Activism thrives through Oberlin's history

by Merredith Collins and Melody R. Waller

Oberlin College lives and dies by its motto of "Learning and Labor." In the past, Oberlin students have gone above and beyond the call of duty in response to various social issues. To examine issues for which Oberlin students have organized in the past The Review spoke with Professor of Sociology James Walsh and ABUSUA's president to look at activism currently.

   "What do we want ?


   "When do we want it ?


      -chant by rallyers at Oberlin Protest of Malcolm X's Assassination

Oberlin College has been literally on the forefront of every revolution that has taken place since its inception in 1833. Oberlin students have led movements, sit-ins, teach-ins, walk-outs and silent protests. No matter what social issue was at the core of the eruption, Oberlin students were there, loud voices, raised fists and all.

As of late, because there are not many constant national issues to be addressed, Oberlin students have begun to rest upon the merits of the hard work that was tread by previous students. Activism at Oberlin from the 60s to the early 90s was volcanic. Now the lava is just barely brewing.

Professor of Sociology James Walsh comments on Oberlin activism since the beginning of his career in 1966. "When I came here there was a great deal of intellectual discussion. There was a lot of talk about the method of protest - King's passive resistance vs. violence. This was carefully discussed," he said.

One major issue of the time during the beginning of Walsh's Oberlin career was the Vietnam War. Walsh recalled the attitudes of students dealing with the onset of the draft. "One brother would go to Vietnam, the other would go to Canada. Students and parents were very frustrated with the situation," Walsh said.

Oberlin students during this time carried out dozens of protests against the Vietnam war ranging from peaceful picketing to surrounding a local naval recruiters car. Due to the heavy Vietnam war drafting of young adults, hostilities of students towards army and naval recruiters grew. Walsh said, "There was a freedom of speech issue as far as who was allowed on campus. Should they have allowed military or naval personnel on campus for recruitment? The students were completely frustrated with the recruiting situation. It was a time when they weren't wrong and we weren't wrong. The situation was very frustrating. It was a confusing time, but it was first time in history that young people said 'No. We're not going to war.'"

Due to the heavy media on the Vietnam War the political question during the time was clearer and more focused. "You were lucky if you had three television stations-NBC, ABC and CBS, and if you did they all broadcasted about the war. Now, I don't see a single organized political focus and that may be very healthy," Walsh said.

In comparison with the past, current Oberlin students take a different approach. "Because of the war, there have been some real significant changes in the institutions. The Civil Rights movement also caused some changes in direction. There are still issues now and Oberlin students's political agendas are very different and very positive. Many more students have gone off into the environmental movement because the movement is strong now," Walsh said.

However, current students feel a change in the climate as far as the kinds of protesting and rallying that exist presently.

College senior and President of ABUSUA, Andrea N. Clark said, "There are definitely some groups who are committed. There are the people who take time to look outside of their immediate surroundings that we have the wherewithal to influence systems and injustices that occur on a global front."

However, Clark's thoughts are also layered with cynicism about the role the Oberlin plays in students' interest in activism.

"I think there is a stigma that comes along with Oberlin, that political activism. For that reason, it becomes somewhat of a trend here. It is just as much a trend. On Oberlin's campus to be involved politically as it is to be part of a social Greek organization at larger state institutions," said Clark.

Clark has also observed that the trend for campus activism is never sustained. "There may be controversial campus issues, but the activism around them for a short time immediately following the controversy. There is no real push for institutional change, because Oberlin is a place where we can all be complacent and comfortable because we're in no way inside of the real world right now," said Clark.

Clark has spent much of her time working actively with youth from the Oberlin community, "It's not always about marching and protesting and hanging from campus buildings in cages. Just spending time getting to know the people who live around here, and listening to their ideas about life; turning them on the new ideas thought books and music, and also letting them do the same for you. I think that this is the most radical kind of activism that Oberlin College students can be involved in."

Looking into the history of Oberlin and its activists

The following excerpts were taken from past Oberlin Reviews.

Malcolm X to speak tomorrow on Black Muslim Movement

"Malcolm X, a prominent and outspoken leader of the Black Muslim movement, will make his first appearance on the College campus at Hall Auditorium."

King to return for College talk

"The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the youngest man ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, will speak on "The Future of Integration" at the noon assembly Thursday in Finney Chapel."

