Fifty years ago, the usual daily life on campus came to a halt, twice.
In 1969, with student uprisings at Columbia University and UC Berkeley still fresh, and amid reports at Amherst of a planned takeover of Converse, the College formed an ad hoc committee to discuss student concerns. The faculty subsequently voted to suspend “all academic and extracurricular activities” for two days, starting Monday, April 28.
Nearly a week of gatherings ensued, attended by more than 1,000 students and faculty. Students generated position papers and questions on issues such as Vietnam, civil rights and coeducation. The students and faculty signed on to a series of resolutions, including one recommendation that Amherst President Calvin Plimpton ’39 write to U.S. President Richard Nixon, “expressing our concern as a committed institution for the existing relationship between the crises on the university campus today and the larger ills of society.”
Plimpton did just that, writing that campus unrest “results not from a conspiracy by a few, but from a shared sense that the nation has no adequate plans for meeting the crises of society.”
A second moratorium, organized by the Afro-American Society, followed in mid-May, addressing the rifts between black and white students on campus. This second moratorium attracted 400 participants and included a campus visit by the author Ralph Ellison.
“As Ralph Ellison pointed out, we are victims in the present of a false portrayal of the past, which can cause disaster in the future,” The Amherst Student wrote in an editorial, calling the moratorium the beginning of a conversation “which can direct blacks and whites to the formation of a movement of coalition, a culture of coalition.”
It was indeed a continuing process. Though it was preceded by the April 1969 faculty vote to implement a black studies program, the second moratorium left other issues unresolved, such as student demands for the the hiring of a black dean, the inclusion of African and Asian languages in the curriculum, and support for a Black Culture Center.
Coeducation: A Preview
In 1969, official coeducation was several years away, but more women were coming to campus.
As the Alumni News reported in 1969, the Col- lege accepted 32 female exchange students that year. Twenty-three of them—most from Smith and Mount Holyoke—spent a semester at Amherst full-time. One Vassar student, Jane Greenblatt, wife of Dan Greenblatt ’70, stayed the year.
And where previously the College had barred women from dorms and fraternity houses outside of specific “parietal” hours (prior to 1962, they were totally barred), the 1969 faculty and trustees endorsed a proposal that would allow individual residences to decide on rules for female overnight guests.
For the Summer 1969 Alumni News cover, photographer Jim Gerhard ’64 supplied shots of two young girls reacting to the news of women coming to Amherst. One of them, Julie Tank, daughter of Edward S. Tank Jr. ’54, was portrayed with her mouth agape in apparent glee at the news. She’d go on to enroll at Amherst, graduating in 1983.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of 1969’s commencement ceremony was the folk rock performance by Lawrence E. Dilg Jr. ’69 and Mr. Grasshopper’s Moonlight Band singing two songs intended to capture “the attitude of the senior class.”
It caused psychologist, educator and civil rights activist Kenneth B. Clark, present to deliver the commencement ad- dress and receive an honorary doctorate, to remark, “You
have won! You managed to transform the sadomasochistic ritual of commencement into an occasion of joy. My generation can no longer use a commencement address as a weapon. It is not adequate, either offensively or defensively.”
Some students wore armbands in protest of issues unclear to the Alumni News reporter covering the event, and “about a half dozen students could bring themselves to wear no or only part of their academic cap-and-gown attire, and a few crossed the stage in sandals or barefooted.
“One, bearing a striking resemblance to the Messiah, wore a multicolored robe of his own making.”