Reflections from a 1970 UNC-Chapel Hill protestor


By John Rosenthal

As I watch college campuses erupt as students (and faculty) demand a cease-fire in Gaza, an end to investment in Israel, and pro-Israeli counter-protesters cry anti-Semitism, I find myself thinking about May 1970 when I was one of the three “leaders” of the anti-war protest movement that closed down UNC-Chapel Hill for more than a week. It was—and probably still is—the largest campus protest in the university’s history. At the time, I was a member of the faculty, a Teaching Fellow, so my role in the strike was risky. Most of the UNC faculty were either apolitical, conservative or afraid. Some thought it was a student thing, though of course such an event is never just a student thing.

Fervor was the air. So much was at stake. One day three of us went to President Friday’s office and made demands: the University couldn’t exist above the fray, it needed to take a moral stand, and it needed to divest its holdings from the industrial-military complex. No to napalm! Friday was, as always, courteous and diplomatic—our demands needed to be deferred. What could we do? We left. Returned to marching through the campus, through the town.

Trying to manage, or at least control, a strike so it didn’t go haywire was a tricky business. Most of the striking students had never thought about politics; a good percentage of them were stoned; a few radicals, the Yipees, wanted to tear the place down. In general, though, what ignited such a large number of Carolina students was the killings at Kent State. That had struck home. A campus massacre. When a contingent of Winston-Salem Black Panthers asked to speak at our first rally (thousands) I told them No. I said “If we want to keep these students involved, we have to stay focused on what concerns them. That’s Kent State, and, if we’re lucky, Kissinger’s secret bombing of Cambodia. The minute you add to the mix that they live in a racist country, and by implication their parents are racists, they’ll drift away. We have their interest only for a moment.” Fortunately, the Panthers, looking out over a sea of bland white faces understood what I was saying, and left. So, yes, a tricky business.

After a week or so, the University offered an amnesty to those who missed classes, but it took no stand on the Vietnam War. The Yipees wanted me to speak out against this refusal and encourage a rampage, but I refused. I’d been told that morning that the National Guard had gathered at the Horace Williams Airport. (Twenty years later I was told by a man who’d been in the National Guard at the time that all the soldiers at the airport had been given one bullet.)

However, the administration tried to fire me, but dropped their suit when the Association of University Professors decided to defend me in court. Instead, they put a monitor in my classes to make sure that I talked about Wordsworth and not Abby Hoffman. The monitor was a first-year professor who told me I should talk about whatever I wanted to.

A year later, I quit teaching, quit the Ph.D., and my wife and I left America to live in Crete. I became a photographer. My fellow classmates have all retired with pensions. If I have any second thoughts, they pass.

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