimacy for their cause. Naturally, this social capital was spent daily on violence, but you can’t disagree with their grievances, can you?
Offices were raided in the chemistry, anthropology, and psychology departments. The raid on the office of the chemistry department occurred with a plain- clothes policeman in an adjoining office a few feet away. Five men and two women, all wearing masks, burst into the office and turned over a desk, wrecked a duplicating machine, overturned wastebaskets, scattered files, and broke the glass in the door. Four Negroes entered the anthropology office and ordered a secretary and two men to leave. One of them cut the wires to the telephone and the electric typewriter, reported the secretary. [xlv]
As the tactical squad attempted to keep the campus running the radicals became even bolder. The conflict came to a head on Nov. 13th, 1968. Now, the story of what happened that day is a bit distorted by our sources, but like any close reader, we can infer what happened. When the tactical squad lost contact with some of its plainclothes officers, it sent a unit (9 men) to go investigate. The unit happened upon a gathering of a press conference being held by the BSU, which was accompanied by an audience of students. The explicit cause of the fight was a member of the tactical squad seizing and clubbing a BSU member. A closer reading will reveal our source’s attribution of hyper-agency to the police. [xlvi]
There is the Tac Unit, and black students with all of their feelings about not only the police but the Tac Unit…With all of the symbolism that’s involved for black people and the like, in this movement…The students knew nothing of this [losing contact with the plain clothes officers], and felt they were being attacked or at least harassed by police. And the melee was on. [xlvii]
The melee was “just on”–note the passive voice. Naturally, it was the fault of the tactical unit for being there. After all, how can the BSU be expected to react when they see police, much less the tactical squad? The symbolism alone is too much. Take this poster found near the BSU’s headquarters in Fillmore:
One of the posters seen frequently in the Fillmore shows an Associated Press photograph of a Vietnamese woman being questioned by a South Vietnamese officer while an American soldier, the caption says, holds a gun at her head. The gun muzzle is pressed tight against her distraught face, and the soldier identified as American has grabbed a hank of hair with his other hand, and is pulling it so hard that little ridges of skin have formed around the gun muzzle, where the flesh is being pressed so tight it cannot move. “Today the Vietnamese,” an overline on the picture reads, “tomorrow the blacks.” The poster is signed “Associated Students of San Francisco State College, Black Students Union.” [xlviii]
Did you read that: “tomorrow the blacks”? The mere presence of the tactical squad was a violent attack on the BSU. Under the threat of genocide by vicious swine, what could the students do but attack these retrograde aggressors? A student yelled “There’s the Tac Squad!” Then, a mob of hundreds of students ran towards the squad. Surrounded, the Tactical Squad defended itself. As the Tactical Squad attempted to retreat off campus, it ran into group after group of students. Each group of students it encountered–rather than watching or perhaps helping–instead joined the mob in attacking. The students throw “things” at police and occasionally rush in to “defend” a student, who just happened to get too close to the police. Howling and roaring, the students didn’t let up in their attack. The brawl only ended when professors, trying protect the students, got between the police and the mob: poor students. The police used the breathing room to escape. [xlix]
A Neat Trick!
While we shall leave the question of the media’s reaction for another day, the events of November 13th served as a major recruiting tool for the SDS. While many students questioned the goals of the SDS, they were willing to flock in defense of the poor students, who were deemed tragic victims of police brutality. Smith decided to close the campus. [l] His justification:
“We will keep the campus closed until we can run it on a more rational basis.” He told the reporters that “bringing in police as an effort to keep this campus open has not worked to my satisfaction.” [li]
The next day, he would begin a conference between the faculty and administration and eventually bring the students in. Smith seemed to share Summerskill’s aversion to force, or more accurately force being used against the students. Can you hear that tone again? [lii] These sentiments, however, were far from universal. Among the politicians in California, there was a growing anger with the handling of the situation.
The Governor [Reagan] labeled it “an act of capitulation,” and commented that “the campus administration itself contributed in no small measure to the unfortunate events of the past few days.”… The Governor said the order to close the college was “an unprecedented act of irresponsibility” and demanded “the campus be reopened to classes with dispatch.” [liii]
From the other side of the political table, Assembly Speaker Unruh, writing to Reagan:
“You should not sit idly by as Governor and permit San Francisco State College to close its doors. Such a posture would constitute a triumph for anarchy,” said Unruh. “It seems hardly necessary to remind you that the taxpayers of the entire State of California support this institution. They will not tolerate it if you allow riots and rebellion to dictate education policy.” [liv]
In contrast, as Smith stated: “I’m in no hurry to reopen the campus…” Smith preferred to open the campus once the police presence was no longer needed. [lv] Perhaps the chairman of the San Francisco State academic senate can help. During the Nov. 18th meeting of the Board of Trustees, Leo McClatchy announced the following:
We have been thrust into a feeling of reality that we have never experienced before: we have witnessed threats and counter-threats, rocks thrown, heads clubbed an atmosphere of fear. We cannot operate an institution of higher learning unless we come to terms with the deep causes underlying the dangerous unrest that has come…[lvi]
There’s that tone again. We’re still searching for those damn causes. They must go very deep, indeed. But what do you know, McClatchy was right; the violence and unrest didn’t stop.
