Student Activism on Campus - Contextualizing Activism at Muhlenberg
The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent decades that brought attention to many injustices in American political and social life. The public became more aware of the destruction and futility of the ongoing Vietnam War, critical moments occurred in the progression of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, youth culture granted the new generation opportunities for personal liberation away from older authorities, and students resisted the efforts of campus officials to erase political activity on school grounds.
In addition to a growing inclination towards pacifism, a trend of young people actively attempting to limit their own participation in the Vietnam War effort could also be seen. Until the emergence of the ‘draft lottery’ in late 1969, many young men enrolled in college in the spirit of avoiding the Vietnam War draft; they were eligible to be called into service unless they were able to obtain a deferment, which could be accomplished through education.
Civil rights progress at home was exemplified not only in major events such as the March on Washington in 1963 but also in the marches and songs of young people. Freedom songs were emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement and the determination of proponents of racial equality. Songs—many of which were based on old gospel music or hymns sung in churches—are associated with marches, and the singer would often change the lyrics of the song as he or she felt appropriate to the situation. Young activists such as Bernice Johnson Reagon would sing freedom songs as they led groups in making strides for racial equality. In terms of young people asserting their power through song, anti-war messages were conveyed subtly through the music at the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969—an expression of defiance from the youth of the time toward the older generation. Students attending Berkeley in California were among the most influential in removing restrictions to student participation in politics on school campuses, staging a song-fueled occupation of Sproul Hall in 1964 as part of a much larger period of activism that lasted into early 1965.
Although these are only a few examples of youth activism, it provides some background for the topic of activism at Muhlenberg before the Women’s March in 2017.