The BOOKPRESS May 1999

Cornell '69: A Retrospective


Reuben A. Munday


For more than thirty years now, when ever I mentioned that I was a member of Cornell Universityís Class of 1969, people want to know whether I participated in the "armed occupation" of Willard Straight Hall. When I tell them that I did, they want to sit down to talk about the details of what happened and the objectives that the African-American students sought to accomplish .

Recently, I have declined to participate on panels on this topic because, frankly, Iím tired of talking about it. I want to talk about Jim McConkeyís creative writing class and nights that I spent at Dan and Dorothy McCallís small blue house discussing the great American writers of the 20th century. I want to talk about eminent professors at the Arts School who were more than willing to meet with me at the Temple of Zeus in Goldwyn Smith Hall to have coffee and discuss with me my youthful ideas. There is a wonderful feeling of euphoria that I remember that comes over you when you just sit quietly on the Arts Quad on a spring day.

I could tell you about the two years that I spent as a staff writer for Cornellís office of Public Information in Day Hall. Or, I could tell you about the priceless knowledge that I gained from graduate courses taught by John Heinrich Clarke and Dr. Ben Jochanon at the Africana Studies and Research Center. But, no, I know you want to know about the "Straight takeover."

Iím writing this article because I recently recognized that my declination of invitations to speak on the topic of the Straight takeover brought back surprising emotion. Maybe this topic was not really finished personal business, as I claimed. I decided that it might be useful to accept the invitation to write this article, as an opportunity to face once again the agonizing circumstances that led to my presence in Willard Straight Hall in April of 1969. I realized, as I began to gather my thoughts, that my distaste for the topic was not a result of an uncharitable unwillingness to share my knowledge of an event that has been attributed meaningful historical significance by some, but rather by my desire to move on with my life. My desire not to be stuck. I am a strong proponent of facing the past squarely, and learning from it. To be stuck in the past, on the other hand, seems self-defeating to me. It is with both of these ideas in mind that I offer my personal account of why I was in Willard Straight Hall in April of 1969.

In September of 1965, my father and I boarded the Silver Comet in Chehaw, Alabama, just outside of Tuskegee Institute, to begin our long train ride to Binghamton, New York, where we would catch a bus for Ithaca. Long train rides were old hat for me. I had been traveling by train between Tuskegee Institute and Kingston, Pennsylvania to a college preparatory school called Wyoming Seminary since I was 14 years old. At the time, the southern portion of the United States was in open war over the issue of race. Middle-class African-American parents like mine who could afford it, packed their children up like war refugees for the trek north to eastern prep schools that were beginning to open their doors to us.

I grew up near the campus of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, a historically black college where my father taught animal genetics and my mother taught English. The Institute was a cultural center for African-Americans because there were few places like Tuskegee that offered a supportive middle-class environment to educated blacks. Aside from the Institute, there was a large Veteranís Administration Hospital that was largely staffed by African-American physicians. There was one Alabama legislator who was heard to say that there should be a law against putting two "negra" institutions in the same town.

The national African-American community was always somewhat ambivalent about the Tuskegee experiment and its founder Booker T. Washington because, while the Institute provided the only available vocational and academic training to students who were the direct descendants of a people who had been enslaved for centuries, it was only permitted to exist if its leaderóat least publiclyóadvocated accommodation of legal segregation. At an early age we were taught to fear whitesí fear of what was referred to as "race-mixing." Of course, we could look at each otherís complexions and know that there was a grand discrepancy between the principle of social separation and its practice.

My elementary school years were spent at the Instituteís laboratory school, Chamblis Childrenís House. From our idyllic island of peace in the heart of Dixie, the rumblings of the Civil Rights Movement were beginning to get too loud to be drowned out by a false civility designed to pacify southern whites, whose anger was aroused by any sign that we might desire to fully exercise the constitutional rights that white immigrants enjoyed immediately upon arrival in this country.

Rosa Parks, an unassuming and respected seamstress, had refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, 38 miles from Tuskegee. She had dutifully sat in the back of the bus, as was required at the time, but that was not enough. Southern genteel notions of the treatment of ladies did not apply to black ladies. She was to get up simply because the "gentleman" was white. Rosa Parks said she was too tired to play the game that day. Her refusal to move set in motion the famous Montgomery bus boycott.

A young Baptist minister had also recently arrived to preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr., and my mother took me to hear him speak at the Tuskegee Institute Chapel. Even at my age then, I knew that something important was happening. "Keep moving," he told us. "If you canít run, walk. If you canít walk, crawl, but keep moving."

In our classrooms at Childrenís House we watched armed National Guardsmen restrain grown men and women who were determined that black students would not attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. We watched the small tv time and time again in horror as neatly dressed grade-school children walked in confused bewilderment, protected from raging crowds by lines of armed soldiers.

