Former WSU professor Paul Brians highlighted controversial protests at WSU in the 1960s in the Center for Undergraduate Education Tuesday at noon.
His presentation, called “1960s Counterculture and WSU,” was part of the Foley Institute’s Coffee and Politics series.
Brians, who came to WSU as a 26-year-old assistant professor of English in 1968, was involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus. He worked with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as well as other activist groups.
His speech focused on demonstrations between 1968 and 1970, when students and faculty alike protested against the Vietnam War and Cambodian bombing campaign, as well as in favor of multicultural studies and civil rights.
“People of all different ages marched with us,” Brian said. “Several of the most important local leaders were grad students.”
Brian also talked about symbols of the uprising.
“Hair was a big deal in the sixties. (It was) the most visible sign of rebellion,” Brian said.
He added that the peace sign and raised fist were also used frequently to show support of the counterculture movement.
“The raised fist made its greatest impact in the U.S. at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, when two black medal-winners defiantly raised their fists … in what was referred to as the ‘black power salute,’” Brians said. “When black students and some white supporters made the same gesture before a WSU basketball game the reaction was less widespread, of course, but equally vehement.”
Students also sat in at the French Administration Building and made a memorial on Terrell Mall after the Kent State shootings. Graffiti was written on stop signs, making them read “stop war” and “stop violence.”
In 1968, SDS staged an anti-vote campaign and hung the presidential candidates in effigy in order to convey their opposition to all of the candidates.
“The campaign year, after a highly successful initial beginning for antiwar forces, turned into a huge disappointment, with no alternative for those who wished to vote for peace,” Brians said.
Later, in May 1970, protesters picketed at an ROTC Review held at the football field. Four women wearing black witches’ costumes ran onto the field and dumped what appeared to be bloody guts in front of a group of graduating cadets. Though the guts turned out to be animal organs from a butcher shop sprinkled with ketchup, their symbolism was understood by the crowd.
“Without a word they had transposed the context of the ceremony from one of abstract patriotism to bloody death,” Brian said.
After that, some protesters began giving the Nazi salute to the WSU president of the time, Glenn Terrell, and the officers.
“Even at the time, this bothered me intensely,” Brian said. “Treating every political opponent as another Hitler is an appallingly simplistic and offensive feature of American political life.”
Brian stayed at WSU until his retirement in 2008.
“What impressed me about the presentation is that in the midst of partisan times, Paul Brians kept his head and retained humane values,” retired English professor Richard Law said. “He had a realistic sense of how social and political change happens.”
Many people in attendance at the presentation were adults who had taught at or attended WSU during the 1960s, though several students attended, including temporary instructor Nathan Nicol’s entire Philosophy 200 class.
Nicol said he thought it was important for his students to come because they are learning about the “truth to power concept” that was prevalent in the 1960s.
“(In class), we try to look very carefully at arguments our politicians give us and hold them to a very high standard of reason,” Nicol said, adding that the protesters of the ‘60s did the same. “We demand that our politicians speak good sense to us.”
Law added that the 1960s and the protests that occurred here are an important part of WSU and the town’s history.