Students protest U.S. War in Vietnam; Picket Naval Recruiter at Peters Hall

"The naval recruiter arrived and so did the students. The picket involved 40 students at various times."

Women, gay liberation redefining sex roles

"A growing concern this year with the nature of societal sex roles bolstered the second year of the women's liberation movement and sparked the beginnings of a gay (homosexual) organization."

Fifty Leave Tonight For DC
"Fifty Oberlin College students went to Washington to join up with the Southern Christian Leadership conference members to participate in civil disobedience training."

1046 vote two day suspension of classes
"In a Student Senate Referendum last night, 1046 students (55 percent of the votes cast) called for a moratorium of classes today and tomorrow to facilitate community action and protest against U.S. involvement in the Indochina War."

Protest: the War Continues

"Protests this year ranged from meeting to vigils to sit-ins to memorial services. Black students, heated on the topic, met with members of the Central Intelligence Agency to discuss employment strategies and tactics. Students quickly protested Nixon's escalation of the Indonesia bombing."

Students React to mining; pursue anti-war activities
"Students protested again against the mining of harbors in North Vietnam. Student Senate discussed letter writing, petitions and civil disobedience."

Senate hears aid request; back Laos demonstration
"The Oberlin Committee of South Africa submitted a proposal resolution in which Senate was asked to condemn the existence of racism, colonization, and apartheid in southern Africa, and to recommend that the College Board of Trustees take action against corporations who through their investments, help maintain the white supremacist economy in each of these countries." Students staged a march in/teach-in where members of the People's Peace Treaty discussed why the College should retract its divestments from certain corporations and companies.

Southern Africa Day: raising awareness and support

"The appearance of Angela Davis culminated an ABUSUA-organized "People's Conference on Southern Africa," which included speeches and various workshops. The same weekend the trustees voted to press corporations in which the College had stock to dissociate themselves from South Africa."

Sophomore still in jail after Pentagon sit-in

"One Oberlin student remains in a Washington D.C. jail today following Monday's civil disobedience rally at the Pentagon. Approximately 400 arrests were made at the protest, including 13 Oberlin students."

Students hold vigil; Protest local prejudice

"About 400 students, faculty and administrators gathered at the front steps of Wilder for a "Vigil Against Bigotry." The vigil, organized by the Gay Union, was held in response to a recent KKK-style-cross-burning in the City and an anti-gay effigy-hanging on campus."

Obies picket consulate

"Chanting "Freedom yes, Apartheid no" and singing "We shall overcome," 115 Oberlin students protested against Apartheid Tuesday outside the South African Consulate in Cleveland."

ACT UP rallies for employee with AIDS

"The Oberlin College chapter of ACT-UP participated in a protest against the mistreatment at the workplace of a person with AIDS. The protest was held in Cleveland where the firm of Agency Rent-A-Car had implemented policies discriminating against workers with AIDS in medical coverage."

Students help L.A. rebuild after riots

"Five Oberlin students spent last summer helping to rebuild riot-torn South Central Los Angeles."

Oberlin responds to Oklahoma City Bombing

"The need for blood is a constant problem across the country, especially in times of emergency. In the Oklahoma City bombing, approximately 300 people were injured, and blood supplies have been drained. Oberlin students expressed a willingness to give blood."

Kwame Ture visit sparks campus debate

"Kwame Ture gave two speeches in Finney Chapel on his political philosophy, Pan-Africanism, and on a controversial topic he lists as a plank in the philosophy, anti-Zionism. Reaction to Ture came in forms of silent protest at one of his speeches, post-speech discussions, two all-campus mailings by President Nancy Dye, posters around campus, graffiti on some of those posters, heated Snack Bar discussions and a teach-in."

Students protest vivisection

"Junior Joshua Raisler-Cohn and senior Kimberly DeFeo went onto the roof of Mudd, hung hammocks over the front side and then sat in them to protest vivisection, experimentation on live animals, in Oberlin's Introductory Neuroscience class. Between them they unfurled a 750-square foot banner proclaiming, "Changing the World Starts Here, Stop Live Animal Experimentation."

Students protest lack of administrative support
"Forty people had gathered in front of Mudd to demonstrate and gain attention to the needs of under-represented communities at Oberlin. The chanting started. "No Justice, No Peace." According to fliers distributed at the demonstration, participants demanded institutional support for students of color, low-income, first-generation, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, female and differently-abled students, faculty and administrative staff."

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Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 23, May 1, 1998

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