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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

May 1970 student strike University of Washington

by Zoe Altaras


On Tuesday, May 5, 1970, at approximately 1:50 pm 6,000 University of Washington (UW) students marched off campus and poured on to the Interstate 5 freeway and headed south towards the Federal Courthouse.[1] The students entered the freeway shouting anti-Vietnam War slogans, carrying protest banners and sporting peace signs. The organization of students at the UW, on other college campuses in Washington and throughout the country was sparked when National Guard troops shot and killed four students at a protest rally in Kent State University, following President Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. These events instigated a national week of student strikes involving some of the largest protest movements on campuses in Washington State and around the country.

This essay explores the week-long student protest and explains the extraordinary level of support for militant action. The May 1970 protests at UW generated perhaps ten times more student participation than in previous years BSU marches or SDS rallies.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War generated a massive antiwar movement throughout the country. Soldiers, civilians, and students became disillusioned with the prolonged war effort and mobilized an antiwar movement that gained momentum from the civil rights struggles already underway. Antiwar demonstrators also used the latter movement’s tactics such as civil disobedience. In particular, college campuses became centers for antiwar and civil rights radicalism especially with the formation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS had formed in 1960 by a small group of students from the New Left responding to the domineering politics of the Cold War.[2]  The student organization initially dealt with both civil rights and antiwar issues. However, by 1966, SDS declared a national focus on the antiwar effort.[3]

At the same time SDS was forming on campuses, a growing number of students of color were entering universities. Around the country, Black, Chicana/o, and Asian students began to organized on their respective campuses to fight for racial equality. One of the most influential student groups was the Black Student Union (BSU). The student movements of the early 1960s and the civil rights struggles merged with the anti-Vietnam War cause. Student activists often worked together on the three main issues in the 1960’s: American involvement in the Southeast Asian War, slow progress towards racial equality, and unresponsiveness to student’s demands by the federal government and universities to end injustices.[4] As the war and racial inequality dragged on, the antiwar effort and activism by students of color gained support as well as influence on universities, such as the UW.

Well before the 1970 strike, UW had become a center of student radicalism. The campus had had an SDS chapter since 1965 which had conducted ongoing campaigns dealing with Vietnam War and civil rights issues. Other radical organizations, including the Young Socialist Alliance and the WEB Du Bois Club and Draft Resistance, were also active. In 1968 they were joined by a Black Student Union chapter and by United Mexican Americans (UMAS) which would later become MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan).

Large rallies and militant demonstrations became common at UW starting in the spring of 1968 when the BSU seized the administration building, demanding long promised action to increase the enrollment of students of color and add programs in Black, Chicano, and Asian-American studies. Supported by other radical groups and by hundreds of student sympathizers, the BSU campaign was largely successful. SDS supported the BSU effort and organized additional protests demanding that admission requirements for black students be waived until enrollment was proportional to black casualties in the Vietnam War, that students imprisoned for resisting the draft be re-admitted to the university, and that all ROTC programs be removed from the UW.[5]  SDS member Steve Ludwig described a typical SDS rally from that year, “the fraternities were generally more conservative…they would turn out at demonstrations to sort of get in our way and give us a bad time…There were a whole lot of students who were on the fence…And they would turn out to demonstrations just to watch…but the entire campus would be out there participating in one way or another.”[6] In 1969, UW’s SDS disbanded but the fight for civil rights and antiwar movement raged on.

As SDS collapsed, a new radical group arose in their wake and it was called the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF). In January of 1970, the SLF was organized by UW philosophy professor Michael Lerner.[7] In the following month, the SLF mobilized students to prepare for a rally at the Federal Courthouse in Seattle; the day after the verdict of the Chicago Eight trial was to be announced. To gain support from the students, on February 11, 1970, members of the SLF interrupted classes and stated that matters pertaining to the Chicago conspiracy trial were more important than usual classwork.[8] On February 17, 1970, a rally of 2,000 was gathered at the courthouse yet it turned violent. Several people in the crowd were pelted with paint bombs and rocks resulting in the arrest of 76 people. The leaders of the SLF, including Professor Michael Lerner, were indicted under conspiracy to incite a riot much like the Chicago Eight and similarly became known as the Seattle Seven.[9] The SLF remained an active group on campus supporting both the antiwar movement and campaigns for civil rights including BSU’s squabble against Brigham Young University (BYU).

