Remembering the Vigil: A University Milestone

What began as a protest march eventually blossomed into a campus- and community-wide happening that found thousands camping out on the quad. Thirty years later, students, faculty, and administrators reflect on the Vigil's importance at the time, and its lasting significance.
March 31, 1998






 


 

 

Reaching for consensus: After the board of trustees announced it was sympathetic to the needs of non-academic employees, Vigil participants joined hands to sing "We Shall Overcome." Pictured, from left, are administrators Charles Huestis and Frank Ashmore, board of trustees chair Wright Tisdale, and students Reed Kramer and Jon Kinney
Photo: Duke University Archives
[Tisdale Addresses Students Demands - Real Audio]

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968, riots and protests broke out across the country as supporters of the civil rights movement mourned the loss of their most visible leader. On Duke's campus, the occasion had profound historical consequences as well. In the week that followed, a series of events took place that came to be known as the Silent Vigil. What began as a protest march eventually blossomed into a campus- and community-wide happening that found thousands camping out on the quad; trustees, administrators, faculty, and students locked in negotiations over university governance and policy; classes canceled by professors sympathetic to the cause; and attention from national media outlets and leading political figures (telegrams of support came in from Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Nelson Rockefeller, among others).

Duke was still very much a Southern university, where maids daily cleaned the dorm rooms and made the beds on West Campus (residents of the Woman's College were assumed to be proficient in such domestic tasks and made their own beds). A referendum presented by the student government calling for a boycott of off-campus segregated facilities had earlier been defeated by the student body. And the university had not even admitted black undergraduates until 1963, relatively late compared with other institutions. Yet the civil rights and anti-war movements were gaining momentum, "teach-ins" about the Vietnam War took place frequently, and student organizations such as the YMCA/ YWCA and religious groups were active in the local community. At the time of King's assassination, there was a solid core of individuals who were cognizant of social-justice issues and the politics of protest movements, and they quickly found themselves at the forefront of a campus uprising.

Shocked by King's murder, these students came together to discuss what could be done to express their collective anger and frustration. After lengthy discussions among themselves, and with advice from a small assortment of faculty, community leaders, and university administrators, the group decided to march to the Duke Forest neighborhood to distribute leaflets and talk to the residents. As planning continued, leaders decided to make university president Douglas M. Knight's house one of the stops along the way, and to present him with a list of demands. These included asking Knight to endorse a newspaper ad that stated, among other things, that "we are all implicated" in the assassination of King; that Knight resign from the segregated Hope Valley Country Club; that non-academic employees be paid the federal minimum wage of $1.60 per hour (for colleges and universities at the time, it was $1.15, although many Duke employees were paid far less); and that a committee of administrators, faculty, students, and workers be established to design a method of collective bargaining for the workers. (Local #77 was the union working on behalf of Duke's non-academic employees and was involved in the Vigil early on.)

On Friday, April 5, organizers gathered to march. Expecting forty or fifty people to join them, they were surprised when 450 fellow students showed up. As the crowd arrived at Knight's house, the president came outside to meet them. As he spoke, dozens of students trickled inside, and Knight soon invited the rest to come in. Negotiations between a handful of designated students and Knight dragged on through the night, with Knight refusing to agree to the demands, and students refusing to leave. The president told them they were welcome to stay.

Within two days, Knight, who was still recovering from a bout with hepatitis, was ordered by his personal physicians to remove himself from the situation. With Knight out of the picture, students decided to continue their protest on the main quad while discussions with administrative representatives continued. On the evening of April 7, board of trustees chairman Wright Tisdale flew to Durham to join in the deliberations. There were rumors that the university might be closed down, or that students would be removed from the quad by police with fire hoses. The number of people on the quad continued to grow. On the first night, 546 people camped out in front of Duke Chapel; by the time Tisdale delivered an official statement to the crowd on April 10, it numbered approximately 2,000 strong.

During the week, a number of speakers addressed the crowd, including leaders from Durham's black community, faculty members, and folk singers Joan Baez, David Harris, and Pete Seeger. The national press was slow to cover the story, ostensibly because the protest was orderly and peaceful rather than marked by the more headline-making turbulence prevailing at other campuses. The dining-hall workers, maids, and janitors went on strike, and factions of students were in charge of bringing food to campus and distributing it among the crowd. The entire event was orderly--there were even row monitors--with few exceptions. Those ranged from inconsequential heckling by non-participants to antagonism between faculty colleagues in certain departments. After Tisdale's public statement, which broadly recognized the need to respond to "the financial situation of our non-academic employees," the student body trekked to Page Auditorium to discuss the next step, a gathering marked by exhaustion and disagreement.

In practical terms, the Vigil brought about significant change. Local #77 gained visibility; wages for non-academic employees were eventually raised to the minimum wage; and Knight ultimately did resign from Hope Valley Country Club. (The first black club member was admitted in 1992.)

On a more philosophical level, the Vigil touched the lives of those involved in myriad ways. Significantly, more than three-quarters of those who eventually participated in the Vigil had never joined in any kind of demonstration before. Some mark it as the moment of their own personal political awakening; others cite it as a turning point in the university's history that ranks with the Bassett Affair of 1903 (when the board of trustees refused to censure professor John Spencer Bassett for his published views critical of race relations at the time). Thirty years later, we invited students, faculty, and administrators to reflect on the Vigil's importance at the time, and its lasting significance.

 

Griffith: "It really was special to Duke and to higher education; nothing like it happened anywhere else in the country."

 

William Griffith '50 was assistant to the provost for student affairs at the time of the Vigil. Highly respected by students, he acted as an emissary between the students and administration as events unfolded. Now a vice president emeritus, he lives in Durham and continues to be involved in a variety of university activities.

After Martin Luther King was killed, the students made it clear that they wanted to do something. It gave me great concern when they indicated that they were thinking of going into Hope Valley and some of the other wealthy areas of Durham to knock on doors and tell the residents what the community should be doing. I knew that a lot of the people who lived there carried firearms and there was concern about black-white relationships, and I felt it would be a dangerous thing to do. I also felt it would be counterproductive. I told them I thought they were making a big mistake and that if they really wanted to make an impact, they should go into Duke Forest, where people would be more receptive. They would be talking with Duke faculty and staff and people who shared a sensitivity to what they were doing.

After the first meeting or two [at Doug Knight's house], I told them I thought they were losing momentum by staying there. I thought they should come back to campus. The university was already working on a number of aspects of the demands--salaries of biweekly employees and other areas. So I felt that what the students were doing had the potential to accelerate those discussions. I guess my feeling in a circumstance like that is that Duke is a family and if you want to change things, you should try to work with your family first before going externally. [Back on campus] I was concerned that there were students who were very much opposed-- I guess you would call them conservative--who felt that it was wrong and didn't feel there ought to be some of the changes that were being suggested. And I was afraid of conflict between those groups, and also people from the outside who had started to come in. The thing I liked best about it was that it didn't have the ramifications that there were at other universities, meaning no damage to buildings and people. It was a non-violent occasion and students were very good at maintaining that, and wouldn't pay attention to the taunting. That was the uniqueness of the situation. I think it's a lot easier to do physical violence to something because you're responding to your emotions and you get immediate gratification. And this was slow gratification, and it took discipline to do that. I have a great deal of respect for the leadership that made it happen that way. It really was special to Duke and to higher education; nothing like it happened anywhere else in the country.

