The politics of protest at USF 1965-66

In 1966, a USF student who recently finished active duty in the U.S. armed forces received a postcard from a recruiter asking him if he was interested in re-enlisting. It took but a moment’s thought before the student replied in writing, “Yes, I have considered re-entering the service. I have also considered howling at the moon. However, I assure you I shall do neither.”

In that year, a culture of protest rose to the surface of college campuses across the country. Avoiding the draft was rather easy: Attend college and retain a GPA of 2.0 or higher. For some concerned citizens, however, escaping combat service was not enough. They wanted to stop the war.

In the conservative atmosphere of Florida, the process began slowly. In 1965, Campus Edition published with grave concern, “You may be approached to join in demonstrations to protest America’s involvement in Vietnam. The Campus Edition hears reliably that demonstrations are engineered by persons identified with subversive or militant left-wing socialist groups. Can it happen here?”

Campus Edition further warned, “Should you be contacted on any such proposition, report it to SA and administration leaders. We believe USF students are too smart to be used for obnoxious propaganda purposes.”

A further deterrent to protest was the shadow of the Johns Committee’s witch hunt for communists and homosexuals that loomed over all Florida universities. On the one hand, students feared being labeled a “commie” or subversive. However, they felt defiant that USF might not tolerate more intrusions with silence having been bullied before.

Students had already displayed their willingness to rock the boat when they protested the vague dress code in 1961. In 1965, English department chairman James Parrish cancelled an edgy coffee-hour reading of Jack Kerouac’s poetry, and students staged a march of protest, demanding academic freedom on campus. Sign-wielding demonstrators marched to the administration courtyard, where they circled several times. A crowd of 200 students gathered to watch or join.

The notion of academic freedom was as delicate then as it is now. Not all students considered the writing of the Beatniks to be literature at all, nor did all consider the act of protest to be patriotic. When a protesting student spoke to the crowd, some heckled him and chanted, “red, red, red …” A rebellious student named Pete Gladue began reading Kerouac’s work, a piece that read in part, “I got dressed up and went out and got laid.” This phrase brought shouts of derision from the crowd.

After one hour of protests, the class bell and impending rain broke up the gathering. Faculty had wrestled with a proposal to bring Kerouac to campus in a “Meet the Author” series, but never pursued it. About the time of the protest, Kerouac contacted USF and said he did not wish to visit at all, although he resided close by in St. Petersburg.

Sensitivity to academic freedom swung both ways. When planners invited conservative author John Stormer on campus to speak about Communism, USF’s Young Democrats followed the story with concern claiming that Stormer slandered numerous elected officials and used sloppy citations. Campus conservatives cried foul, saying that non-liberal thinkers deserved protection.

The political battle lines were being drawn among the student population in 1966. Campus rebel Pete Gladue submitted a sarcastic quiz to the Campus Edition, said to determine patriotism. The test mocked conservatives and zealous anti-communists. Some of Gladue’s statements included: “Make war on those you profess to love. This is very American; Report USF to the House Un-American Activities Committee; It is federally subsidized, and that’s creeping socialism; Remember, the flag is like the cross. Carry it wherever you go. (It would also help to take your mother along); Don’t be fooled by the National Defense Education Act. Some of that money even goes to English majors.”

A few days later, conservative students fired back with their own test, this one to determine if one was liberal. Among their missives: “Do you still believe in God, free will, morality and all that other reactionary trash?; Tell an anti-[Barry] Goldwater joke every day, followed by one on the Johns Committee; Join all groups which advocate surrender to the Soviet Union; Take disloyalty oaths — see Pete Gladue; And remember, what’s good for the USA should be the last consideration of a true liberal.”

As is usually the case, the government had the last word, a test for liberals and conservatives alike. The new test, administered by the Selective Service System, identified students with low scores and low grades, who were drafted into a two-year term of armed service.

With the costs of war rising, the federal government announced cuts in the National Defense Education Act that would have put an estimated 875 USF students out of school. Local banks balked at the fixed six percent interest rate for student loans as being too unprofitable. Although the cuts never materialized, a student called the White House collect to protest directly to President Johnson, who was not available.

Polarizing politics left most students feeling caught in the middle. A student editorial illustrated the injection of politics into his thinking. “Today,” the student wrote, “the average middle-class American looks at a large part of our campus population not as the rah-rah, bulla-bulla, all-American boy, but as a dirty, pinko, anti-American slob … a bunch of jerks who don’t bathe.” Although the writer admitted that few students actually joined protesters, most sympathized with their perspectives and activities but were too “chicken” to join themselves, largely out of pressure from parents. The result: “A clean-shaven face yet a bearded heart.”

The student reflected, “This generation is not out to destroy America, only to improve it. The role of making people aware will, hopefully, not be needed in our future. It will be an automatic part of our thinking process.”

Strong idealism in the face of an increasingly messy world was just one symptom of life at USF during the height of the Cold War. The “culture wars” that began then are now a central fact of American politics. As the name implies, these wars might, in the end, leave us with no meaningful political culture at all.