In the months leading up to the May 1970 strike, the BSU embarked on a significant campaign, prompted by the football program's plan to play Brigham Young University. [10]  BSU and black athletes condemned BYU as racist institution because the Mormon Church did not allow African Americans into its priesthood. They demanded that the administration issue a public statement against all forms of racism. In addition BSU called for the UW to denounce BYU as a racist institution and immediately sever all ties with BYU and cancel all intercollegiate sporting events.[11] This campaign spread throughout campus and gained much support from the students and University staff. The BSU/BYU controversy was on the cover of the UW’s newspaper, The Daily, several times between February and March 1970. The editor of The Daily, Bruce Olson, expressed his support for BSU in his editorials and wrote, “The statement made by the BSU said that blacks are not going to compromise on the issue. They should not compromise.”[12] However, not everyone on campus was supportive of BSU. Some students believed they were purposefully trying to cause trouble and that their tactics were too radical. Larry Shumway, a UW graduate, believed that BSU’s claims against the Mormon Church were unfair and stated, “The Mormon Church does not now, nor has it ever proclaimed white supremacy, white superiority or black inferiority as the BSU claims.”[13] However, with support from The Daily and several students, BSU was able to mobilize thousands of students to come out to marches and events. Ultimately, however, BSU was unable to win their demands.[14]

Although very popular among a large number of students, organizations such as the SLF and BSU caused tension among professors, students and community members. Economics Professor Henry T. Bucchel was irate by the SLF’s classroom disruptions and said “I’m not about to let any slob come off the street and disrupt my classes.”[15] Students were also irked by the interruptions to their learning. When SLF member Robert Warren disrupted a Political Science class, students bombarded him with accusatorial questions and laughed when he tried to answer them.[16] With the increasing amount of radicalism and violent protests such as SLF’s rally at the courthouse, the community and non-politically active students were beginning to view student activists in an undesirable way.

University administrators and policymakers were also growing weary of the continuous battle with student activists and enforced harsher punishments to try and quell some of the unrest. In response to the SLF and BSU’s demonstrations, UW President Charles Odegaard authorized faculty members to invoke the State Criminal Trespass Act when dealing with disrupters and commented that “It naturally saddens me that circumstances require this action.”[17] Not only were local authorities cracking down on student radicals, President Nixon and Attorney General John N. Mitchell, were also calling for stern measures to pacify campus radicals, including the use of force. These policies were well in line with a growing public opinion concerning campus radicalism. An article in the Seattle Times stated, “The American people grow increasingly angry and impatient as they see students brandishing firearms to back up their demands and faculty members being terrorized and beaten with sticks.”[18] As activists and protests became perceived as increasingly violent and radical, public opinion (and support) started to wane. During a time of national conflict, the tense and disruptive nature of many protests was seen as “un-American.” Demonstrators were engaging in violence against their country while their patriotic peers were in Vietnam fighting for their country. President Nixon summed up his and other anti-activist views when he referred to campus radicals as “bums” and referred to American soldiers as “the greatest.” [19] This statement came on May 1, 1970, right after his announcement that American troops had invaded Cambodia.  

Nixon’s Cambodia invasion and subsequent deaths of the four Kent State students marked a turning point in the sentiments towards antiwar activist. Support for the strikes that followed these events was significantly greater than leftist groups had experienced, even though momentum for their causes had been building over the previous years. Before May 1970, BSU’s rallies averaged about 1,000 students and SLF’s courthouse demonstration mobilized 2,000 people. However, the May 1970 student strike saw upwards of 10,000 in attendance. This strike marked the first time that many students who had not been politically active expressed outrage and joined the antiwar efforts.

The momentum for the strike affected almost every aspect of the University as evident in the UW’s campus newspaper, The Daily. Editor Bruce Olson was a liberal and had previously supported various campaigns by student radicals.[20]  The Daily ran stories about the SDS, BSU, and SLF and Olson had written editorials in support of their causes. But the events of early May caused Olson and the Daily to go further. With unprecedented numbers of students joining the May 1970 strike, Olson dedicated the entire newspaper to covering the event. During the week of student strikes, every issue covered the previous and next day’s events, strike announcements, strike editorials, and progress of the strike. Not only was The Daily dedicated to the strike, but the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW) was also a strong supporter. ASUW President-elect, Rick Silverman, led strike rallies and even appropriated ASUW funds to support strike events. However, in June 1970, the Washington State Court ordered ASUW to stop funding the strike coalition.[21] 