I have always had a lot of respect for Doug Knight and felt that he was damaged so badly that he might never recover. But I always felt that he was the right person at the right time. Knight was a very sensitive person; he was an administrator but also a poet and a scholar. He was sensitive to what was taking place. You really needed someone who had a feeling for the community and I think he did. He had a special empathy for Duke.

Jon Kinney '68 was the president of the newly formed Associated Students of Duke University (ASDU) and chosen as one of the negotiators at Knight's house. He traveled to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral with a group of Duke students and faculty member Samuel DuBois Cook. Now an attorney, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

We did this one right. It showed me the value of a small cadre of people making committed decisions. We may have argued among ourselves, but we made a commitment and we worked together. To this day, I don't think the administration realized how organized we were. We made demands the university could agree to, not pie-in-the-sky things like stop the war or end segregation. I was not there when Joan Baez and David Harris played [on April 8], but the students turned down their request to make the Vigil into a Vietnam anti-war protest. That was a legitimate issue, but it was not what the Vigil was about.

The only negative was the gathering in Page Auditorium. It was democracy run amok, with everyone shouting. People were extremely tired and emotional and we were close to a situation where we had lost control because groups were divided among themselves. That was one time when it could have derailed, but the rest of the time there was a strong feeling that we're in this together. I believe that if given the choice and people are forced to think beyond their immediate needs, there is an innate sense of community and doing what is right that transcends everything else....

Running for office never had any appeal to me after my Duke experience. I felt we accomplished more with the Vigil than I would have in twenty years of elected office. My ASDU presidency was nothing compared to the ability of a small group of people to effect change.

Douglas M. Knight was president of Duke University from 1963 to 1969. Like most university presidents of that time, he found himself caught up in rapidly changing political and social currents. In his book, Street of Dreams: The Nature and Legacy of the 1960s (Duke University Press), Knight describes the role of university president as "a lightning rod." Given the power of the board of trustees and his own diminished ability to make binding administrative decisions, he says, he "often had authority but no power." Now at work on a new autobiographical book, Enduring Change, about the role of education from the Thirties to the present, Knight lives in New Jersey and is the president of the Questar Corporation.

I don't know if the students realized where my heart was and where my efforts were to deal with the very things the Vigil went on to address--the place of our employees and our lower-paid staff. I had to fight against some pretty reactionary opinions among senior administrators who felt that we should pay [those employees] as little as we could, using appalling language and so forth. There were a great many members of the Duke constituency who didn't care whether Martin Luther King lived or died; they felt he was disruptive. So there were real stress lines, really ugly things going on in the community. That's what made my position so odd; students felt I had a certain set of attitudes I didn't have. My own convictions regarding the war and race relations were very much like theirs. They couldn't imagine how much I agreed with them.

I was fighting things both internal and external. I had grave difficulties working with The Duke Endowment. When I was hired, they gave me a list of people they wanted to see fired. I had to do combat to save my own and the university's integrity. Things are very different now, but at the time, the Endowment exerted a great deal of power over how the university was run. [History professor] Robert Durden is writing a book about The Duke Endowment with the encouragement and support of the Endowment; they've tried to make amends for the past, and I'm happy I've lived long enough to see that happen.... [When all this happened] I was still in my forties, so I was much younger than most of my peers. In a sense, I was a prisoner of my own success. I had been a college president at the age of thirty-two and had already been a college president ten years before I got to Duke, so I was thoroughly embedded. I felt that it required more energy every day than I could recruit and that's why at the time I got sick for awhile. The energy demands were so intense, way beyond what anyone knew except for one or two people. These were situations that by definition you couldn't handle properly; whatever you did was wrong because the constituents were so divided among themselves.... [When I left my house for medical reasons] part of me felt like a draft dodger, I suppose, but I was told flatly that I must not be there anymore, that I was stressing myself too much. We had a place on Kerr Lake, and I kept up with things through phone calls. But I had a wonderfully strong group in place--Chuck Huestis, Taylor Cole, Bill Griffith--they deserve enormous credit....

In the fall of 1968, after the Vigil but before the [1969] occupation of the Allen Building, I said to my wife one night, I'm feeling a lot better and there's still so much to do and I think I can stick it out for a while. She is a very strong person, very inner-directed, and she is not a woman who cries. But I remember looking over at her--she was hanging her dress up in the closet--and tears were running down her face. And I said to myself, you can't do this to these people who are your family. I knew at that moment that I had to find a decent way out. Later, during the occupation of the Allen Building, things were really bad; there was violence in the air. The KKK and boys in pick-up trucks with gun racks were on the edge of campus waiting for dark. For a time, our son stayed overnight at a friend's house; we were that worried about his safety. Quite apart from the pressure put on me by the board, I realized this had to stop because it was tearing everybody up. It was disintegrating my family. That's the sort of thing students didn't have the maturity to know....

It was quite an experience to find that I'd been exiled from the community where I'd made my whole life--I'm referring to the university community. It was so destructive in the short term. I had to become someone else or I would be destroyed. I couldn't retire. I couldn't afford it financially and I couldn't do it psychologically. I was never at odds in my heart with the things we were trying to do in the university, although I was certainly neutralized quite often. In the long view of history, I'm glad I had the chance to do the right thing. But I had never planned on destroying my career, because that's what happened.

 

Dedicated optimist: Small, center, recalls that she and her peers "believed that if we worked together we could change things; we didn't think it was not possible."

 

Margaret Small '68, known as "Bunny" as an undergraduate, arrived at Duke as a conservative "Navy brat" who planned to major in chemistry. A sophomore-year modern world history class changed all that; she became active in the civil rights movement, voter registration, and the ecumenical Christian student movement. During the Vigil, she was one of the main student leaders and was chosen to negotiate with Knight at his house. She now lives in Chicago, where she works with high school math teachers in public schools.

In the spring of my junior year, I ran for president of Panhel. My platform was that sororities as they were constituted on campus were insignificant social clubs that offered no real contribution. It was a waste of resources, and we should be involved in trying to improve things. And I won. That summer, I went on a trip throughout Southeast Asia for a seminar sponsored by the University Christian movement, and it had a profound influence on my sense of necessity to act. When I got back, I decided that the whole idea of sororities was morally untenable and not something you could reform. It was premised on selectivity, which found its meaning in harming other people by making distinctions about who was or wasn't valid. Any social system based on acceptance and popularity that involved ranking and then eliminating people was destructive and bad. So I resigned as Panhel president, which really stirred up the pot!

By this time, I was already working with people in Durham and the local union. After Dr. King was assassinated, those of us who were activists met with Oliver Harvey (a janitor who was the first organizer of the union movement at Duke). We decided on a candlelight march. The whole development of what happened came from a circle of people who were involved out of religious affiliations--the University Christian movement, the YWCA--so there was a shared framework.... We didn't see ourselves as radical. We weren't destroying property or burning cities; we were a moderate voice of reason. We weren't challenging the university's power; we were challenging the university to play the role universities in liberal societies are supposed to play.

There was a struggle over whether to leave Knight's house. Some people didn't think he was really sick and wanted to keep occupying the house. Most of us thought we'd lose support if we did that. We never really knew the status of his health, but whatever illness he may have had was precipitated by the stress of facing that situation....

The women's movement was just beginning to emerge across the country. We had not consciously taken on the issue of why guys assumed they should be in charge, and personally I never felt that way, so I felt comfortable being one of the negotiators [at Knight's house].

