Student Takeover at Cornell University (1969)

Steven Rosino and Alan Singer

Background: During the 1968-1969 school year racial tension escalated at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York following the burning of a cross on the lawn of the Wari House, a dormitory for African-American women, and disciplinary action taken against African-American who protested against what they experienced as racism on campus. On April 18, 1969, members of the Cornell University Afro-American Society (AAS) occupied its student center, Willard Straight Hall, to protest what they believed was Cornell’s institutional racism, its biased judicial system, and its slow progress in establishing a Black Studies program. In the early morning of Parents Weekend, Black students evicted visiting parents from Willard Straight Hall and seized control of the building. After white students from the Delta Upsilon Fraternity unsuccessfully attempted to retake the building by force, some of the occupying students left the building and returned with rifles and shotguns in case of another attack. The Black students were supported by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a predominately white student group, which formed a protective cordon outside the building. The occupation of Willard Hall lasted 36 hours and ended when the university’s administration agreed to student demands. It led to the formation of a University Senate, restructuring of the Board of Trustees, a new campus judicial system, and the foundation of the Africana Studies and Research Center. The takeover drew national media attention because of photographs and television coverage of the African American students carrying rifles. By the end of the academic year, Cornell President James Perkins, under pressure because he had negotiated with the AAS students, resigned.

Instruction: Documents A-D are photographs of the student takeover of Willard Straight Hall. Document E is a link to a video about the events. Documents F-P are headlines and excerpts from New York Times articles. The final four documents, Q-T, are reflections on the events written from different perspectives. Examine the documents, answer guiding questions, use the New York Times articles to establish a chronology of events (article dates are one day after the actual events), and answer the following five questions with extended responses.

Questions

  1. Were African American students justified in the takeover of Willard Straight Hall?
  2. Did Cornell University administrators handle the takeover in an appropriate way? Explain.
  3. In your opinion, was the New York Times coverage of the events impartial or biased? Explain you view citing evidence from the text?
  4. Wicker, Muller, Sowell, and Jones (R-U) have different perspectives on the events at Cornell in April 1969. Based on you reading about the events, whose point of view is closer to your own? Explain your choice and support it with evidence from the coverage and the quotes.
  5. In your opinion, what is the “legacy” of the Willard Straight takeover?

Questions

  1. Why did the white student urge the faculty to reject the settlement ending the takeover?
  2. In your opinion, how did the presence of rifles and shotguns escalate the situation at Cornell?
  3. What point of view about the takeover is presented in the narration of the video footage?

F. Negro Coeds’ House Is Target Of a Cross Burning at Cornell, New York Times, April 19, 1969, p. 16.

“A cross was burned on the doorsteps of a Negro women’s cooperative house at Cornell University early this morning and 11 false alarms were set off in campus buildings. The rash of false alarms continued tonight, with five campus call boxes being pulled and two telephoned bomb threats between 8:13 and 10:40 P.M. One of the false alarms drove several hundred people into a chilly rain from Willard Straight Hall, the student center. They included some of the parents gathered here for Parents Weekend. After the last false alarm, half a dozen black students were picked up for questioning and released. The cross made of 1-by-2 inch strips of lumber that resembled the legs of an artist’s easel was discovered on the porch of the small wooden frame house at 2:52 A.M. The house, known as Wari House (“Wari” is Swahili for home) – is a co-op residence for 12 Negro coeds. A stone was also thrown through one of the windows . . . The cross burning took place less than an hour after the university’s student-faculty board on student conduct gave reprimands – a light punishment – to three black students and dismissed charges against two others for their part in the demonstrations last December . . . Resentment has simmered among some white students, particularly athletes and fraternity men, and among some faculty members who feel that the administration has maintained a separate standard in its efforts to deal with the 250 black students on the 14,000-student campus.”

G. Cornell Negroes Seize a Building; 30 Visiting Parents Ejected as 100 Students Protest Disciplining of 6 Blacks, New York Times, April 20, 1969, p. 1.