What follows is a detailed account of the week's events:

  April 30, 1970: the move into Cambodia

That morning, President Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. He stated that troops needed to be sent in to knock out supply dumps and communist networks to eliminate Communist strongholds throughout the country. During his speech, Nixon assured the nation that this was not an “invasion” because the Cambodian territories being attacked were occupied by North Vietnamese forces and beyond control of the Cambodian goverment.[22]  Nixon also informed the American people that he was to provide “small arms and equipment” to enable the Cambodian government to retain its neutrality.[23] These actions, Nixon argued, were necessary to bring the war to an end and to pull American troops out of Vietnam. Nixon’s declaration was broadcasted to millions of Americans and was met with both praise and disdain. A poll conducted by the Joint Committee in Higher Education of the Washington State Legislature showed that 69% of students throughout the country had serious doubts about Nixon’s decision to move the war into Cambodia.[24] Students felt they had been lied to. In his inauguration speech a year earlier, Nixon had promised to bring an end to the Vietnam War and bring the American people back together. Now he was expanding the war. With one move, Nixon added significant fuel to the fire that galvanized the antiwar movement.

Friday, May 1 1970: the movement begins

Protest movements on college campuses and in cities throughout the country immediately flared up after Nixon’s announcement. In Seattle, on May 1st, over a thousand protestors gathered at the Federal Courthouse and cheered speakers. For example, Stephanie Coontz, a member of the Student Mobilization Committee (an offshoot group of former SDS members), stood in front of the crowd and shouted, “Nixon is using the new kind of speak. He’s saying we’re going to move the troops out of Vietnam by moving them into Cambodia…We’re damned angry about it. We will stay in the streets until every GI is brought home.”[25] These passionate speeches resonated with the feelings of thousands of UW students. After the speeches, protesters marched peacefully through Capitol Hill and back to the University District.

Hundreds of colleges and universities were also engaging in actions to protest the expansion of the Vietnam War. At the University of Maryland, an estimated 1,500 students vandalized an armory building where Air Force ROTC classes were held. And at the University of Cincinnati, a number of demonstrators were arrested after they conducted a sit-in and blocked a busy intersection in the middle of the city. Other students such as at Princeton University protested by cutting classes and sought to organize a nationwide student strike.[26] Still, not all demonstrations involved destruction or civil disobedience. (see maps and database of 650 campuses on strike)

Sunday, May 3rd 1970: Call for Student Strike

The nationwide student strike to protest President Nixon’s dispatch of American troops became a reality after a meeting with editors from eleven colleges at Columbia University. They declared that “classroom education becomes a hollow, meaningless exercise,” when the world was engrossed in mass violence.[27] They urged undergraduates, faculty, administration and staff to participate. The protest was set to begin on Monday, May 4, and end on Friday, May 8.  Then, on Saturday, a mass demonstration in Washington D.C. was to occur. Along with their demand that Nixon remove troops from Cambodia, committee members also called for an end to the “political oppression” of the Black Panther Party and other dissident groups.[28]

Monday, May 4, 1970: Kent State Shooting

Ohio’s Kent State University had become a center of student activism. Hundreds of Kent State students had conducted anti-war protests for the last three nights and vowed to continue for a fourth day leading into the week of student strikes. However, on Sunday, May 3, Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency and outlawed any “unusual gatherings.”[29] The majority of the student body was unaware of Satrom’s declaration and as a result, rally notices continued to be circulated. On Monday, May 4, when Kent State University students began to gather on the commons and march to the practice football field, the mayor called in the National Guard to disburse the crowd estimated between 600 and 1,100 students.[30] The National Guardsmen threw canisters of tear gas into the crowd but the students surged toward the guardsmen and some taunted them to retaliate. A shot was fired and within the next 13 seconds, there were several more shots heard.[31] After the chaos and the tear gas cloud settled, four students were found dead and another ten students were struck and injured by bullets.[32]

The news of the Kent State shooting spread to every city and town in America. Outrage mounted as more and more Americans realized that the horrors of war were no longer 8,000 miles away. James A. Michener, the author of Kent State remembered the tragedy and said, “In the days of May following the shootings at Kent State this nation stumbled to the edge of a precipice…only those close to the scene…appreciated how dangerously close to catastrophe this country came in those critical days.”[33] Also recalling the significance of the event, UW student Walt Crowley stated in his memoir, “The entire nation gasped. Push had come to shove and shove had come to shooting. In a decade drenched in blood, nothing had quite the impact as the deaths of these four white students, alive one second amid the sunshine of a spring day on a Midwestern campus, sprawled dead or dying the next, their bodies ripped by the bullets of American soldiers no older than their victims.”[34] College students in particular were outraged and viewed the slaying as an extreme form of oppression against those who spoke out against the war. They were outraged and the national week of student strikes gained substantial momentum. All over the country, students mobilized in greater numbers and with more purpose than before.