It was a sign of the times that no one who was supporting the issues thought I shouldn't do it. And in fact the women formed the backbone of the Vigil because they played an important role in organizing how food was acquired and distributed. In a way, the Vigil was a classic case of middle-class college kids using the skills they have to organize something. There were teams and row captains, infinite divisions of labor, and everyone had tasks and responsibilities. There was also a lot of education going on--speeches, history lessons, different professors talking, teach-ins....

After graduation, I had to choose between getting my Ph.D. in women's studies or getting a trade, so I decided to get a trade, and I became a machinist. I worked in the California shipyards for eight years, came back to Chicago and worked with unions and labor movements and as a machinist until Reagan got elected and all the industrial jobs went overseas. I always thought I was too radical to be a public school teacher and I didn't think anyone would want me teaching history the way I saw it. Since there was a shortage of math teachers, I got certified to teach math....

It's worth mentioning that the Vigil was a time of fermentation for a lot of people. People involved went in a variety of different directions, but it has been wonderful to see that a vast majority still have the same moral convictions. They are still concerned about the fundamental changes our society needs. In many ways, American society is much more cynical today; it recognizes corruption and patronage in politics. It's much harder for people to believe in their own actions; they get discouraged before they even try. But we had an optimism in that we believed if we worked together we could change things; we didn't think it was not possible. And I still believe that, because I'm working with inner-city schools trying to figure out ways to support people who have nothing.

 

Henderson: "The issue was Duke and what kind of place Duke was going to be."

 

David Henderson '68, one of the central student leaders during the Vigil, kept a journal of the event, which is on file at University Archives. He lives in Tyler, Texas.

I was politicized at the age of six or seven by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was about that time that "16 Tons" was a major hit. It was my favorite song for years and made me a lifelong friend of mineworkers. I knew there was no justice in any worker owing his or her soul to the company store....

My conversations during the strike tended to be tactical and strategic. I was a nondescript socialist revolutionary, committed to furthering whatever it was that was going to be the revolution in the United States. I saw the unfolding events as an opportunity to mobilize and politicize a lot of people. The leadership committee spent a lot of time talking contingency and principle. What did we want to achieve? What would we do if confronted with State Power? Would we adhere to non-violence? A lot of the discussion was about what we would do if we did not get our demands.

Escalation in revolutionary tactics is a science and an art that I was concerned about because I did not want to die in the revolution. Nor did I want to go to jail. Unlike the adherents of non-violence, I viewed going to jail as voluntary political suicide. I was, after all, a political science major....

I was surprised by the number who showed up for the original march to Dr. Knight's house. By this time there had been numerous civil rights and anti-war demonstrations on and off campus where there were only a handful of us. When I saw how many we were, I knew we had seized a moment in history because of the underlying issues. Our numbers grew for two reasons. First and most simply, Martin had spoken in Page Auditorium a few years earlier on his way to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Many of us who heard him there knew we were in the presence of a Godly man. We were touched by his life and his death.

But there was a more determining issue. All of us in the strike had not become "cheerleaders for justice" and fewer still had or retained any loyalty to the working class. The issue was Duke and what kind of place Duke was going to be. Prior to the spring of 1968, Duke was still Methodist Flats, a Southern institution content to be a Southern institution, with its attendant provincialism and institutionalized racism. By and large the student body was beyond Southern identity and social mores. We knew that Duke could and therefore should provide national and international leadership. That's what motivated us and made the strike successful: confidence in Duke....

Spurred on by our successful strike, over the course of the next ten years I became the Reddest of the Red Guards. Fighting against the Vietnam War and working in factories in and around Durham, I worked to organize and revitalize labor unions. I organized a local Marxist-Leninist organization and then became the area leader of a revolutionary communist party. We had open clubs in most of the major factories in Durham, including General Electric and the two cigarette factories. I was singled out by the FBI's COINTELPRO offensive and fired from several jobs I loved as a machinist for being a communist. By 1978 the war was over, there was not going to be a revolution, I was burned out, and moved to New York City. The next chapter of my life could be called "driven mad by Lenin."

I'm still organizing after all these years. Now I'm organizing business conferences in the area of distressed debt and corporate reorganization. Lenin is dead, but capitalism is always in a crisis somewhere. Yesterday it was Mexico. Today the crisis is spreading over Asia. Marx lives on. There is a large and growing market of people who capitalize on the crises. This is affectionately called on Wall Street the "vulture market." I'm in the thick of it, organizing the vultures, lawyers, and accountants who cater to them. I'm sure Marx is proud of me still.

Mary D.B.T. Semans '39 is the granddaughter of Benjamin Duke, whose $1,000 gift to Trinity College in 1887 marked the beginning of the family's philanthropic ties to the institution named for them in 1924. Known for her devotion to causes ranging from economic justice and racial equality to grassroots arts organizing, Semans was a university trustee from 1961 to 1981 (and is now trustee emerita), chairs the board of trustees of The Duke Endowment, and is vice chair of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. She lives in Durham.

The Vigil was a special chapter in the life of Duke. It was a collaboration of students and faculty acting for the betterment of the total university. The administration realized that the students' motives were sincere and serious, and talks were started between the administration and the representatives of the nonacademic employees.

The demonstration arose from a sincere motive, I believe. I have always felt, however, that the occupation of President Knight's house was in error and took away from the "purity" of the cause. It was a violation of his rights. When he was kind enough to invite them in, they should have entered and chatted but then should have left. Nothing was accomplished by occupying Dr. Knight's house, and it became a senseless gathering showing bad manners. I know I speak truthfully because I have talked with a former student who says that they had a sort of telephone station in the house. I have never understood the students' feelings about the president. This whole incident exacerbated his illness and I shall never forget the night when he said "farewell" to the Duke campus and the students were gathered in Page Auditorium with long faces. One young woman queried: "What did we do to him?"

This to me was an impetuous, uncontrolled part of the Vigil and became the target of criticism, whereas the Silent Vigil on the quad was purposeful and amazingly impressive, non-violent and constructive. It was the first time, I believe, that real attention had been paid to these employees who kept the campus going.

Much credit should go to Charles (Chuck) Huestis [then vice president for business and finance] for continued talks with the head of the non-academic employees while, at the same time, the trustees talked. The champion of intelligent dialogue on the board of trustees was Charles Wade, who had the savoir faire one assigns to the "Southern gentleman"--always courteous, wonderful to students, and a great compromiser for good causes. I have always felt the trustees wanted to do the right thing.

The period represented a crossroads in Duke's life. The institution had started with employees who wanted to work at the "new" institution in the Thirties. In the hospital, for example, many people wanted to work with new people, the doctors and their associates. For these reasons the salaries could be low and they never kept pace with rising costs of living and pay scales elsewhere. Duke was nervous about unions and collective bargaining and there was much apprehension about them during the Vigil period.

Despite unpleasantness, hurt feelings, etc., there were golden moments, a new maturity, elements of unselfishness on the part of students, and a new respect for non-academic employees who had gained decent wages as a result. Many faculty members had been supportive and the administration plus trustees had listened and acted.

 

Strange: "There was no way any of us could have predicted what happened. It was serendipitous. . .it was beyond any one of us."
Courtesy of David Henderson

 

John Strange '60 was an assistant professor of political science at the time of the Vigil and worked for the NC Fund, an innovative anti-poverty organization. There was some speculation that his high visibility during the Vigil thwarted his bid for tenure, a theory he dismisses. He is now a professor at the University of South Alabama's Center for Technology and lives in Daphne, Alabama.

