My mother modeled respect with her response to everyone she met. Her attitude led me to become quietly active in working for social justice. Yet as an adult, I realized the bigotry deep within my psyche. That led to my teaching in the inner city and then to graduate school.
A number of important Civil Rights events occurred during the years between when I left the convent in 1966 and the fall day in 1969 when I first walked onto the campus of the University of Minnesota.
· Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Black Panthers in Oakland, California.
· The US Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the ban prohibiting interracial marriage.
· Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the slogan “Black Power,” became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
· H. Rap Brown proclaimed, “Violence is American as apple pie.”
· James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.
· Race riots broke out in Newark, Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities.
The winter of 1969, I sat in many classrooms. In one I learned about William Labov and African American Vernacular English. In another I studied the dark works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In still another I learned the woeful history of slavery in the United States. It was in that classroom that I first encountered protesters wielding guns.
The professor had just finished his mesmerizing lecture on the rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. He’d detailed its results: between 100 and 200 black slaves and fifty-five to sixty-five white members of the militia and mobs left dead.
Prior to dismissal, he shuffled his lecture notes. Just then, two students rose from their desks. Each held a gun. The man aimed his at the professor. The woman held hers steady while turning slowly in a circle and pointing it momentarily at each student in the classroom.
“That’s what you did to us and here’s what we’re going to do to you,” the man shouted.
Screaming, two women tried to lie down on the floor. Cursing, several men tried to stand but the guns were immediately trained on them. One man stumbled to his feet. Knocked over his desk and fell on the floor.
I looked around at my fellow classmates—those now trembling, those holding guns. The man closed both doors to the hall. I felt there was no way to escape. The woman kept shouting, “Quiet!” as the rest of us sobbed.
At the time, I was almost thirty-four; my classmates were between eighteen and twenty-two years old. In their eyes I could see that this was for them, as it was for me, their first taste of violent protest.
The two protesters began to shout. They didn’t like the university’s admissions policy. They wanted the United States out of Vietnam.
Their words came staccato, like bullets from a machine gun: The war being fought mostly by the poor. The number of poor blacks in Vietnam. The number of poor whites. America’s way of getting rid of the problem of poverty. American’s way of getting rid of the problem of blacks. Kill off the young men. Send them to battle. The university not doing anything about this. Not protesting. The university welcoming white students who came to college to escape fighting and then belittled the returning poor from the rice paddies of Vietnam.
The words fell like acid rain upon the rest of us. In the hall, we could hear the students who’d been waiting for the next class to start. One opened the door. Saw the guns. Closed it quickly.
The man rushed to a window and leaned out, watching intently. Time passed. The woman walked up and down the aisles pointing her gun at our heads and then aiming at the professor. He was encouraging them to keep him hostage but to let the rest of us go. Repeatedly, the woman shouted, “Keep quiet!”
The time came when the man shouted, “They’re coming!”
Then followed the entry of a policeman into the room, his hands raised. Placating words. Negotiations. An agreement for a meeting with the deans.
The siege ended. The man and woman handed over their guns and were led away.
I went back to my apartment and slept for twelve hours.
Two days later, the class reconvened.
I never saw the two protesters again. I do not know what happened to them or for them, but they opened my eyes to a new realization about the war in Vietnam. On Thursday I’ll begin to blog about my involvement in that protest.
(Continued on Thursday . . . )
First two photographs from Wikipedia.
Photo of empty classroom by criminalatt of freedigitalphotos.