By Maurice Isserman ’73
Civil rights sit-ins at lunch counters throughout South
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commitee (SNCC) founded
Timothy Leary drops acid for first time
John F. Kennedy elected president
Birth control pill approved by FDA
Freedom Rides in the South
Bay of Pigs invasion
JFK steps up U.S. involvement in South Vietnam
Berlin Wall constructed
SDS adopts Port Huron Statement
Cuban Missile Crisis
Bob Dylan releases first album
John Glenn orbits earth
Long before arriving as a freshman at Reed in September 1968, I made up my mind that at the very first opportunity I would sign up as a member of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. SDS, which had something on the order of 300 members when it adopted its founding Port Huron Statement in 1962, had that many chapters in 1968. By then, it may have included as many as 100,000 members nationwide (not all of whom bothered to send in the five dollars that got them a membership card and a subscription to New Left Notes). By the late ’60s, SDS organizers at Reed and elsewhere didn’t have to bother with actively recruiting new members anymore—they showed up on their own, clamoring to join up.
Going into the 1968–69 academic year, Reed’s SDS chapter (which had been founded in 1964) was undergoing significant turnover: of the members who regularly showed up at meetings, about three quarters were freshmen. Most of us were from politically liberal (or, in some instances, Old Left) families, drawn in equal numbers from the two coasts; about half were Jewish. When we were in junior high and high school, we had been inspired by the courage and commitment of southern civil rights activists in the early ’60s, and by the fall of 1968 most of us had taken part in protests against the Vietnam War.
But for all our political passion, the freshman SDSers, myself most definitely included, were very inexperienced politically—and our inexperience showed.
Reed, of course, already had a long-established reputation in Portland as a hotbed of radicalism—one of the first things I did when I arrived was buy a “Communism/Atheism/Free Love” sweatshirt. As far as the then very-conservative Oregonian was concerned, that whimsical motto was an all-too-accurate summary of prevailing attitudes on campus. You would have had to look long and hard to find an enthusiastic supporter of the Vietnam War at Reed (though they were rumored to exist, I never met one). The Reed Draft Union, run by a couple of very competent and committed draft resisters, provided draft counseling to Reed students and non-Reedies alike. The Black Student Union, also very competently (and, indeed, charismatically) led, would, in 1968–69, demand and win adoption of a black studies program. All in all, it was a promising base for radical activism.
For many of us joining SDS that year, the model for campus radicalism had been defined by the Columbia student strike the previous spring. The strike, led by the university’s SDS chapter, had been audacious, exhilarating, and wildly successful in dramatizing Columbia’s complicity with the war effort and its problematic relationship with its black neighbors in Harlem. Combined with the events that followed days later in Paris, where the barricades were actually made of cobblestones and red flags fluttered defiantly in the tear-gas-scented breeze, it reinforced our sense that we were living in a revolutionary year when anything was possible.
Archived photo: Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library