My sophomore year at Duke, the person who cleaned my room was Oliver Harvey. I had some textbooks on race issues and history and he asked to borrow them. We got to talking about those books, and about the lives of the maids and janitors at Duke and how they were treated and mistreated. He wanted me to do an article about it for The Chronicle and I said sure, but I couldn't get any of the blacks to participate. About a month later, Oliver asked me to try again, and this time I had no trouble at all getting responses to my questions. The article appeared in the spring of 1958 and was reproduced in the black newspaper in Durham. It became somewhat controversial on campus, and the idea of a union for maids and janitors was at least on the table. . ..

I accepted an offer to come back to Duke in 1966 but ended up working virtually full-time at the NC Fund while teaching classes. I was engaged in issues of race, politics, and voting rights, and was in daily contact with civil rights leaders and advocates. When King was assassinated, those of us at the Fund were extremely concerned what the reaction would be in the black community. At the same time, a number of my students became upset and mapped out a series of plans to do some really wild and woolly things--chaining themselves to dining room tables, for example--and we became concerned that these types of activities might be a lighted fuse. So I got the students to invite me to a series of meetings and we came up with a strategy which didn't involve any violence, destruction of property, or lawbreaking. We spent many hours drafting a list of very specific demands. . ..

I really didn't have much to do with the Vigil other than being a faculty member who was trusted by those students and who helped shape the course of what we did initially. When we decided to sit in [at Knight's house], it was a decision I participated in quite fully. I was an advocate of moving to the quad because everyone saw the potential of a positive response, based on the numbers we got at the house. But there was no way any of us could have predicted what happened. It was serendipitous; as it evolved it was magic, it was beyond any one of us. People who took part were really moved and touched. . ..

My leaving Duke had nothing to do with my ability to stay on the tenure track. I have no doubt that I'd be tenured at Duke today if I'd decided to stay. But I had a great opportunity to continue the work we had been doing at the Fund. . ..

 

Looking back on sixty years of life, I can point to a dozen things that have made a difference. I've always been involved in change-type activities, whether that's helping start a college that takes personal life experiences into account or trying to provide access to technology to people who don't have access. Sometimes I've been less successful than I would have liked, but every once in awhile you get lucky and set into motion something that does bring about real changes.

Charles Huestis, at the time of the Vigil, was vice president for business and finance. Cited as a voice of moderation during the negotiation process, he was among the administrators credited with persuading some of the more conservative trustees to reconsider their attitudes toward the students and the non-academic employees.

Now a senior vice president emeritus, Huestis lives in Durham.

When Wright Tisdale flew in, his first announcement was that he was going to close the university down. That really got us tied up in knots. That debate went on for the greater part of twenty-four hours. Finally, after trying to explain what the students were trying to say to us, and emphasizing the fact that it was a peaceful demonstration and not out of control, Tisdale said he'd heard enough and was going to close down the university. I remember saying, "Wright, you don't have the authority to close this university. At a minimum, you've got to take it to the executive committee."

So that's what we did. We arranged for the executive committee to come to town and meet at Mary Semans' house because we didn't want them on campus. The astonishing thing was that when we met, Bill [Griffith] and I hardly had to say a word. Wright explained what the students were trying to say to us, emphasizing that these were our best and brightest students. He did a beautiful job explaining it. Here was a man I'd been fighting for forty-eight hours.

It was agreed that Wright would go in front of the crowd to read a statement from the committee and someone mentioned that there would probably be no response at all, followed by the crowd singing "We Shall Overcome." When it was suggested that it would mean a lot to the students if he joined in, Wright gave a long, level, cold stare and said, "I'm not sure I can do that." But when they started to sing the song, I was suddenly aware that here was Wright, booming out the song in his baritone voice, and he knew the words! He got caught up in the emotion of the moment.

At one of the football games some years ago, Bill Griffith and I and one of the fellows who was active on campus were talking about the "old days" and how quiet the campus is now compared to back then. And I said, you know, it was hell going through those days but they were really great.

Boyd Tisdale '68, M.A.T. '70, J.D. '75 is the son of Wright Tisdale, who died in 1975. He is an attorney living in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

I was in John Strange's seminar on black politics and there were some class members who actively participated in the Vigil. I recall clearly having a conversation with Dad after he got to Durham in which he wanted to know basically what was going on. And I tried to express to him what I had gleaned as a student, what the concerns were, and I think that gave him a perspective that otherwise he wouldn't have had.

In 1968 there were only a handful of black professors at Duke, one of whom, Samuel Cook, I had for class my first semester senior year. It was one of the best classes I ever took at Duke. He was the most articulate teacher; it was tempting to just listen to his voice and not even take notes. He and I had a number of conversations before the Vigil and I later heard that someone in the administration had expressed reservations about Sam being there on a permanent basis. And if my recollection is correct, when the issue came up at a trustee gathering, my dad--who knew who my professors were--made clear to the trustees that his son happened to have that person as a professor and thought he was pretty good.

At the time of the Vigil there was a curfew in Durham and there were some nights when I was on campus, but I wasn't really active in it. I didn't stay out there the whole time. But the Vigil was a remarkable event. Students went from taking over the president's house to a peaceful demonstration for issues that were in part uniquely important to Duke but also reflected the broader community.

Samuel DuBois Cook was the university's first black faculty member and an associate professor of political science at the time of the Vigil. Popular among his students, Cook delivered a poignant speech on April 10 following his return from King's funeral in Atlanta. "I do not know if you fully realize the ultimate significance of what you are doing," he told the hundreds assembled. "You would, of course, expect the victims of oppression to sacrifice, to take the hot sun, to take the rain, to sleep at night in the open and cold air, to expose their health, to do everything possible to remove the yoke of oppression and injustice. But you do not expect people born of privilege to undergo this harsh treatment. This is one of the things I think will help to redeem this country and help to create the beloved community. . .You are making profound history." Cook, who was a university trustee from 1981 to 1993 and is now trustee emeritus, is president emeritus of Dillard University.

My own view is that the Silent Vigil was a noble event and a sacred or divine experience--historical, institutional, symbolic, existential, and personal. It was one of those supreme and unforgettable mountaintop experiences in which the "Word was made flesh." I have profoundly and intensely cherished the event and the experience for thirty years. I shall continue to cherish the event and the experience, deeply and poignantly until I die. Instantly and intuitively, I knew that the Silent Vigil was a transcendent moment and indelible memory.

Because M.L. (Dr. King--we always called him M.L.) was my dear college classmate and precious friend, and because of my own involvement in and commitment to the civil rights movement and American Dream, his assassination was a most wrenching and chilling personal experience and encounter. My immediate reaction to it was revelatory of my closest brush with bitterness and unmitigated anger. "Every racist," I said at the time, "had his finger on the trigger of the gun that killed Dr. King." Incidentally, the Silent Vigil, which was a creative and redemptive moment, helped me to cope with the tragedy and avoid the terrible peril of bitterness, anger, and despair....

