9:30 a.m.: Students occupy the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC). The remnants of a camp-in litter the academic quad. Earlier in the week, hundreds mobilized across campus to protest college policies. The American flag still flies above the AGC, in spite of students’ attempts to pull it down.
To a student who arrived at Occidental in the past few years, these events evoke recent memories: the Oxy United for Black Liberation (OUBL) occupation of the AGC November 2015, when students occupied the AGC in solidarity with OUBL’s demands, and the 9/11 memorial incident, when student activists removed American flags erected in the quad by the Occidental Conservatives Club September 2016.
Yet these events occurred April 30, 1969, when 42 Occidental students were suspended for protesting the presence of military recruiters on campus. Around 300 student activists occupied the then newly dedicated AGC to block two navy recruiters from enlisting students on campus.
Paul Robert Walker ’72, author, contributor to the Occidental Magazine and now senior writer at Broadridge Advisor Solutions, compiled what he described as an oral history of the 1969 protests for the Occidental Magazine in 2014. His record reveals a legacy of student activism at Occidental that few current students could recall.
“Speaking as a participant, we in the 42 student sit-in protested for a cessation of the practice of hosting military recruiters in the Coons Administration building: The presence of the ‘war machine’ on campus was deeply antithetical to the philosophical and religious underpinnings and foundations of Occidental College,” Alex Wallace ’72 said.
Wallace explained that their activism focused on making the campus a refuge from violence. Speaking for the movement as a whole, he said the protesters acknowledged the legitimacy of military service and national defense but asserted that military recruiters should not be given a prominent place on campus.
Yet Walker revealed that some student activists were more radical in their opposition. Referring to his notes for the 2014 article, Walker recalled that Rex Weyler ’70 told him of a student’s attempt to burn an American flag on campus before the occupation.
“The assassination of Robert Kennedy and the nomination of [Democratic Presidential Candidate Hubert] Humphrey gave some, me included, the feeling that there was no viable means of effecting change within the existing political system,” Weyler said at the time. “The election of Nixon and rise of Henry Kissinger crushed any hope.”
Weyler described how desperate students had grown by winter break. Resistance peaked spring 1969, influenced by Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War and the first stories about the My Lai massacre. Weyler told Walker that a student, whose name Walker kept anonymous, attempted to burn the U.S. flag on the quad before the occupation of the AGC.
“This is one of the comic moments because the flag was non-flammable and wouldn’t burn, and some of the pro-war students attacked the flag-burners, and the event collapsed into chaos,” Weyler said at the time.
Walker further recalled the testimony of his friend, Dr. Burk Gossom ’72. In 1970, amid the student protests and shootings at Kent State University, there was another anti-war protest at Occidental involving the U.S. flag. Though just a first year and not a participant in the protests, Gossom stood at the edge of a crowd that had grown around the AGC. He recalled how Benjamin Culley, professor of mathematics and dean of students, stood alone, surrounded by angry protestors attempting to pull down the American flag above the building.
“Clearly it looked like things were going to get violent and he presented a picture of heroism that quelled the crowd,” Gossom said. “One old man against a mob. He shamed all involved. It was quite the moment and a turning point in the violent component of the protest. I have always held the picture of Iwo Jima in my mind.”
Gossom further recalled that Culley was successful because he held the students’ respect. Culley was seen as a fierce advocate for students. Gossom remembered that he memorized every student’s name before they came to campus.
Paul Robert Walker transferred to Occidental in 1972 and graduated in 1975. While he did not participate in the 1969 protest, he had his own experience with student activism. From 1971 to 1972, he attended Boston University (BU), where a friend asked him to participate in a student protest against the Vietnam War. He declined, feeling the protest was born more from a desire to keep the protest atmosphere of the 1960s alive than to demonstrate against the war. By the end of the day, 33 BU students were arrested.
As with Occidental activists, BU students protested their college’s perceived complicity in the war effort. Yet the campus atmospheres could not have been more different. In Boston, Walker was in a high-rise dorm two miles from the site of the student protest and amid a large and urban campus.
“Oxy was so small, and so much more personal,” Walker said. “There was a palpable sense of intrusion.”
Yet when Walker transferred to Occidental in 1970, he found the college far more conservative than BU. Growing up in Chicago with a mother he described as a socialist, Walker admitted he had never met a young conservative before he came to Occidental. He described it as a place where Nixon government officials would send their sons and daughters to keep them away from student activism.