Tuesday, May 5, 1970: University of Washington joins the Strike

Once the Kent State news reached the UW, students who had not participated in the national week of student strikes changed their minds. The mood on campus was tense and students were scared as well as angry. A junior marine biology major said “this is the most serious situation I’ve seen. Those four students at Kent State – it just comes home real close.”[35] For a number of students, the killings became personal. Following the student’s deaths, discourse about the Kent State four and Cambodia consumed the UW campus. The word Cambodia appeared all over the University on signs and even in blue ink on a tree trunk near Suzzallo Library.[36] UW students were inspired by these issues and numerous students decided to join the strike.

On Tuesday, May 5, the second day of the nationwide student strike, the UW officially joined the movement. At UW, the strike was led by radical and liberal student groups along with the ASUW. The striker’s aims were focused around three main issues which called for an end to: the war in Southeast Asia, injustices at home as exemplified by the Kent State shootings, and oppression of the Black Panther Party.[37] The strike began with a mass meeting of students in front of the Husky Union Building (HUB) at 10:30 am to discuss the intended actions for the week. The coalition that called for the strike encompassed representatives from the ASUW, Seattle Liberation Front, Student Mobilization Committee and United Socialist Alliance.[38] 

The chairman of the coalition was Rick Silverman, ASUW President elect. At the meeting of about 7,000 students and faculty, Silverman led the crowd in a vote for demonstration tactics and demands to be presented to UW President Charles Odegaard. Through a series of loud screams and shouts a list of demands were voted on by the students. They called for President Odegaard to denounce the deaths of the Four Kent State University students and pledge to never call National Guard troops to the UW campus, terminate all ROTC programs on campus and convert the ROTC buildings into “memorial centers” to recognize the four slain Kent State students, end the University’s complicity with the war effort including military recruiting and “war oriented” research, and sever all ties with BYU.[39] 

The crowd grew to about 5,000-8,000 people and marched around Steven’s circle, Drumheller fountain, the library, and moved through the liberal arts quad and ended up at the administration building.[40] At one o’clock in the afternoon, President Odegaard faced the boisterous mass of students. After hearing their demands, Odegaard proceeded to read a telegram that he sent to President Nixon through a continually failing red and white bullhorn.[41] The telegram urged President Nixon to recognize the seriousness and abhorrence of the Kent State tragedy and “to recognize the need for strenuous efforts to explain more fully the present policy, to listen to those who object to it, and to develop a foreign policy towards Indochina which has more support from the American people.”[42] In response to the student’s demands, President Odegaard replied that current policies regarding the UW’s ROTC programs and BYU would stand and could not promise to keep the National Guard off campus. As he spoke, several faculty members and administrators walked off their jobs and joined the jeering students. One of the strike leaders, Stephanie Coontz, urged the students to continue the protest.

Dissatisfied with Odegaard’s response, the coalition of students voted to march through the University District and started on 40th Street,  then turned north on University Way. Once they reached 45th Street, the crowd split and some headed east back to campus while others headed west towards the Interstate 5 (I-5) freeway. At about 1:50 pm, nearly 6,000 students poured onto I-5 blocking all northbound and southbound lanes. Traffic came to a standstill.[43]  Some motorists stopped to chat about the strike and others started arguments with the students. However, the protesters remained peaceful despite the few angry bystanders. At the Roanoke exit, students were confronted by riot police and voted to exit the freeway as they continued their march to the Federal Courthouse. After over an hour long march on the freeway, the southbound traffic was backed up to Everett.[44] Once at the courthouse, demonstrators listened to speakers for about 45 minutes and then, made their way back to the UW campus.

Thousands of students had put off classes to attend the rally and some professors cancelled class in support of the strikers. The steering committee of strike events and editor of The Daily, Bruce Olson, urged students not to attend classes in the following days until their demands were met.