The participants were, inevitably, overwhelmingly white. In the very nature of the case, black participants were a very, very small minority, which was natural and inevitable in view of the tiny black enrollment at Duke at the time. The number, quality, and leadership of white participants was the most amazing part of the story. They came from all over the country, but I was especially impressed by the white student participants from the small, rural towns and hamlets of the Deep South. I was also impressed by the determination and "staying power" of the movement. Instead of being on the quad for a day or so and abandoning the movement, the longer the Silent Vigil, the greater the number of participants. One of my students told me that his fellow students had to "justify" to themselves their non-participation. How interesting and significant! An atmosphere of decency, morality, civility, and social, racial, and economic justice permeated the campus. A great and proud moment in Duke history, ranking with the Bassett Affair.

Honestly, painfully, unfortunately, and regretfully, the response of the administration was, from my frail angle of vision, weak, myopic, institutionally unimaginative, ethically insensitive, humanistically blind, extremely disappointing, and quite unworthy not only of Duke, but also of its own great potential. I could not escape or hide the feeling that the administration was terribly on the wrong side of a great moral issue and missed, so sadly, a great and unique opportunity. I must say, however, that Dean William "Bill" Griffith made a tremendous contribution to the success of the Silent Vigil. He had the confidence of students and others. In terms of logistical and moral support, he was a godsend. He also helped to ensure that the bond between the administration and the participants was not broken. He largely kept the lines of communication open. Dr. R. Taylor Cole was also a key player. Thankfully, Duke's remarkable sense of community stayed intact. There is, of course, another side to the administration's stance, but "the other side" must speak for itself. I do not, for a moment, question the good will, motives, honor, or decency of the administration, or impugn its integrity. To be sure, life has taught me to recognize and appreciate the ambiguities and complexities of human encounters, conflicts, and struggles, and to avoid identifying my perspective with finality or with "The Truth." We are all men and women with all our human frailties and limitations. We are not God. Thus I suppose and hope that I am today a bit wiser and more tolerant and understanding of detractors and opponents than in the glorious days of the Silent Vigil.

 

Spirited start: Hundreds of students and faculty marched to President Knight's house in Duke Forest to present a list of demands
Duke University Archives
[John Strange Addresses Students Before March - Real Audio]

 

Sarah Harkrader Brau '68, M.A.T. '68 has lived in Washington, D.C., since 1969. She has worked in the Commerce Department and the National Institutes of Health, and now volunteers at the White House. Although she did not actively participate in the Vigil, she says it shaped her life in profound ways.

I came to Duke from Mount Airy, North Carolina, the proverbial Mayberry of Andy Griffith fame--hardly a breeding ground for radicals or campus activists. In fact, this daughter of a conservative Republican father and a loyal Democratic mother was taught to value stability and harmony above discord; civilized discourse above disagreement; respect for elders above youthful independence; and to accord educational institutions the reverence my parents accorded their beloved colleges....

The events in the civil rights movement touched me little at all; I attended segregated public schools, segregated churches, swimming pools, and community centers. I watched the Klan march down the main street of our town on a Saturday afternoon and tried to figure out who was who from their shoes, a favorite game....

I finally saw Martin Luther King, just after he had won the Nobel Prize. I went out of curiosity and some reluctant admiration. By then I was a Duke undergraduate and the tides of the Vietnam draft, the student activism, and the civil rights movement were beginning to converge. I was about to be swept up in the forces that would affect me the rest of my life....

I didn't participate in the Vigil, mainly because I thought classes were sacred and education would set us all free to change the world. I hung around the fringes, marching to Doug Knight's house in the dark of night to protest his membership in the Hope Valley Country Club and his lack of response to the frustration of the students over matters both academic and racial. I remember thinking mainly what my parents would say about my daring to challenge the president of this or any college, in their experience a person of unquestioned integrity.

I watched as I walked the quad from sparsely attended classes as friends sat in the rain and mud, protesting. I watched as the trustees joined hands and sang, however unwillingly, the theme of the movement. I am not proud that I watched, and perhaps that more than anything has led me to where I am today. I feel guilty that the men in my class fought the Vietnam War while I did not; I feel guilty that others fought the early civil rights battles while I did not. The only battle I fought was to extinguish the blaze set in the small frame house on Swift Avenue next to my apartment during the dark nights of curfew following the King riots--a calling card left by the forces of darkness to intimidate both the students and the black residents of the house. The fire department could not come, so we students fought the blaze with garden hose and bucket. I will never forget the fear on the faces of those residents, and their gratitude for our help. . ..

As thirty years bring ironies on top of ironies, it is hard to sort out the cause and effect. A Vigil, a protest, years of silence followed by quiet action in quiet corridors. A childhood in the South, a university in the South, brushes with international experience with Vietnam leading to a career as an international spouse, a yearning to right some old wrongs finally after remaining silent too long leads to serving in the White House under the Democrats, even at a lowly level--life lurches somewhat messily ahead and underneath it all, underpinning it all, I still hear the song "We Shall Overcome."

Bertie Howard '76 came to Duke in 1965. Written accounts of the Vigil portray her as doubtful that the energy and zeal that was present at Doug Knight's house could be successfully maintained, and that there was a danger that the student protest would devolve into a party atmosphere. She now works for Africa News Service in Durham.

You must remember these events have taken on a completely different significance now than they had in 1968, at least for me. But then I'm a child of the struggles of the civil rights era--like many others in Duke's "chosen few," a moniker coined by some community folk for Duke's African-American students. We spent much of our early life involved in protest. Many days my grade school was interrupted as we stood and applauded students from a local historically black college as they marched downtown to picket local stores that would not hire African- Americans. My sophomore homecoming football game did not happen because most of the team was in jail for boycotting segregation. For several years, I did not shop in my hometown because of a boycott. Back then black folks didn't think a lot about being active; you had to fight for your rightful place in society.

Coming to Duke did not change any of that. In addition to the normal acclimation to college life, you had to learn to deal in a hostile environment. For black students some of our community work was a response to find acceptance. So we caught the Durham bus to go to [the] Hayti [community] to eat and play where we could be at home, and we made friends with students at North Carolina College, where there was a comfort zone.

My best white friends at Duke were activists and most were involved in a number of Durham community projects. The campus Y was a hotbed of community work. Students were living in the Edgemont community and doing community organizing for class credit. Many supported the Duke workers' union. Registering people to vote was a regular Saturday activity. And the war in Vietnam was just starting to escalate. There was no shortage of important issues to keep you busy--and relevant....

Over the years legend has it that it was my idea to sit quietly and neatly on the quad. My memory is that we engaged in collective decision making. I was concerned about the principle and movement tactics more than discipline. I was conscious about responsibility and not having us dismissed as "crazies" (some of the guerrilla tactics of the SDSers were frightening). The lessons from my youth participating in demonstrations were applied to the Vigil as much for survival (how not to get beaten by the police) rather than a recipe for a successful protest.

I still have a feeling of awe when I think about waking up that first morning on the quad. I did not believe the numbers of students who had joined the Vigil during the night. It was incredible how the amount of space we used up had multiplied. It was heartening to see faculty members with us. There were graduate students whose spouses would bring their children to visit and sit with their parents during the day.

Some things about the Vigil will always remain with me. Jesse Helms, who was then a commentator on WRAL-TV, describing us as "the clutter on the lawn" with pure contempt in his voice. The nightly rallies on the quad in support of the non-academic workers' strike, with high-visibility visitors from the radical world like David Harris and Joan Baez. A delegation from UOCI and Durham's black community marching in on day two or three and sitting down with us for the afternoon. Discussions about our bank account--we had raised $6,000 or so for the union strike fund in a few days, and suddenly there was talk about a tax ID number and investment strategies. Good meals served on the quad from the Chicken Box, opening up a whole new world to white students who had not ventured into the wonderful world of African- American cuisine....

