reed magazine logowinter2007

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


Conspiracy Trial

Stonewall riot in Greenwich Village

Woodstock festival

Moon landing

and Mobilization
against Vietnam war

takes over SDS


First Earth Day

Invasion of Cambodia

Kent State/
Jackson State

Barricades in
PSU Park Blocks

“Peoples Army Jamboree” in Portland

Trial of Seattle 7

Jimi Hendrix,
Janis Joplin die

Beatles disband

Are there any lessons in all this for a new generation of campus activists at Reed? Probably not many. It’s a very different era than the one I encountered when I went off to college. We took it for granted in 1968 that the dominant political party was the Democrats, and that the dominant political strain within that party was liberalism—the burning political question of the moment, for us, was how far and how fast we could drag the country to the left of liberalism in the 1970s. Prophecy was not our strong suit.

Top: Reed President Victor Rosenblum during the black studies protest in 1968. Bottom: Students picket in front of Eliot Hall in support of the Black Student Union occupation during the fall of 1968.


There were other differences. In 1968–1970, for all our anti-capitalism, we implicitly understood that we could drop out from a conventional educational or career path without any lasting personal consequences, because expanding economic opportunity was a given in the United States. On today’s campus, in contrast, not even the most conservative believer in the wonders of the free market can have the same degree of confidence of graduating into the prosperity that we baby boomers took as our birthright. There is a war today, just as there was in the 1960s, and the current conflict in Iraq is every bit as disastrous as the Vietnam War. But the draft, which was wondrously effective in the 1960s in concentrating the minds of 18- to 26-year-old males on the war, no longer exists. And, while the civil rights movement is still inspiring to read about in the history books, it’s been a long time since we have had a practical example of how a small group of committed activists can speak truth to power and actually change the world for the better in doing so.

The one valuable lesson I do see in our experience at Reed in the late 1960s is that it taught us to listen to our own better instincts. Reading New Left Notes or listening to the harangues of national SDS leaders did not prove very useful in answering the question: “What is to be done?” We were at our most creative and effective when we stopped trying to import a model of campus confrontation that simply had no relevance to our situation. We were better off when we followed the suggestion: “Know thyself,” variously attributed and inscribed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Greece—and, come to think of it, that’s something I learned in Hum 110. Good words for radicals to live by.

Photos: Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library


Read Isserman's article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the history of the SDS (subscription required)


Maurice Isserman ’73 teaches history at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He is the author of several books, including If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left, and with co-author Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.

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