reed magazine logowinter2007

1968 and all that - Radicals, hippies and SDS at Reed


Kingsmen release Louie, Louie

Demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama

The Feminine Mystique published

Civil Rights March
on Washington

Medgar Evers,
JFK assassinated


Beatles on
Ed Sullivan show

Reed College
SDS chapter founded

Freedom Summer
in the South

Congress passes
Civil Rights Act

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Lyndon Johnson
defeats Barry Goldwater


Demonstrations in Selma, Alabama

Congress passes
Voting Rights Act

Johnson escalates
war in Vietnam

SDS holds first
national demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C.

Watts riot

If you turned on the AM radio that fall you were likely to hear the Beatles singing about revolution or the Stones singing about street-fighting. One new member of SDS at Reed had been a Columbia SDSer the previous year, thrown out of the university for his involvement in the strike—which, naturally, made him our hero and unofficial leader (officially, we didn’t believe in leaders). He arranged for Columbia firebrand Mark Rudd to come to Reed that fall and give a talk. Rudd suggested that we go out as soon as he was done speaking and break all the windows in lower commons. We didn’t follow that particular suggestion, but I was nonetheless starry-eyed in the presence of this 21-year-old revolutionary authority. (Rudd, by the way, has since become a thoughtful critic of the political excesses he encouraged in the late 1960s.)

Willamette Bridge issue, Marice Isserman and item from his FBI file.

Top: The underground newspaper Willamette Bridge was published by SDS veterans in Portland, including Jimmy Beller ’70, who illustrated this cover in 1971. Middle: Maurice Isserman in 1971. Below: An item from Maurice Isserman’s FBI file, obtained by him through a Freedom of Information Act request


Once our SDS chapter was up and running, we discovered to our dismay that most of our fellow Reedies failed to show much interest in joining us at the barricades in a replay of the 1968 Columbia strike. Reed SDS neither enrolled nor spoke for most students. One problem was that the campus harbored many more hippies than it did politicos. To the outside world, the two groups may have been indistinguishable, but at Reed each knew how they differed from the other camp (for instance, if you were a politico, your favorite Beatle was John; for hippies, it was George.) We all believed a great change was coming to America, and soon, but for the hippies it was a revolution in consciousness and spirit, as in “you’d better free your mind instead.” Barricades weren’t part of that scene. And there were lots of students who belonged to neither group, but spent their time and energy in the library, the laboratories, or in the mountains.

We wasted much of 1968–69 searching for the perfect political issue that would rouse the masses in opposition to the college administration. We challenged Hum 110 for its lack of relevance, a key word in that era, but not a very good reason not to read Homer and Thucydides in a time of war; we challenged corporate recruiting on campus (and in doing so found ourselves on the wrong side of a debate over free speech); and, of course, we backed the Black Student Union in its demand for a black studies program. In retrospect, only the latter was worth the effort, and even there we were too quick to dismiss faculty concerns over issues of hiring and tenure in the new program—issues that we really didn’t understand and about which we didn’t bother to inform ourselves.

What would have been better, in retrospect, was to stop trying to replay the Columbia strike, and concentrate on the one morally compelling issue that we understood and could actually have an impact on: the Vietnam War. By the fall of 1969, we had finally figured that out. SDSers at Reed were involved along with many other Reedies in the succession of moratoriums and mobilizations that year that drew thousands of protesters into Portland’s streets. In the spring of 1970, following Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the killings on the Kent State campus, we were part of the huge protests that centered on the PSU campus (complete with barricades, if lacking the cobblestones). As we now know, our actions had consequences on official policy: Nixon abandoned plans for an escalation of the war in the fall of 1969 and, after seeing the furious reaction to his Cambodia venture in the spring of 1970, realized he no longer had the option of using U.S. ground forces in major offensives in Southeast Asia.