Does my life style reflect my activist experiences as a student? The answer is mostly yes, though I wish I would make more time to do more. People in the Durham African-American community still speak warmly of the Duke students who were supportive of their causes in the Sixties. Many of us continue to work for social justice. We are environmentalists, radical feminists, champions of human rights. We are involved in international issues. We have chosen jobs in the nonprofit sector that are not quite the norm for graduates of our era. We have tried to make a difference as we raise our children. And for many of us, the determination to work for progressive change is a part of the legacy of our time at Duke, and the lessons we learned as we struggled together as students.

Christopher Edgar '68 majored in economics, joined Delta Sigma Phi, and opposed the Vigil. He is now a lawyer at Law Weathers & Richardson in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There were several reasons why I did not support the movement that culminated in the Vigil. First, I did not see the connection between Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination and the strike by the non-academic employees. They were totally unrelated events that happened to occur at about the same time. The non-academic employee strike was a local labor action for union recognition and for higher wages. The sympathetic factor, of course, was that many of the non-academic employees were African American.

Secondly, the occupation of Dr. Knight's personal residence was very distressing to me. As president of my fraternity, I had had occasion to deal with Dr. Knight on a limited basis in connection with a housing issue for the fraternity. I found him to be a very considerate and decent person. I felt that he probably was not prepared for the vituperation and lack of civility exhibited by some of the students occupying his residence. Nor was I. I think that Dr. Knight would likely have been sympathetic to many of the student demands had they given him a chance to work through them.

Thirdly, I did not think that it would be in the university's best interests to recognize a union for the non-academic employees. Nor did I support the wage demands of the non-academic employees. Basically, I felt that the administration had a duty to its students to try to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost. (It still has a duty to its students to do so.) Certainly, the university had a duty to its employees as well, but in balancing those duties, the welfare of the student body at large should come first. In my view, a unionized work force would make it more difficult to control long-term costs. The wage demands were a more difficult issue for me, but at the time I did an informal survey of local employers who were exempt from the federal minimum wage requirements and found that Duke paid wages that were comparable to other employers for comparable types of work.

Fourthly, there were some politically active students who were working hard to develop a protest movement on campus. I was a senior representative on the Associated Students of Duke University (ASDU) and had spent the entire year wrangling with some of these students. We had a fundamentally different view of the function of student government. They thought that student government should be active in national political and social issues. I believed that student government should pretty much be limited to student and campus issues.

Dr. King's assassination created a perfect opportunity for those who were protest minded. Several of the activist "student leaders" were involved in the occupation of Dr. Knight's residence and ultimately in the Vigil. Based on my experience in ASDU, the involvement of some of the student leaders caused me to question the validity of the movement. Dr. King's death had a profound effect on many of our classmates. Many felt compelled to do something to express their feelings and the strike of non-academic employees provided a platform for them to do so.

On the other hand, most Duke students did not participate in the Vigil. In addition, there was a significant number of Duke students, myself included, who worked in the cafeterias to keep them open during the strike.

There were a wide variety of views that existed among the students, and presumably faculty, at the time. My recollection is that once the Vigil started, people seemed to respect each other's opinions. The change in tone was a constructive development and probably made the Vigil a beneficial experience for the university.

Jack Boger '68 was one of the leaders of the student movement. After graduation, he earned his master's of divinity from Yale Divinity school and his juris doctor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He then worked for twelve years in the NAACP's legal defense fund's death-penalty project. In 1990, he joined the UNC law faculty, where he teaches courses on the Constitution and civil rights issues.

Before I got to Duke I was alert to the civil rights movement that had taken wing in North Carolina. My family was liberal Democrat, which I suspect was not normal at the time. Duke was an important part of my social and political awakening and development. One of the most prominent events of our freshman year was Martin Luther King's visit to campus right after he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. He made a powerful impression. The moral depth and clarity of his thought and his call toward a re-ordered society really set the tone [for that time]. . ..

There were also a number of other forces at work. There were people on campus who had not only good values with regard to social ethics, but who put themselves on the line long before students came. Faculty like John Strange [political science], John Cell [history], Anne Firor Scott [history], Tom McCollough [religion], Robert Osborne [religion], Peter Klopfer [zoology]. There were also symposia that were very provocative, that explored questions such as what should the role of the university be in society. . .and in the class ahead of us there were some phenomenal, electric seniors who were thoughtful, committed people who daily raised questions around campus about all kinds of issues. . .. [At the time of King's assassination] I was attending a religion department symposium around the theme "The Theology of Hope". . .. Someone came down the aisle and told everyone Martin Luther King had been shot. The theology of hope seemed instantaneously irrelevant. I left, stunned at the news. . ..

The crowd at Knight's house got very large; we really covered the floor. A couple of people were charged with making pleas to him on behalf of the crowd. He listened but said he couldn't do anything. We were all sitting there with the TV on, watching buildings burning in Washington and rioting in cities and there was a very real feeling that this was an apocalyptic age. There was a feeling that if we couldn't get a rich, prosperous, progressive school like Duke to do something as modest as talking about the president ending his membership in a segregated country club, or calling for modest wages for black employees, then there was not much hope for our society. . ..

I heard later that they did increase wages but fired a number of workers to cover the costs. I left Duke and didn't come back to Duke for a long, long time. It would have been nice for the university to have offered courses on the issues raised by the Vigil. There was a large percentage of the student body who had never been involved before, and it would have been great to offer courses in the social sciences, economics, religion, on race relations and ethics that allowed people to reflect on that. . ..

For us, the civil rights movement was an immediate issue that could be appreciated. There as an evident moral justice to the basic things that were being asked for. These were not special preferences or breaks. This was about the right to sit at a lunch counter or go to a college like Duke. Those were inescapable issues which raised profound questions every single day. We're now in a time where the questions are much more nuanced and difficult and they're not on the front burner. There's great prosperity, no war, the poor and disenfranchised are mostly out of sight. So I don't claim a great moral virtue for the time when I came of age. It's just that circumstances and issues were unavoidable.

 

Tired and wet: As the Vigil stretched into a week, participants endured the onset of rain and fatigue

 

David Roberts came to Duke on an NROTC scholarship in 1963, flunked out, reapplied, and was admitted again in 1965. A political science major, he was the battalion officer for his NROTC unit. He is now president of Focus Advisors, Inc. and lives in Oakland, California.

When I first arrived at Duke in September 1963, my class was the first integrated undergraduate class at the university, with just five black students. Durham and the South in general were still in the throes of acknowledging the coming impact of the civil rights struggle. Dave Birkhead, a freshman Chronicle reporter, was beaten up at a Klan rally within a couple of months of his arrival at Duke. I joined a fraternity where a fellow pledge insisted that he would sooner go thirsty than drink out of a cup after a "nigger." Dorm arguments revolved around how certain football players had ever gotten into Duke and whether the U.S. should take a stand against communism in Laos. JFK was assassinated in my third month at Duke....