President of the California State College Student Presidents Victor Lee:
…He told the trustees, “If you open that campus by any means necessary, you will simply be no more right than those who say that they will close that campus by any means necessary.” [lvii]
Erwin Kelly later said “that although he does not agree with violent approaches to solutions, he nevertheless could understand why violence was used by some SFSC students.” Funny how similar all these responses are. He doesn’t personally condone violence, but unless SFSC implemented the changes, he “understood” why the students might be violent. [lviii]
That tone is starting to sound like a party line. A neat trick: a party line without a party. Here we have our two responses to political violence. On the one hand, we have the unnatural response, appeasement, and conversation, as preferred by Summerskill, Smith, and McClatchy, and on the other hand, the natural response to political violence: meet force with force, as preferred by Reagan and Unruh.
We will have to see which method will be more effective in ending the riots.
The first week of the strike came to an end marked by violence and vandalism the campus was closed and no resolution was in sight. [lix] The Board of Trustees, following Reagan’s lead, responded by ordering Smith to open the campus. On November 20th, Reagan got his wish. Smith re-opened the campus, but not for classes; no, the campuses opened for a conversation. The faculty had suggested to Smith that they should have a conversation and so it was. SFSU held a week-long convocation on campus. Only 10% of the students returned to campus. [lx] [lxi]
If it wasn’t already clear, it is worth pointing out that these “conversations” during the convocation were moot. A resolution by the Board of Trustees declared that there would be “no negotiation, arbitration or concession of student grievances until order had been restored” (besides being fiscally impossible). Similarly, the BSU still considered the demands non-negotiable. If neither side is open to negotiation, what purpose could the convocation possibly serve? [lxii]
Perhaps, at the very least, the students and faculty began to talk about “real causes” of this fiasco? We may never know, but after a week of the convocation on November 26th, nothing was resolved. [lxiii] Grievances were discussed, but the unrest continued. Smith had offered to negotiate, but the BSU would only accept yes or no to their demands. [lxiv]
Smith was done. In his letter of resignation, he aired his grievances with the Board of Trustees. They can be summarized as follows: inability to reconcile conflict between factions, loss of control over important decisions, rigid controls on financial resources, and finally the lack of authority given to Smith to address “underlying causes which provoke disorder” and prevent “violent confrontations”. There’s that tone, but it’s still not quite clear yet. Smith further elaborated that he couldn’t get the Board of Trustees to accept HIS diagnosis of the problems. What was his diagnosis? [lxv]
“As for the students and their guerrilla warfare pattern of disorders, I felt we had to defeat eventually the tactics being used without defeating all the aspirations that were involved in them which is a complicated operation.” [lxvi]
The mask is off and the tone is clear. Smith, the BSU, and the SDS are fundamentally righteous. Their cause is just. Peace is the victory of righteousness, and Providence deems that righteousness will prevail. Resistance to righteousness will guarantee more violence. Smith wanted the BSU and SDS to win; he merely disagreed with their tactics. As such, he didn’t want them destroyed, as would be the natural response, but the underlying causes addressed. In other words, he wanted to listen to the BSU and SDS (the attackers) and give them what they wanted. As his authority and resources were fundamentally limited by the Board of Trustees (they being limited by their budget), Smith could not give the BSU and SDS what they wanted. Ergo, Smith could not do “his job”–his job being a strange interpretation likely unrelated to the job description given to him by the Board of Trustees.
[i] Bunzel, John H. , “Black studies at San Francisco State,” The Public Interest, 13 (Fall, 1968), 22-38.
[ii] Bunzel, John H. , “Black studies at San Francisco State,” The Public Interest, 13 (Fall, 1968), 22-38. http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080522_196801302blackstudiesatsanfranciscostatejohnhbunzel.pdf
[iii] Bunzel, John H. “Black studies at San Francisco State,” The Public Interest, 13 (Fall, 1968), 22-38. http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080522_196801302blackstudiesatsanfranciscostatejohnhbunzel.pdf
[iv] Bunzel, John H. , “Black studies at San Francisco State,” The Public Interest, 13 (Fall, 1968), 22-38. http://www.nationalaffairs.com/doclib/20080522_196801302blackstudiesatsanfranciscostatejohnhbunzel.pdf
[xxiii] The Black Revolution on Campus By Martha Biondi
[lviii] The Kentucky Kernel, February 5th, 1969
[lix] Associated Press, via The Kentucky Kernel November 15th, 1968