The Alternative Voice
“Our role at Occidental, a fairly conservative middle-class college, was to bring Oxy on board with our own splash of national publicity (which it did),” José Lemos ’70 and Martin Rothman ’70 wrote in the final, unpublished issue of the Weekly Planet.
Lemos, now a professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was one of the leaders of the ’69 sit-in who Walker did not get a chance to include in his original article.
In response to Walker’s article in 2014, Lemos worked with Rothman, a student senator from 1968 to 1969, to revive a campus publication. Created Jan. 1969, the Weekly Planet was an alternate voice to the Occidental Weekly. Lemos and Rothman wrote the last-ever issue of the Planet after seeing Walker’s article in the Occidental Magazine.
“We, two of the leaders of the sit-in, have our own opinions about the importance of these campus protests,” Lemos and Rothmans wrote in the final edition of the Weekly Planet. “And so it was that we attempted to contact all 42 sit-in participants to get a better consensus of what it was all about.”
In this final article, the authors describe the Weekly Planet as “an instrument for dissent by all Oxy students” designed to “stir up the ‘brothel of apathy'” on campus. The article contains interviews with students that Walker did not get the chance to include in his 2014 piece for the Occidental Magazine, such as Lemos’ perspective as one of the leaders of the sit-in.
“My family were refugees from Cuba and could not help me much financially, so I was afraid that I might not be able to finish college,” Lemos wrote. “But I wanted to see if I could really do something important, something I believed in.”
In an edition of the Weekly Planet published on April 28, 1969 and reprinted in this final, unpublished 2014 issue, Lemos described why it was important for him to participate in the sit-in.
“This is the time to put our newly developed convictions to the test. … Some of our convictions will fail. We will be wrong and the administration right many times. But how will we know if we never try?” Lemos wrote.
Protests Then and Now
Looking back on his article, Walker recalled that Richard Gilman, the Occidental president at the time, truly believed that allowing students to meet with the navy recruiters upheld free speech.
“For me, it was a simple issue: intellectual openness,” Gilman said, quoted in Walker’s article. “That is the purpose of a college or university. To me, the maintenance of a free and open campus was the basic task of a president in those times. If you shut down the campus to political speech, you have essentially cut the jugular of the college or university.”
Walker saw a parallel between Gilman’s conviction and recent protests at Occidental, where the Occidental Conservatives’ confrontation with student protesters who had removed American flags sparked a campus debate on the limits of free speech.
Walker explained that he was horrified by the 9/11 memorial protests. Though he strongly opposed the Iraq war, he believed that these protestors undercut their own message.
Larry Layne ‘71 was the sole student attempting to meet with the navy recruiters on the day of the sit-in. In Walker’s article, he makes clear that Layne opposed the war and had no intention of joining the military. Like Gilman, he saw meeting with military recruiters on campus as his first amendment right.
“I still believe that colleges and universities need to be places where all opinions and positions [are heard], no matter how horrible [or] disgusting they may be to even a majority,” Layne said via email. “I think it’s the student’s opportunity, or I would say obligation, to make things very uncomfortable for the representatives of what may be horrible, distasteful, hateful positions [like] Dow Chemical — makers of Agent Orange — or KKK, David Duke or Navy Recruiters.”
Layne explained that he believes the purpose of higher education is incomplete and compromised if students allow political correctness to determine what is and is not allowed on campus.
On the other hand, Lemos commended recent student activism and sees protests as beneficial to the college.
“Importantly, I am heartened by the recent political activity at our alma mater by students,” Lemos said via email. “I have even seen this at the state medical school where I teach. I think the ‘millennials’ are beginning to understand that change has to start from each and every one of us. It has been a long time from our protests in the ‘60s, but I believe that today’s youth have the courage and convictions that we had.”
In closing, Walker reflected on the solidarity he still saw among these former student protesters while writing his 2014 alumni magazine article. He was glad that he had the chance to put these students back in touch with one another, and was in awe of the close bonds that still remained among many of them. He wonders if current and recent Occidental activists are forging similar lasting bonds.
“Although we have all scattered far and wide, some of us maintain contact with Occidental and each other, and our protest days are rarely the topic of conversation as we have all moved forward and on, but our hearts beat with a passion and commitment that was somehow forged in our simple commitment to make a unified statement and to be bound together by a common ethical clarion call for peace,” Wallace said.