The night Martin Luther King was killed, a march to President Knight's house led to an invitation by him for several hundred students to enter and talk. He seemed as anguished as we and his invitation seemed genuine. A sleepless night of talk and anger and debating how to make a difference with our protest ended with a return to campus and the setting up of the Vigil on the main quad. I skipped the Graduate Record Exam that Saturday morning and made camp with hundreds of others. [I] risked court martial and posting to Vietnam for disobeying standing orders to attend classes.

For five days we made common cause with one another and the workers. Many of us found ourselves in growing realization that the world might not be so predictable, that our lives might not progress from comfort to comfort, that we would not have the luxury of ignoring or merely observing the anguish and misfortunes of black Americans. We were convinced of the justice of our protest. We were convinced of the base intentions of those who opposed us. We knew we were right. We knew history was on our side.

One of the rainy nights during the Vigil, I went to the Chapel to dry out for a few hours. While I was lying on a pew, an older man entered and sat several rows away, looked up at the ceiling and then bowed his head. I recognized him as one of the trustees who had stood up before the students several hours earlier. I immediately rose and walked toward him to confront him with the injustice of the university's refusal to recognize the workers. I stopped to ask a couple of other students to go with me. For some reason, even though I was full of righteousness, I stopped short of speaking to him. Even in the midst of a protest, I supposed there was some right to privacy he held....

Twenty-four hours after graduation, I was disembarked on a sunny airstrip at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where I spent six weeks looking across barbed wire at Cuban soldiers, physically and emotionally far removed from the campus and the Vigil.... [In the years that followed] I spent many hours learning my navigator's skills as a Naval Flight Officer. Among my duties was the responsibility for nuclear weapons on my aircraft. I decided that I could not act to use these weapons under any circumstances and asked to be granted Conscientious Objector status. After four months of inquiry, the Navy granted me an Honorable Discharge....

In the thirty years since the Vigil, watching and experiencing life as an adult, a lawyer, a businessman, a husband and father, and a church member, I have come to realize for myself some of the difficult things I rejected as a student. I know that I have limits as a person. I know the limits of anger and righteousness as agents for change. I know the power of money and position. I better understand how economics drives change and evolution. I better understand the human elements, too. The world is a less friendly place than I wished it to be. What we deserve and what we get is seldom consistent. Evil and good abound side by side....

And I remember the late-night visit of the trustee to the Chapel. Today, I am embarrassed and humbled by that memory. In the arrogance of my twentysomething righteousness, I was convinced that there should be no sanctuary for those who treated blacks the way the university acted. I was convinced that this was evil and unjust and should be confronted wherever its proponents could be found. Today, I realize the depth of personal anguish and uncertainty that one can know in times of crisis and conscience. Whether it was Dr. Knight opening his home to hundreds of angry students, or the trustee praying in the Chapel, or the student deciding whether to participate in the Vigil under threat of expulsion, we were all in anguish, we were all in despair, we were all seeking to find the right and just way through.

Jeff Van Pelt '69 was among the core group of student leaders who helped coordinate both the march to Doug Knight's house and the Vigil. Earlier, he had helped usher in the Associated Students of Duke University, advocated the merging of the men's and women's campuses, founded the Celestial Omnibus coffeehouse (the first on-campus coffeehouse) in the basement of Flowers, and lobbied for academic reform to promote independent study opportunities. He now lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

I entered Duke in 1965 a firm supporter of both the established social agenda and the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. As a child of a military family, I believed what I read in Time magazine and was uneasy around scruffy protesters of all stripes. As I became involved in campus religious groups, such as the YM/ YWCA and the University Christian Movement, I came into contact with students and ministers who were clearly ahead of me both spiritually and politically. Through informal teach-ins and bull sessions, I began to grasp the enormity of the lie upon which my idea of America was based. Two events made that realization undeniable. I smoked my first joint in 1967 (about the time Sgt. Pepper's came out), found it a delightful revelation, and realized that it did not lead inexorably to heroin and death; I had been lied to. In January 1968 the Tet Offensive swept through Vietnam, taking with it the illusion that we would win the war, and it became clear to me as I followed the reports that our country was fighting the good guys. That made us.... It was a shattering revelation.

It is hard for people today to envision a time when virtually every American believed without question that we were and always had been the good guys, which is why we were a wealthy nation that never lost a war; that our leaders and law enforcement officials were on a mission from God; that such deviance as long hair on men, pants on women, and protest on the quad was symptomatic of disease best effaced at its earliest manifestation. My generation grew up with those beliefs, so ingrained that we considered them not beliefs but simply "the way things are." The shock of having that FabergŽ-egg-like edifice crumble as it encountered a crush of reality, and the consequent transformation of my political and cultural outlook, was a terrible experience that I shrink to recall.

The lies and the death and the greed and intolerance of the established order all seemed of a piece, which had to emanate from a system that was thoroughly evil. No one I knew felt that the Soviet system was the alternative. Rather the conviction took hold that an entirely new attempt would have to be made to revive the American Dream. Many of us did find inspiration in the struggles of the Vietnamese and the Cuban Davids against the American Goliath, so purely idealistic and self-sacrificing did they appear to be, and many of us sought to support those struggles from our uncomfortable positions "in the belly of the monster." We moved, step by step, from tentative involvement to a willingness to sacrifice our careers and possibly our lives in the struggle to sweep away the old evil and "make all things new." Of those who led the Vigil, it may have been a minority who felt as strongly as this about the need for radical change, but the feeling was in the air and served, along with the shattering trauma of

Martin Luther King's death, to detach the thousands who joined us from the confines of socially acceptable behavior that would otherwise have kept them in their dorm rooms....

The first night Dr. John Strange asked the crowd assembled in Dr. Knight's cavernous living room for nominees to form a leadership committee. My name was called out by friends who were active in the counterculture movement, whom many on campus would have considered more "hippies" than "radicals".... I considered my most valuable contribution to have been the successful campaign to open up the Vigil beyond its initial core of a hundred or so for it to encompass the thousands it did ultimately. The method was to create gradations of support between participation and non-participation. For example, we distributed cards to be pinned on shirts and coats that proclaimed "I Support the Vigil," providing a way for those not ready to join to begin the process of deciding to do so; after a time, the step from the sidewalk to the quad seemed not so enormous, and finally necessary....

The success of the Vigil inspired me with the confidence that I could make a positive difference, if I could frame the right opportunity to join with my fellow progressives. That confidence was crucial to my activities in the succeeding five years in Tallahassee, where I founded a large cooperative residential "community of friends in the country" and worked to establish alternative institutions such as a free university, book co-op, food co-op, credit union, and low-income housing. I was acutely disappointed that such institutions did not grow into a more powerful influence on the national life, and that the Vigil has not yet led to a national effort by which progressive alumni would systematically support progressive student efforts on campus. Alumni support of the Vigil could have made such a difference. I resist the temptation to "fold the Vigil," i.e., to accept it as a peak experience consigned to history, whose like we shall not see again.

 

May: second thoughts about the Vigil
The Chanticleer

 

Randy May '68, J.D. '71, who was a political science major and member of Lamda Chi Alpha, is now a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. He lives with his family in Potomac, Maryland.

I came to Duke as a graduate of a Wilmington, North Carolina, public high school. My family politics were more liberal than the prevailing community, and I thought of myself at the time as being liberal. The social issue that was important to me when I arrived at Duke was ending segregation and trying to achieve equal opportunity because I had gone through a segregated school system....