“About 100 black students at Cornell University staged a surprise raid on the student union building at dawn today. They ran through the halls shouting ‘Fire!’ and pounding on doors, and ousted 30 sleeping parents from guest rooms. The invaders ordered the parents, and about 40 university employees, to leave the building. Then they seized it, chaining the doors shut . . . Black students briefly seized the campus radio station, WVBR, in the building and announced their action on the air. Minutes later an engineer at the transmitter, five miles away, cut the station off.”

H. Armed Negroes End Seizure; Cornell Yields; Armed Negro Students End 36-Hour Occupation After Cornell Capitulates, New York Times, April 21, 1969, p. 1.

“Carrying 17 rifles and shotguns, Negro students at Cornell University marched out of the Student Union Building today, ending a 36-hour occupation. A few minutes later, rifle-carrying students stood by in front of the cottage that the Negro students used as their headquarters, while university officials signed an agreement . . . The administration also capitulated to a series of other demands by the Afro-American Society.”

I. Excerpts From Talk by President of Cornell University on Student Dissension, New York Times, April 22, 1969, p. 34.   

“We meet this afternoon at a time of trial and anguish for our country, for higher education and for Cornell University. And the question before the house today and in the immediate days to come is whether we have the collective wisdom and sensitivity to sufficient measures to deal with what I am sure future historians will doubtless call one of the great testing points in that peculiar institution we call the university.”

J. Cornell Negro Plan Begun in ‘65; Officials on Campus View Curriculum as Best in Nation, New York Times, April 22, 1969, p. 34.

“Four years ago, Cornell University began a program to recruit Negro students from the slums, and last fall announced plans for an Afro-American curriculum, actions which officials here believe put Cornell far in advance of any university in the country. More than 100 students in that program seized the university’s student union building . . . and emerged 36 hours later carrying 17 rifles and shotguns, bandoliers of ammunition, home-made spears and clubs. The events of the weekend left white Cornell shocked, angry and baffled . . . Perhaps the strongest emotion among the blacks is one of fear, for they feel themselves in a hostile environment. They are also angry and bitter because they feel the education being offered will fit them only for white society.”

K. Cornell Faculty Votes Down Pact Ending Take-Over; Resolution Assails Seizure of Student Center and the Carrying of Guns,” New York Times, April 22, 1969, p. 1.

“The Cornell University faculty voted overwhelmingly tonight to reject an agreement that armed black students signed with administration officials yesterday . . . By a hand vote of more than 1,000 members of the faculty – the faculty meeting was the largest in Cornell’s history – a proposal . . . to dismiss penalties imposed on three black students following campus disorders last December and January was decisively defeated. The vote, taken at a closed meeting also condemned the occupation of Willard Straight Hall and the “carrying and use of weapons.”

L. Peaceful Sit-In at Cornell Ends New Seizure Threat; Peaceful Sit-In at Cornell Eases the Threat of a New Seizure by Negro Students,” New York Times, April 23, 1969, p. 1.

“A threatened seizure of campus buildings by militant students of Cornell University and faculty sympathizers of Negro student demands turned into a peaceful sit-in tonight on a basketball court.”

M. Cornell’s Whites Try to Understand, New York Times, April 23, 1969, p. 30.

“Cornell’s non-radical white student’s expressed today both their fear and an attempt to comprehend the black militancy that has thrown this hilly 730-acre campus into turmoil . . . Many of the white students feel that the university administration has given in to the blacks, has appeased them . . . Many white students have adopted a ‘black-is-right’ stance: that is, they condemn the seizing of the building and carrying of guns, but believe that black demands on the university are justified. ‘I can understand how people from the ghettos, the Afros, are lost up here.”