Wednesday, May 6, 1970: Second Freeway March

UW students viewed their first day of the strike as a huge success. In The Daily, Bruce Olson wrote an article of praise and motivation for students to continue the strike. He wrote, “Even the most skeptical observers of yesterday’s demonstrations must have been impressed. It was loud, it was spirited, and it was large…That momentum now must be kept up…The student strike must continue.”[45] The strike carried on and the energy from the previous day’s freeway march only increased. The campus was consumed by activities related to the strike. In addition, The Daily was given the duty of announcements and news.

Students involved in the strike manned each entrance to campus and urged students not to go to class that day. With strike activities in full swing, the administration felt the need for reinforcements. At 10:30 am on May 6, three Seattle Transit busloads of Seattle’s tactical squad arrived on campus and entered the administration building. Minutes later, another 41 riot squad officers followed.[46] Despite the police mobilization, students began to gather and the day’s demonstration began around noon. The rally started with a folk singing group who was quickly shutdown as the students were too eager to plan the day’s events. Rick Silverman addressed the crowd of some 10,000 students and stressed that three issues still remained which demanded the UW: terminate the ROTC programs, sever ties with BYU and end the university’s complicity with the war effort.[47] 

For a second time, President Odegaard spoke to the students and announced that classes were to be cancelled on Friday, as a day of mourning to remember the Kent State University tragedy. Before he retreated from the cheering crowd, he left them with a plea, “I appeal to you to keep your actions peaceful today as you did so admirably yesterday. By peaceful showing of your feelings you can win a hearing that violence will never bring.”[48]   

After President Odegaard’s speech, the crowd became divided and some students demanded militant action while others pleaded for a peaceful march downtown. Putting it to a vote, the majority of the demonstrators voted for a peaceful march. Students, staff, and faculty ranging somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 made their way towards Capitol Hill via the Montlake Bridge. About three miles into the march, the crowd met a contingent from Seattle University, Seattle Community College, and nearby high schools. Several bystanders on the street joined the march as well. By the time they reached the Seattle Municipal building, the marchers numbered nearly 15,000 people.[49] 

Acting Mayor Charles Carroll (in place of Mayor Wes Uhlman who was in Japan) read a statement and urged President Odegaard to open Husky Stadium on Friday for a public forum where students and citizens could discuss current issues. Not satisfied with his response and refusal to call a citywide strike, a gathering of a few thousand people began to march towards the freeway. Once it was apparent that a portion of the crowd was going to take the freeway again, a squad of riot police raced to block the freeway entrance. In their haste, they threw some demonstrators over a fence to remove them from the highway. The protesters evaded this roadblock and headed down Seneca Street and entered the freeway via the Madison Street entrance. The demonstrators marched towards the University District and shouted “Cambodia,” “power to the people” and “yowza, yowza, yowza” while others flashed peace signs.[50]

 Traffic stalled for the second day in a row with motorists waiting grimly with their doors locked yet some “honked for peace.”[51] There were 3,000 people who marched down the southbound and express lanes while riot police tried to evacuate the demonstrators on the northbound lanes first. The police formed a roadblock and demonstrators in the northbound lanes fled off the freeway, went around the police, and reentered the freeway near the Lakeview Overpass. Police desperately began commandeering cars to cut them off once more. Once again, they formed a road block ahead of the crowd and some demonstrators were chased over a six-foot fence while others fled to the express lanes. The protestors in the southbound and express lanes shouted at the riot police as they chased and beat their comrades off the freeway.

Now that the riot squad had cleared the northbound lanes, they set off to clear the rest of the freeway. It was then that the first canister of tear gas was released.[52] According to a Seattle Police official, city officers were not authorized to use tear gas and it was likely that a demonstrator was the one who first threw the canister.[53] Regardless, this prompted riot police to throw several more canisters toward the crowd of about 1,000 people. Yells of “don’t panic!” were heard as the tear gas filled the air and officers jabbed and beat students to get them to exit the freeway. A number of students fled and others jumped off the 15 foot exit ramp to escape the club wielding riot police. The remaining students finally began to leave the I-5 freeway through the Roanoke exit. It was the same exit students had been forced to leave the freeway by riot police the day before.[54] By 6 pm, the exhausted students returned to the University District.    