We watched our governor, George C. Wallace, stand in the door of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to prevent black students from attending the University. (Governor Wallace probably didnít know or care that Native American Chief Tuscaloosa was half-black.) Wallace didnít see himself as just a low-down racist; according to him, he was defending high-sounding federalist principles like state's rights and the sacred customs of the South. In my experience, except when we went north, African-Americans at the time could not attend integrated schools without the involvement of guns, police, and ugly habits.

My father was a quiet, determined man who walked away from his home near Berea, Kentucky to attend Hampton Institute in Virginia against his fatherís wishes. His father needed him and his nine brothers and sisters to help on the farm. My father left anyway, and pursued his education until he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts in 1947, the year of my birth. Thanks to his "disobedience," my life, the lives of his family members, and the lives of many of his students at Tuskegee Institute were profoundly changed.

At the time of our train ride to Ithaca, our relationship had become strained by what he considered my political extremism. In 1965 I took a summer job as a tutor with the Tuskegee Institute Summer Education Project (TISEP). In the course of my work, I became involved with a group of students who were actively working in a number of counties in Alabama, registering rural blacks to vote. It was very dangerous business at that time, and my mother and father legitimately feared for my life.

Tuskegee is at the center of what was called the "black belt" in Alabama, an area where the black population significantly outnumbered the white population. It was the idea of the students in the area to use the power of the vote to improve the lives of the black majority. This idea, firmly based in the American ideal of participatory democracy, was referred to as "black power." A new political party called the Black Panther Party began operating in Lowndes County to exercise this power.

The time that I spent in the "country" during that summer and at other times during my college years exposed me directly to a side of southern life that shocked me and changed me. People were living as virtual impoverished slaves on rural plantations owned by white farmers. They had been deprived of any meaningful education and they were terrified by the idea that we were asking them to risk their lives by seeking to exercise their basic constitutional rights. If we were accompanied by white northern students, many of these rural black people kept their eyes to the ground, as they had been trained to do in the presence of whites.

Many of our fellow white "freedom fighters," who were generally well-intentioned and morally principled, were offended when we asked them to work only in the offices because the people we were trying to help had been conditioned to be afraid of the sight of white people, or, to put it more accurately, they were conditioned to be afraid if they dared to do anything to better their position in life.

Many of the men and women of my fatherís generation disapproved of our brash, youthful irreverence for customs of civility and acquiescence in the name of survival. They werenít the first parents to think that their children lacked the common sense to take a practical view of their situation, but their fears were heightened by the local mediaís characterization of us as Communists, outside agitators, criminals, and irresponsible, un-American Negroes. They feared that we were alienating our friends who were not members of our race.

We didnít want to be responsible Negroes on the issue of compromising our human rights. It had been more than a decade since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964. We didnít think that honest whites, who wouldnít suffer any infringement on their constitutional rights for a minute, would be alienated by our agitation on behalf of our peopleóbut if they were, so be it.

We didnít know anything about communism and we didnít think we were un-American. We were as American as apple pie. If there were any criminals, it was the people who were violating the Constitution by denying African-Americans basic human rights.

* * *

It was a quiet, pleasant ride to Ithaca. My father and I had a tacit agreement not to discus civil rights issues because those issues always ended in anger. My parents wanted me to get a good education and they wanted to keep me out of the turmoil that was embroiling the South. Cornell University was not just one of the great universities of the world, it was a good place to escape the problems of blacks in the South.

There were 38 African-Americans out of a class of 1900 students in the Cornell Class of 1969. My understanding is that it was the largest group of African-American students to ever enter the University as freshmen. I doubt that the entire population of African-American students on campus prior to 1965 equalled 38.

Our admission, we learned, was the work of a group called the Committee on Special Education Projects ("COSEP"), and the person responsible for assisting us with our adjustment was a wonderful woman named Gloria Joseph. I was to live in room 4111 University Halls #4, and my roommate was a young man from River Ridge, New Jersey.

My father shook my hand and wished me well, and he thanked Ms. Joseph for being there to help me with my adjustment. The emotion that I felt was not nearly as overwhelming as when he shook my hand and left me four years earlier at Wyoming Seminary. He was not going to repeat the same mistake that his father had honestly made; he was going to support my desire to get a good education.

Cornell was an exciting place to be in those days. The quiet atmosphere of Ithaca was a wonderful environment for the focused study of the numerous and varied courses offered by the university. The students were bright, generally friendly, and well-informed about the issues of the day. Although the African-American students were a distinct minority, I felt considerably less isolated than I had in Kingston, Pennsylvania. In my own mind I had formed the belief that social isolation was the price that an African-American was required to pay for a high-quality education.