N. Cornell Faculty Reverses Itself on Negroes; Disciplinary Action Is Nullified,” New York Times, April 24, 1969, p. 1.

“The Cornell faculty, facing the threat of building seizures by militant students and by some of its own members, reversed itself today and nullified disciplinary action against five Negro students . . . But a minority of senior professors expressed disgust. Calling it ‘abject capitulation,’ they ridiculed the idea that the faculty’s dramatic reversal of its own decision . . . was brought about by a sudden fresh perception of the complexities of the crisis. They charged that the faculty reversal was nothing short of ‘surrender to intimidation.’”

O. Negroes at Cornell Charge They’re Liberal Window-Dressing, New York Times, April 24, 1969, p. 34.

“They brought us here for their benefit — to integrate the place. This is Cornell, the great liberal campus in the East. And you can’t be liberal without Negroes.”

P. Faculty Revolt Upsets Cornell; Charges of Sellout Made — Many Won’t Teach Until Assured Guns Are Gone, New York Times, April 25, 1969, p. 1.

“The administration of Cornell University, accused by some leading faculty members of ‘selling out to terrorists,’ faced a growing revolt today by professors who refused to teach until they had written assurance from President James A. Perkins that the campus was disarmed.”

     Documents Q, R, S, and T are opinion pieces discussing events at Cornell from different perspective. Tom Wicker, who is white, was an opinion columnist for the New York Times. His second column is based on an interview with a Cornell University administrator, Steven Muller, who was also white. Thomas Sowell, who is African American, was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University from 1965 to 1969, and is a leading conservative academic. In this article he described the Cornell students occupying Willard Straight Hall students as “hoodlums” with “serious academic problems” who were “admitted under lower academic standards.” He denied seeing or experiencing “the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus.” Tom Jones, who is African American, was part of the AAS leadership team. In a radio interview during the takeover he declared that Cornell “has three hours to live.” After graduation Jones became head of the nonprofit workers’ retirement fund TIAA/CREF and a Cornell trustee. In 1995, he endowed the Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding in honor of former President James Perkins.

Q. “In the Nation: These Guns in These Hands” by Tom Wicker, New York Times, April 22, 1969, p. 46.

“The widely distributed photograph of black students at Cornell carrying their rifles and shotguns out of a building they had seized may well be the most shocking evidence yet — at least to white people — of the extent to which the American people have been divided into hostile, nearly warring forces . . . These guns in these hands, no matter how unjustified and even irrational, are what white Americans must face up to – not because there necessarily are all that many of them but because they are symbols of a profound and potentially disastrous national failure to make clear and unmistakable, to blacks as well as whites, an imperative national commitment to bridge this dark and yawning gulf that divides and threatens us. If that commitment exists, not enough blacks can believe it. And the burden of proof is not on them.”

R. In the Nation: Humanity vs. Principle at Cornell” by Tom Wicker, New York Times, April 27, 1969, p. 17.

“Steven Muller, Cornell University’s Vice-President for public affairs, came to New York this week for a television appearance, then flew right back to the troubled upstate campus. Tired from too little sleep, Mr. Muller yet managed in a brief conversation to put recent events at Cornell into a rather different perspective . . . Muller dares believe that Cornell ultimately will find itself the better for its week of upheaval – its students and faculty more the free and open community that is the university ideal, and its blacks more fully a part of that community. And although he is saddened that a number of Cornell faculty members, including some with high standing, plan to resign in protest, Muller believes that they have then opportunity to stand on principle this week only because university officials were willing, last Sunday in Straight hall, to put real concern for humanity above abstract principle.”

