College of the Holy Cross students campaign against war and racism, 1968-1969

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Worcester, Massachusetts
Location Description: 
The College of the Holy Cross campus
At first, the goal of the campaign was to eliminate academic credit for ROTC and to impede military, government, and corporate recruiting on Campus.

After the General Electric protest, the goal shifted to obtaining amnesty for the four suspended black students.


Similar to action taken on college and university campuses throughout the 1960s in the United States, students at the College of the Holy Cross also took a stand against the Vietnam War. Students first organized to protest the presence of recruiters for Dow Chemical Company (a manufacturer of napalm) in O’Kane Hall on campus in January 1968. Campus policy affirmed the rights of students to protest as long as they remained within the bounds of three points: that they allow free access to campus facilities for all those invited to campus, that they not offend against propriety, and that they not disrupt normal campus activities.

Students for a Democratic Society, the student group principally responsible for organizing such protests, articulated its goals very clearly. They desired for the college to eliminate academic credit for ROTC and to stop campus recruitment for officer candidate schools by representatives of the Armed Forces. In December 1968 the group threatened a disruptive rally, causing Central Intelligence Agency recruiters to cancel their visit to campus. In March 1969, SDS held a demonstration in the lobby of the Hogan Campus Center against Marine recruiters. SDS protested again against Marine presence on campus again in the fall of 1969, using a “talkathon” as a way to drown out the voices of the recruiters, effectively preventing interviews of potential recruits. Each of these nonviolent actions was made possible in part by the support for free speech expounded by the college, including its president, Rev. Raymond Swords, SJ.

On October 15, 1969, the nation-wide Vietnam Moratorium Day called for by college professors, Father John E. Brooks, SJ, held a Mass for Peace on the steps of Dinand Library, with attendance estimated at 1500. And the previous month, the SDS had reorganized itself and became the Revolutionary Student Union, aiming to take controversial stances on campus and national issues. The group’s threat to disrupt another Marine recruiting visit prompted the Student Personnel Policies Committee to postpone the visit and reconsider the issue of appropriate student demonstrations on campus.

On December 1, 1969, the Faculty-Student Assembly adopted the principle of an “open campus,” disallowing any actions that could lead to unequal access to career recruiters from business firms and government agencies. However, this reaffirmation of College policy concerning free speech and public demonstration did not impede the RSU from planning and executing a more controversial protest action. On December 10, students gathered outside a room in the Hogan Center being used by General Electric Company recruiters, interlocking arms to prevent seniors from entering the room to interview with the representatives of the defense contractor. Prior to this action, leaders of the RSU contacted leaders or the Black Student Union, Ted Wells and Art Martin, in an effort to get the BSU to formally join the protest. Although the BSU voted not to officially support this action, five African American students joined the RSU in the Hogan Center that day.

Because this action was in direct violation of the College’s “open campus” policy, Dean of Students Don McClain and Vice President for Student Affairs John Shay felt compelled to take disciplinary action. Members of McClain’s staff made a “visual identification” of sixteen of the fifty-four students involved in the obstruction of GE recruiting. These students were referred to the College Judicial Board. Of the sixteen students singled out, four were black, amounting to all but one of the black students at the protest. This caused outrage among the BSU, for unlike the other students selected, the black students were not regular protesters; they were simply “highly identifiable,” in the words of McClain. At this point, the main goal of the campaign shifted from the elimination of ROTC credit and impeding recruiters, to an effort to bring justice to bear against the racist actions of the College administration.

In response, Ted Wells convened an emergency meeting of the BSU to discuss the day’s events. The group decided that Wells would speak on behalf of all four black students at their hearing before the College Judicial Board the next day. On December 11, Wells argued before the all-white Judicial Board that only 20 percent of white student protesters had been charged, whereas 80 percent of black students were charged. He alleged that the real problem with the situation was racism, and not concerns of free speech and proper behavior. After the conclusion of the hearing, the BSU assembled nearly all of the 64 black men on campus at the time. Together, and according to the suggestion of BSU leader and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, the group decided that they would leave the school in protest if the four black accused were not granted full immunity.

Upon hearing of this plan from Wells, Fr. Brooks, the man who had recruited most of these men to attend Holy Cross on scholarship, immediately arranged a 1:30 AM meeting with College President Swords in the early hours of December 12. This meeting did not bear the concrete fruits for which Wells had hoped. A few hours later, the Board revealed the results of the hearing and its deliberations: all sixteen students would be suspended for the remainder of the academic year. Right after, Wells and Martin announced the walkout of black students over the campus radio station. The student government held an emergency meeting in which it condemned the “de facto racism” of the board’s decision.

The following morning, the BSU organized a 10:00 AM press conference in the Hogan Center ballroom, attended by more than six hundred students. Wells vowed to the crowd that all the black students would not return to campus until the four black men in question were reinstated. At the conclusion of his speech, the black students threw down their student identification cards and filed out of the Hogan Center to cars waiting for them outside. After three days of meetings among College officials, President Swords was convinced by the urgings of Father Brooks and John Scott, chairman of the city of Worcester’s Human Rights Committee, to reinstate all sixteen students suspended after the General Electric protest. The BSU successfully achieved its goal.

Research Notes
Brady, Diane. "Fraternity and Diversity." Holy Cross Magazine. College of the Holy Cross, 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <>.

Kuzniewski, Anthony J. Thy Honored Name: a History of the College of the Holy Cross, 1843-1994. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1999. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Patrick Curran, 4/11/2011