This Week in MIT History
Student activism in the late 60s played a visible role in Institute and national politics. For three consecutive years, from 1967 to 1969, the first week of November was filled with protests or picketing.
In 1967, recruiting visits from the government and corporations were protested in an effort to demonstrate disagreement with their actions in the Vietnam War. For example, when Dow Chemical Company came on Monday, November 7 to conduct interviews, students held a peaceful sit-in outside the placement bureau, where interviews were being conducted. The event, which was organized by the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, specifically targeted Dow because it produced napalm, used in incendiary devices in the war. Protesters also filled 7 of 15 interview spots in an effort to hinder the recruiter’s efforts.
President Howard Johnson issued a statement regarding the Institute’s policy regarding protests. He emphasized that one of MIT’s primary principles is to allow for dissenting opinions to be expressed. However, Johnson also stressed that these differences should not “become violent or abusive or interfere or limit the reasonable rights of others.” [“Johnson Expounds on Protest,” 1967]
The protest was peaceful, and unfortunately had little short-term impact on campus politics. It did result in a counter protest led by the Young Americans for Freedom. While some members opposed the war, all felt that Dow had a right to recruit on campus.
AWOL O’Conner given sanctuary
In the following year student activism took a far more visible role when the year-old MIT Resistance Group coordinated an effort to “offer sanctuary to AWOL soldier Mike O’Conner” [“O’Conner waits for Feds,” 1968]. The group held peaceful resistance sleep-in in la Sala de Puerto Rico while waiting for federal authorities to come for Private Jack Michael O’Conner. The standoff lasted from Tuesday, October 29 until Monday, November 4, ending when the O’Conner’s apprehension was apparently no longer imminent. The participants, totalling at most 1,000 concurrently, were entertained by music and living theater, as well as an open mike.
MIT truly accepted O’Conner into the community, going so far as to offer him a dorm room in Senior House. Additionally, Professors Noam Chomskey and Sylvian Bromberger felt that O’Conner would be qualified to enter MIT as a student after serving any prison terms. They spoke about creating a “Mike Scholarship” which would allow other qualified AWOL soldiers to attend MIT. Chomsky said that “MIT owes Mike a tremendous debt of gratitude.” [“Mike at MIT in ’70?” November 1, 1968] O’Conner was also granted permission to speak in lectures when invited. The following Sunday morning he was finally arrested, nearly two weeks after MIT students took him in. The arrest in the Student Center was quiet and without violence or protest.
November Action Coalition shut down by Johnson
Protests occurred again in November 1969 when protests were sponsored by the November Action Coalition and the Science Action Coordinating Committee. The NAC was started with three goals, which were “1) an end to ‘war-related’ research projects on this campus; 2) ‘raising the cost of the war in Vietnam;’ and 3) building a radical movement at MIT and throughout the nation.” [“November Stand,” 1969] They planned “a day of massive action” to be held November 4, 1969.
Their actions led Johnson, on November 3, to bring to a faculty vote the option of an injunction against the group. The injunction, when passed, resulted in a temporary restraining order against the NAC. Johnson’s intention in doing this was to protect the community against violence during the protests. The NAC contested the injunction in court and it was eventually lifted.
The next day, the NAC held their first day of protests which brought out approximately 650 marchers and several hundred more spectators. The rally was peaceful but noisy, beginning on the Student Center steps and travelling to the Center for International Studies as well as public spaces around campus. The CIS had been closed for the safety of its workers, who were threatened by NAC desires to prosecute international war criminals.
On the fifth, the picketing occurred primarily around the Instrumentation Laboratory, which had been contracted for several war projects. The 370 protesters were met on one occasion by 300 policemen, a confrontation resulting in several arrests and eight injuries. Again, the protesters brought their cause to many areas around campus.
Two weeks later the Weatherman, a group of about twenty “self-styled communists” [“Weatherman caucus plans to focus talk on politics,” 1969] who were members of the NAC, were arrested for conspiracy to commit murder after a shooting attack on Cambridge police headquarters.
The issues raised during these protests continued well into the new year with further discussion of the role of MIT in the Vietnam war and local issues such as the expulsion of Undergraduate Association President Michael Albert.