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Remembering 1970: The peaceful protests that closed the University of Cincinnati

University of Cincinnati graduates recall marches, sit-ins and other reactions across campus following news of shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, as well as President Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia. UC's campus closed for several weeks in the spring of 1970, prompting some to leave Cincinnati and miss commencement. The UC Alumni Association invited those grads back four decades later to walk as part of the official graduation ceremony on June 11, 2010.

Video production and editing by Walter Nini, UC Electronic Media
Directed by John Bach and Amanda Chalifoux, UC Magazine

 

Student sit-in, May 1970

UC students occupy the hallway of the administration building May 6-7, 1970

Timeline of May 1970 events

April 30, Thursday evening — President Richard Nixon announced the deployment of troops to Cambodia. Following the speech, about 2,500 students conducted a peaceful march around campus.

May 1, Friday

  • Early in the morning, demonstrating students and others marched through UC's campus twice, causing city police to restrict vehicular traffic to the campus.
  • Around 9:45 a.m., an estimated group of 800 to 1,000 people headed downtown to take part in a sit-in at the intersection of Fifth and Walnut streets. Police directed traffic around the demonstrators, but began asking them to disperse around 11 a.m.
  • At 11:30, police insisted they disperse. At noon, paddy wagons backed slowly into the crowd, and approximately 150 were arrested.
  • By 7 p.m., all had been released, except two who requested to remain in jail.

May 4, Monday — At Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded nine others.

May 5, Tuesday

  • In the morning, UC executive vice president, Ralph Bursieck officially called off classes for the day. (President Walter Langsam was out of town.) Student Senate proclaimed the date "The Day Against Violence."
  • At 4:45 p.m., approximately 5,000-6,000 members of the UC academic community marched silently from campus to downtown Cincinnati to protest U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. "The march itself was quiet and uneventful, except for one reported injury to a UC coed, struck in the forehead by a rock thrown into the crowd by a spectator on Clifton Ave," reported the News Record the next morning.
  • At 7 p.m., students assembled for a 90-minute vigil of silence in Nippert Stadium

May 6, Wednesday — Students peacefully occupied Van Wormer Administration Building. Ohio Gov. James Rhodes recommended that state universities close, but he left the decision up to each school. (UC was still a municipal school at the time.) Estimates indicate more than 900 institutions of higher education closed across the nation, roughly one-third of all schools.

May 7, Thursday — Students also began to occupy Beecher Hall, near the registrar's office.

May 8, Friday — The University Board of Directors closed campus.

May 11, Monday — Classes resumed only at Raymond Walter Branch campus, the Ohio College of Applied Science and its Ohio Mechanical Institute evening school (as they were called at the time).

May 14, Thursday — At Jackson State College, Mississippi state police killed two students and wounded 12 during student demonstrations.

May 15, Friday — At a meeting of the entire faculty of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, the college decided to extend a pass-fail option for all courses taken during the spring quarter. The entire university would end up taking this approach, as well.

May 17-18 — Campus was scheduled to re-open with an all-university convocation on Monday, but late Sunday night and heading into Monday morning, the advisory-capacity University Senate and the governing University Board of Directors both voted to keep the main campus closed in light of national tensions further escalating on college campuses. In the end, UC’s main campus remained closed for the remainder of the term.

June 14 — Commencement was held, though many students did not return for the event.

Source: News Records from May 5, 6, 8 and 18, 1979.

Graduate from 1970 marches in special graduation ceremony in 2010.

A 1970 grad marches in a special graduation ceremony organized by the Alumni Association in conjunction with the 2010 commencement.


ALUMNI PERSPECTIVES

Over many months, alumni have sent us their own memories of the events from May 1970. We list their letters below.

From Henry Jackson, DAAP '74, Lexington, Ky.

Regarding why UC closed in the spring in 1970, my memory is that immediately after the Kent State shootings, the governor closed all the state schools [see May 6 above], and there was a fear over UC staying open — because it was still a municipal university and not subject to the governor’s order, it might attract a large protest, converging on the still-open UC campus. Actually the campus first closed for a week, then some days later decided to close for the remaining four (plus or minus) weeks of the quarter. At least that’s what I remember 40 years later.

From Robert Garfield, Bus '71, Oakton, Va.