I saw myself as something of a trailblazer, although I later learned through independent reading that the true African-American trailblazers had been present in small numbers on elite American college campuses years before. Little special note was taken of them generally, and many of them spent their professional lives quietly building the backbone of the African-American middle-class at places like Howard, Hampton, Fisk, Morehouse, Spellman and Tuskegee.

As a way of offering support to each other, the African-American students at Cornell formed what was then called the African-American Society. We met regularly to discuss events and circumstances on campus that impacted us as a group, interpretations of our reading of African-American history and literature, and the civil rights movement that was unfolding. As more black students entered Cornell, the organizationís membership grew, and its name was changed to the Black Liberation Front.

To understand the "radicalization" of black students at Cornell and to understand how the "occupation of the Straight" could take the turn that it did, it is necessary to recall the backdrop of events that were occurring in the country at that time.

The war in Vietnam was raging and students, black and white, were burning their draft cards, marching in protest in major cities like New York, and committing other acts of civil disobedience. Students across the country were occupying college campus buildings to express their disapproval of the war and their unwillingness to fight in it. White students at Cornell, led by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), occupied a building on the Engineering Quad for several days.

Each night on the news, the number of American soldiers who had been killed that day was reported. Family members clashed over the conflict between the ideal of patriotism and questions about the legitimacy of our intervention in the affairs of Southeast Asia. The 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago became a virtual street riot.

The pace of the womenís movement had also quickened. The availability of the birth control pill gave women more control over their bodies and they were agitating for more access to "menís jobs" and pay commensurate with the pay of men for equivalent work. A sexual revolution was underway and it was made some people feel liberated and others uptight.

For the first time, white college students were openly using drugs other than alcohol and prescription pills. They grew their hair long and wore loud clothes, if they wore any clothes at all. These folks were referred to as "hippies," and I was never really sure what their "bag" was, although they liked to talk about "love" and "peace." After the war in Vietnam ended, they seemed to disappear.

In the black community our counterparts at historically black colleges like Morehouse in Atlanta and North Carolina A&T; in Greensboro were "sitting-in" at "white" lunch counters and getting their heads bashed for their trouble. They werenít beaten because they were less educated than the people who were beating them or because they lacked merit as individuals; they were attacked because they were violating customs that were deeply rooted in racism.

In January of 1966, a friend of mine, Sammy Young, was shot in the head at the Greyhound Bus Station in Tuskegee for insisting on using a "white restroom." Sammy, who had a very light complexion, was the son of a prominent family in Tuskegee and was a graduate of Cornwall Academy in Massachusetts. The white man who shot Sammy was expeditiously acquitted.

The murder of Sammy changed me further. I fully realized for the first time that the struggle for the civil rights of African-Americans was not something that I had engaged in to help other people, people we used to call "country people." The racism of the South made no allowances for class, education, individualism, shades of complexion, or economic status. The signs said "white" or "colored," and they meant what they said.

It seemed to me that, if the courts and the law enforcement officers of the South would not protect us, we would have to do the best we could to protect ourselves. I really think that my father agreed with me, but he didnít agree with my having the indiscretion to talk openly about it.

African-American soldiers, who were disproportionally represented in the armed forces in Vietnam, were coming home dead or, in many cases, with drug habits and emotional problems. Those who were able to adjust when they returned were ignored for their sacrifice, as were most of the other veterans of that war, and many could not find jobs.

Inner cities were exploding in anger in Watts, Harlem, Newark, and Detroit, to name a few. Muhammad Aliówho has been re-packaged as an American heroówas stripped of his heavyweight championship for refusing to go to war. "Hell no, I wonít go," he said. "It ainít the Vietnamese that have been calling me nigger."

Then in 1968, the ultimate happened. Martin Luther King was shot down at the age of 39 in Memphis, Tennessee. Even those who were doubtful of the efficacy of Kingís nonviolent tactics were disillusioned by his murder. I think that we all secretly hoped that he would be proved right. Given the very basic advances that he sought for us, like equal access to public accommodations, I felt anger and what I considered to be righteous indignation.

In the context of this history I really didnít think that our takeover of Willard Straight Hall in April of 1969 during parentsí weekend was a big deal. To me it was a garden variety demonstration with typically vague goals that were related to seeking resources to support the study of our own history while we were at Cornell studying everyone elseís history.

The demonstration was reasonably routine for the period, until a group of fraternity guys broke in and demanded that we leave. "This is our parents' weekend," they told us.

The real problems did not arise until they began to push people, including women, around. At that point, they were physically evicted. They threatened to return "equipped" to remove us from the building, and we took their threats seriously. It was at this point that the decision was made to stay where we were and to prepare to defend ourselves.