We were all aware of, and influenced by, what was going on around the country, the Vietnam War and social issues like the civil rights movement. I can't remember how I heard about Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, but I do remember marching to Doug Knight's house and spending the night there. As the Vigil unfolded, the issue that was most important to me was whether the university was treating its employees fairly, and paying them the minimum wage.

The Vigil was a positive experience in the sense that it caused me to consider how one participates in the political process. But I've never been afraid to look back and try to learn from things I've done. And I have second thoughts about the Vigil. I've come to appreciate even more that universities should be, as much as possible, places where ideas are debated in an atmosphere free from the exercise of raw power backed up by various forms of intimidation. Although the objectives were meritorious--or at least I thought so at the time--and most people who participated did so in good faith, I have concerns about an activity that, in essence, shuts down the university for an extended period of time.

A lot of the Vigil had to do with youthful idealism, and that's good. But the purpose of a university is not only to stimulate idealism and channel it in constructive ways, but to create an environment where essentially all sides of a debate can be discussed in an atmosphere that's free of intimidation. The Vigil may have been right for that particular [historical] time and purpose, but in retrospect I see that it's the type of activity that, if repeated often, would not be conducive to establishing a productive intellectual environment.

John Cell '57 is a history professor who joined the faculty in 1962. He participated in campus teach-ins about the Vietnam War, and during the Vigil, he advocated greater faculty involvement in the issue of collective bargaining for employees.

Because of the Vigil, the history department split and it was extremely bitter for about three or four years, in some cases longer than that. That was typical of so many departments, especially in the social sciences and humanities, in every university in the country. There was a real generational divide. I had one guy who didn't speak to me between 1968 and when he left the university in 1981. He never took the trouble to understand what had happened, because I wasn't a rabble-rouser, I was just trying to do something constructive.

In 1982, I wrote a book called The Highest Stage of White Supremacy, which examined various ideologies in the South and in South Africa. And that book reflects my thoughts about figuring out what segregation was and where it came from. It started out as an article but when it came out to fifty-five pages, I decided to make it into a book. I wrote most of the book over one summer. And the reason I was able to write with that kind of speed was because it dealt with issues, fundamental to my Southern upbringing and my very being, which I had avoided for so long and which needed to get out. The Vigil didn't start that rumbling--but it did have a lot to do with the process of articulation.

I think the Vigil did make a difference in the institution. It marked the beginning of the changeover from having a board comprised of mostly conservative, North Carolina businessmen [to a more progressive board]. The image Duke had of itself and the kind of people who were in positions of power changed. And there was a committed core of students from that period who are still involved. That is the kind of activism that did make a difference in people's lives, and made a difference in the institution, too.

 

Sitting firm: Although the crowd on the quad swelled into the thousands, the atmosphere always remained orderly
Duke University Archives

 

Rees Shearer '68 was a history major who recalls experiencing "chagrin and angry tears" when his LBJ poster was torn from his dormitory wall. He also remembers being the only one in his dorm to speak out against a student group called HVD (Hate, Vengeance, and Destruction), which had launched "a systematic program to harass blacks, Jews, and later, 'liberals.' " Now an elementary school guidance counselor, he lives in Emory, Virginia.

I arrived at Duke a child of the post-war (World War II) upper middle class, realizing that there were wrongs in our society but believing in the great power and good will of the American people to right them. My family talked about these inequities around the dinner table and the result was abundant nurture of mind and spirit as well as body, even as our family's Negro maid shuffled back and forth from the kitchen carrying the food we ate and the dishes we dirtied. As a schoolboy in northern Virginia, I graduated from racially segregated schools and lived in a racially and economically segregated community.

One year before arriving at Duke, I took what was to become the largest step of my life, a step off the curb (of, appropriately enough, Independence Avenue) and became transformed from bystander to participant in the 1963 March on Washington. That transformation has never left me. Witnessing Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial that day was truly electrifying. I have never felt so full of hope since that time. In a word, Dr. King became my hero.

When I arrived at Duke in 1964, the son of a bureaucrat and Democrats, I was a true believer in the Great Society. Already the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was on the books, busting apart Jim Crow's grip on public accommodations, and other laws ending de jure segregation and assuring voting rights were in the works. Public schools were desegregating everywhere. President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty captivated my interest. I felt challenged to be among the army of those who would eliminate poverty and welcome a new age of social and economic justice.

But just like at my own home, Duke was part of the very problem of social and economic inequity that I and many others wished to eliminate. Many of the African-American women who cleaned up after our juvenile excesses had worked for Duke for more than thirty years. Their work was demanding; it took a strong back and a strong stomach. Many of them counseled me and the other boys who slept through morning classes to get out of bed and take advantage of our privileged status. I had just come that summer from working as an unskilled, raw laborer in road construction at $1.65 an hour, the federal minimum wage at the time. The Fair Labor Standard Act that dictated the minimum wage did not cover private, nonprofit agencies such as Duke....

During the summer of 1966 as I was struggling in my quest to pass the language requirement, I took a history class on a lark to ease the burden of elementary French. I remember the professor, Fred Krantz, a deeply sensitive and caring individual, came in one morning and declared that he could not teach today because our country had that day indiscriminately bombed military and civilian targets in Haiphong, North Vietnam. He was on the verge of tears. I was caught by surprise: a professor, a man, almost tearful about LBJ's mission to preserve democracy. We had fought two world wars with the same purpose, right? Wasn't it true that Asian people valued life less than we did? After all, there are so many of them. This was no creeping awareness like the one telling me that there was something wrong about race in our country; it was a crashing question: Are we killing people for no purpose, perhaps even the wrong purpose? Maybe this war wasn't just going to go away. Maybe I would be faced with choosing whether or not to participate in it. These were abrupt feelings and heavy thoughts for a happy-go-lucky kid of twenty to contemplate on a languid morning of a quiet, steamy Durham summer....

On a warm evening in early April, word began to spread about King's assassination. I heard it from my roommate, who found me studying in East Campus library with my girlfriend (and now wife), Kathy Cunning ['69]. I went back to York House and turned on WDBS, which broadcast information about a student group that had marched from the campus to the president's house to demand that Local #77 be recognized as the bargaining agent for its members. That was all I needed to hear--these people were serious! I jumped in my car and drove over to Dr. Knight's house....

In reflection, I think we needed Local #77 more than they needed us. We needed a way to express regret, to dissociate ourselves from the assassination and to try to do something right about the dominant issue of our nation: race. Local #77 needed support from members of the campus community to bring their struggle to a level of new visibility and immediacy that the Duke administration could no longer ignore. I, for one, did not think about these things so much as act from a visceral need to say, "This is where I stand: I believe in justice...."

I remember meeting in Page Auditorium to decide what to do next and whether to take the word of the trustees that they would handle the question of recognition appropriately. Our youthful exuberance, which had already begun to tatter in the elements, now ripped into two factions. Someone would forcefully state their opinion and this would be followed by loud boos and cheers. This went on and on. At that point I saw that we no longer had unity, which was really our only power. I felt that all the board had to do was wait us out --till exams, till summer--and they would win. That is what I mean about the power and limits of student movements. Students are fickle. They can come together for short periods of intense effort. It is, however, very difficult for students to maintain a sustained action over time. I felt hoodwinked and outgunned by the administration. I felt that we had let down the very people we had so cavalierly decided needed our help. I learned that students should be the support and not thefocus of any non-academic employee action. Students are temporary residents of a university community, employees are more permanent. That temporal quality in itself sets the boundaries of perseverance.

 


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