S. “The Day Cornell Died” by Thomas Sowell (Weekly Standard, May 3, 1999).

“No one who was at Cornell University in the spring of 1969 is ever likely to forget the guns-on-campus crisis that shocked the academic community and the nation. Bands of militant black students forcibly evicted visiting parents from Willard Straight Hall on the Cornell campus and seized control of it to back up their demands. Later, after the university’s capitulation, the students emerged carrying rifles and shotguns, their leader wearing a bandoleer of shotgun ammunition. It was a picture that appeared on the covers of national magazines and was even reprinted overseas. What happened behind the scenes was at least as shocking. Death threats were phoned to the homes of professors who had opposed their previous actions or demands. Shots were in fact fired into the engineering building. In a decade noted for its student riots, this was the most violent in the nation. In an academic world noted for its weak-kneed administrators, Cornell had the quintessential appeaser and dispenser of pious rhetoric in its president, James A. Perkins. As an assistant professor of economics at Cornell at the time, my characterization of Perkins in the media was that he was “a veritable weathervane, following the shifting cross-current of campus politics.” After thirty years, there is no need to take back any of that . . . The Cornell tragedy began with one of those good intentions with which the road to Hell is paved. When James Perkins became president of Cornell in 1963, it had an almost totally white faculty and student body. When I joined the faculty two years later, I did not see another black professor anywhere on this vast campus. Perkins, like other presidents of elite colleges and universities, sought to increase minority student enrollment — and to do so by admitting students who would not meet the existing academic standards at Cornell. The emphasis was on getting militant ghetto kids, some of whom turned out to be hoodlums who terrorized other black students, in addition to provoking a racial backlash among whites . . . Certainly there was a racist backlash among some white students after innumerable incidents of unpunished violence and disruptions by black militants, as well as other needless provocations by ghetto kids with chips on their shoulders. The racial atmosphere on campus became so charged that one of the black students moved in with my wife and me to escape dangers from both blacks and whites in the dormitory. The local black community in Ithaca was also not thrilled by the importation of hoodlums by radical chic whites at Cornell.”

T. An Interview with Tom Jones, part of the AAS leadership team (“Getting It Straight,” Cornell Alumni Magazine, March/April 2009).

“I was in the Class of ’69, so I came to campus in the fall of 1965 . . . To be totally honest, I was not in favor of taking over the building. We voted, and the majority thought it was necessary to do something that would shock the University, grab its attention. Parents’ Weekend would be a perfect time. The Straight was a good target . . . At first, it was kind of fun. Then the guys from Delta Upsilon came in. I was playing pool and I heard this commotion. I went to see who it was, and here were some frat boys who had decided they were going to throw us out. Something clicked inside of me: ‘This cannot end this way. Not with some frat guys deciding they’re vigilantes.’ I went up to the first guy and I punched him. There was a fight, and we threw them out. After that, the atmosphere changed, because now there was an element of ‘Are they going to come back with more people? Are the police going to do something?’ That ultimately led to the decision to arm ourselves for self-defense . . . I’m proud of the courage of all of those black students who didn’t crack, who didn’t succumb to the fear of what might happen . . . I’m proud that so many white students said, ‘We’re not going to let these black students stay isolated. We’re going to rally and create a buffer between them and the police’ . . . Some of the black students, particularly those from southern and rural backgrounds, had never stood up to white people in their lives. I intentionally took the position of being the last to leave the building, because I wanted that symbolism to reflect what I felt, which was 100 percent commitment . . . It not only shocked Cornell, it shocked the country. I believe it’s one of the reasons this country decided to try to fully incorporate all of its citizens, whatever racial or ethnic background . . . When I used words like ‘Cornell has three hours to live,’ it was a metaphorical statement. Because if violence erupted, it would have been the end of Cornell as we knew it . . . I’m not proud that an implicitly violent act was used to settle a dispute, when that’s counter to everything that the University stands for. I’m certainly not proud that President Perkins became a scapegoat for the rage that erupted. He was a good person and that is the tragedy of these things . . . I do not think Barack Obama would be president today without what we did in Willard Straight Hall in 1969. I believe Barack Obama stands on our shoulders. The Straight was part of a series of historical events that began with Rosa Parks in 1955 and continued through the Sixties with the Freedom Riders and the marchers at Selma, Alabama, and made possible this magnificent thing that happened in January 2009. I think we’re part of a chain of history. I’m not saying the most important part, but we’re one of the links.”

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