I think that we were all intelligent enough to know, even at that age, that we could not defend ourselves if real racial hostilities had exploded in upstate New York. But at that time, given my experience in life, the idea of being pushed around was not acceptable. I did not want anyone counting on the fact that I would "go limp," as we had been taught to do in the South, and take a beating at anyoneís whim. My recollection of this resolve to stand up for myself is much clearer than my recollection of the particular demands that we, as a group, were making on the University. I have to leave the articulation of our specific goals to someone who has a better memory than I.

I am grateful that the decision was made not to kill us, and that I was permitted to go on with my life. I am also grateful that I was not expelled and was permitted to ultimately complete my education at Cornell a year later.

The most painful memory for me of the time was seeing the disappointment in my fatherís eyes when I returned to Tuskegee without my degree. Nothing any racist or patronizing liberal could say could have hurt me as much as the look in his eyes. I knew him and I knew what he went through to get where he was. He had been proud of me, despite our disagreements, and he had sacrificed material luxuries to see to it that I got a better opportunity than he had. I saw in his eyes the disappointment of the aspirations of generations of people, the earliest of whom aspired only to have physical chains removed from their bodies.

I though back to the way my father had held his head high when the President of Wyoming Seminary announced at my graduation that I had been selected to receive the Ruggles Award as the outstanding graduating senior. My mother also told me later that he carried around the tie pins that were given to me after my election to two Cornell honorary societies, Aleph Semach and Quill and Dagger. Just months before the Straight incident, he was showing his colleagues the deanís list certificate that I received for academic excellence at Cornell.

I wanted to tell him that I had stood up for him and the other great people of Tuskegee. I wanted to tell him that people like him had a right to fight for their dignity. But I knew what he would say. He would say that you donít imitate and stoop to the level of those of whom you complain. Although the mighty usually prevail, that does not necessarily make them better than other people.

He would say that a man should finish what he starts and shouldnít allow himself to get distracted. He would say that the best thing that I could do for myself and others was to get myself a good education. In the end, I knew that I had defied the will of my father in the same way that he had defied the will of his. Each man has to live in his own time.

To the African-American students at Cornell who are interested in the events surrounding the occupation of Willard Straight Hall, I am glad that you are interested in the history of African-Americans at the University, but I hope that you will not choose to be stuck in that history. You are living in a very different time that calls for very different ways of thinking. It would be a waste for you to try to relive the experiences of those of us who went before you. Fortunately for you, you have a reasonably large black alumni group that is anxious to share its experiences with you and can identify with the challenges that Cornell presents to African-American students. Unfortunately for us, we did not have the support of such a group.

Please donít waste your valuable time trying to defend your "equality" or your right to be at Cornell. You are desperately needed by your community and I am giving you permission to take four years to prepare yourselves. I even hope that you will manage to have some fun. Many of those who are so quick to sit in judgment of you would do well to engage in more introspection and self-evaluation.

Diversity is reality, not an idea dreamed up by African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and women to harass other "innocent people." The opposite of diversity is delusion. If the great universities of this country are really interested in the pursuit of truth, they will continue to seek to include intellectually capable representatives of all segments of our society. If not, it will be the universitiesí loss, and the excluded segments will have to make the best of the limited resources that are available to them. Our determination to move forward is part of our "merit."

Remember that Frederick Douglass improved his reading skills by tricking young white boys in Baltimore into correcting his pronunciation of words. Remember that Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave, literally walked to Hampton Institute to get his education. Remember that the students at Tuskegee Institute, not only built the buildings on their campus, they also made the bricks. Our inclusion in significant numbers among the student bodies on Ivy League campuses is very recent history.

I realize now what I did not have the experience to realize in my 20s. The opportunity to get a Cornell education is the opportunity to develop something much more powerful and productive than a gun; it is the opportunity to have a university-trained mind. Take advantage of that opportunity.

To those who think that we were responsible for "closing the American mind" and/or destroying "academic freedom," I think that you are wrong. A part of the problem in the first place was that the American mind had been closed to people like us for a very long time. At Tuskegee there was a period when students were not permitted to walk across campus with books because the sight of blacks with books upset southern whites. Black college presidents who were seeking to raise funds to support their schoolsí academic programs were routinely asked to sing Negro spirituals as part of their appeal. Professors with nice cars wore chauffeur caps when they drove their cars on campus to create the impression that the cars did not belong to them. I guess you have to be a part of a community that has "academic freedom" to bemoan its loss.

Hopefully, the incident at Willard Straight Hall will just be a historical footnote in the great future of Cornell University that we should work together to create. For those who are still angry about the incident, angry that we "got away with it," I can only repeat the advice that I am given when I try to offer some of the details of what I have experienced and learned about African-American history. "Things arenít like that any more. Letís move on." Thank God, I have been able to do so.

Reuban Munday is President and CEO of Lewis & Munday, A Professional Corporation in Detroit, Michigan, one of the largest African-American owned law firms in the country.

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