It is amazing to hear the perspective of each individual who lives through an event that dramatically impacts the future. My perspective of the events unfolding after Kent State is a little different than those who have voiced opinions previously.

The evening following the Kent State shootings, many students, perhaps as many as a thousand, filled McMillan Avenue in protest. The Cincinnati police cordoned off the street in front of the crowd. The police moved barricades each time the students approached until at last the crowd dispersed.

The following day there was another confrontation with police in the park [Burnet Woods] across from the DAA building. The police department had set up a command post in the park. Again, the police defused the protest of the crowd by moving their command post. That afternoon many students staged a sit-in inside the administration building. Their demand was to shut down the school out of respect for the students killed at Kent State. The sit-in lasted a few days.

All sides seemed intransigent until a number of students took over the computer center of the school. It was at that point, one in which the school had to decide to evict the students forcibly or bend to their demands that the wise leadership of the university decided to close the school.

From Tom Hower, Eng., '71

I would like to add my own perspective on the history. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon appeared on television to say that he had invaded Cambodia to cut off supply routes to the North Vietnamese attacking South Vietnam. College students nationwide reacted with protest rallies. (Many students who were eligible for the draft protested loudest, believing the Cambodian incursion would extend the duration of the war.)

At UC, students marched down Clifton Avenue then dispersed. However, that week the protesting escalated and students occupied the UC Administration Building abetted by cheering crowds outside.

After a day of being ignored by UC's president, some engineering students realized that the administration building was not vital to university operation. So, they led 75 to 100 students from the administration building to the building housing the university financial offices and computers. An administrator tried to block the entrance but the students rushed in. By the next day the university announced it was closing temporarily and the buildings were cleared.

Some students drove to Washington, D.C., for an anti-war rally near the White House. During our return trip, the media reported the deaths at Kent State. After that, Governor Rhodes closed all state-owned universities, and UC also closed. (UC was jointly owned by the city and the state at the time.) [See May 6 above.] Since most classes were never completed, most students received marks of "pass" for the quarter.

The protests were not popular with all students. Some protested the disruption to their education and many continued to attend classes and to study without taking sides. Some of us even changed sides due to the recession. After protesting against the war in 1970, I served in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1971-73.

From David Steele, Bus '70, JD '73, Covington, Ky.

Dear somewhat misinformed friends: I remember 1970. It was the year I graduated from UC Business. What I distinctly remember was Antioch College students taking over Dr. [Walter] Langsam’s office, and he did nothing. One Antioch student tried to intimidate me with his shout that I should not cross his picket line. I informed him that if he tried to stop me from going to my class, he’d have his picket sign protruding from his mouth. He ran off with a whimper.

Ergo, I do not have “sweet” memories of those days. I had wished, and continue to wish, that Ol’ Langsam had exhibited some spine.

Editor’s reply: UC archivist Kevin Grace, MA (A&S) ’77, says “President Langsam did do something, although some may disagree with what he did. He refused to talk to students, then convened all his administrators to discuss his course of action, which was to close the university."

From Gil Waechter, Bus '71, MBA '72, Troy, Mich.

I was dismayed by the back cover ad of the March 2010 issue of "UC Magazine." "Attention Class of 1970" misleadingly suggests that the university closure in 1970 was due to Kent and Jackson State deaths. The News Record editorial of May 8, 1970, "Perversion of Purpose," does a much better job of background, saying:

"Essentially, students at UC were committed to peace; the more radicalized protestors, however, have been stimulated to such a degree that they have become susceptible to the influence of persons from outside who have come here to lead violent revolution. Until Wednesday, protests at UC were admirable and served an important purpose. Now, the sincerely peaceful students have been urged to damage the University."

This aligns with my recollection of why the university closed.

Editor's reply: The original ad read, "UC campus closed weeks before graduation in 1970, following the deaths of student war protestors at Kent State and Jackson State. Though UC did hold a commencement that year, many seniors missed it, having already moved home."

We also received a phone call from Missy Lane who objected to our simplification of the "deaths of student war protestors." Two of the slain students were not protesting at all, she said; one was simply walking across campus, and one was watching.

We did not intend to offer a full explanation of why campus closed in the two sentences accompanying the ad, but simply wanted to put the situation in a historical context that would resonate with people, so we could explain the Alumni Association event for alumni who graduated that year. We apologize to anyone who was offended.