In all, there were over 200 officers in the field that day and several students were arrested and injured. An anonymous student involved in the freeway march wrote a letter to The Daily and described their experience being hit with mace by one of the police officers. This person stated that “the jolt of mace-acid completely removed any thoughts. I was gone. My face was being eaten away, my eyes were already burnt out. I fell to the ground screaming. There was nothing to do but feel pain.”[55] Several students were injured and some were able to make it back to campus on their own.  However, others were shoved into stalled cars to be taken to the hospital. Once back at the UW, thousands of students gathered in front of the HUB to formulate a plan for the next day. Yet, group sentiments began to split. The use of police violence caused certain students to demand for a non-peaceful demonstration and a complete shutdown of the school. Still, others pleaded to continue with non-violent protests. In the end, little was agreed upon with the exception to hold a mass rally the next day at noon.

Thursday, May 7, 1970: A Violent Protest

After the previous day’s freeway march, campus opinion began to fracture. Some articles and letters to The Daily expressed opposition to the strike or to protest tactics. Bill Turner, a UW student, wrote a letter to the editor and condemned the freeway marches for not having a specific goal and not doing enough to accomplish real change.[56] Interviews with students in the science, math, and business majors revealed their unwillingness to cut class for strike activities. An engineering professor, William Chalk said that engineering students were too busy with school work to participate in the strike and that “they’re here to get an education and they want to get on with it.”[57] However, several departments on campus including the history, political science and the romance languages supported the strike and either cancelled class or dedicated their classes to discussion around pertinent topics.

Also, a divide within the strikers started to emerge between those who wanted to continue peaceful demonstrations and those who wanted to take more militant action. As the third day of striking commenced, those who urged for non-peaceful protest began to take action on their own. The noon rally at the HUB resulted in a call by a group of strikers to move the strike efforts into the classroom. About 300 students ran through classrooms shouting “Join us! Join us!”[58] Some classes voted to go on strike as demonstrators distributed leaflets to classes and faculty. However, the radical faction called for a shutdown of the “mass militant action” of the Applied Physics Laboratory. This led to the most violent night at the UW.

That evening, May 7, divisions among the protestors became clearer. A militant group of students shouted statements such as “smash the state” and urged violence while others called for everyone to stay peaceful.[59] Despite pleas for nonviolence, some demonstrators began smashing windows at Pacific National Bank and Seattle-First Bank. A large crowd of students made their way to the Applied Physics Laboratory. Once they reached the building, some began smashing windows and doors with clubs and rocks. At around 9:50 pm, three or four carloads of riot police arrived to chants of “the pigs are coming!”[60] Demonstrators began pelting police officers with rocks and minutes later busloads of riot police began to arrive. The riot squad began clubbing demonstrators and the area was cleared within a few minutes.[61] The people scattered throughout the University District and continue to cause destruction. Police officers showed no mercy. If they saw a group of people who looked like strikers, they attacked them. Walt Crowley, a student at UW at the time, recalled the chaos that took place that night. Crowley wrote “We entered Lander Hall, a high-rise dormitory near the Physics Lab, and we watched dumbfounded as a dozen or so cops began beating a rack full of student’s bicycles with their clubs. Unsatisfied, they invaded the lobby and chased everyone, including Dave and me, upstairs or outside.”[62] 

Not only were the cops out in full force that night, but groups of “vigilantes” were stirring up trouble by ambushing and beating people throughout campus and on the nearby streets. The cops thought these vigilantes were students and the students figured they were cops. The confusion caused by the vigilantes created further conflict and the night ended in disorder and frustration for both students and police. Several people were injured and there was a reported $6,875 worth of property damage at the Applied Physics Lab, Schmitz Hall, and other buildings around campus.[63] The turn to violence shocked the campus and city. Students and citizens were ashamed that the strike had taken such a nasty turn. To make sure that the next day’s actions remained nonviolent, both the police and demonstrators vowed restraint.

Friday, May 8, 1970: Day of Mourning

With all UW classes cancelled on Friday, May 8, by President Odegaard, students embarked on a third and final freeway march to the Federal Courthouse. However, this time, Mayor Wes Uhlman closed the I-5 express lanes to traffic and opened them for the 10,000 UW protesters. The police also demonstrated their support by taping daffodils to their nightsticks to show their commitment to nonviolence.[64] Demonstrators also showed their commitment to nonviolence by wearing white armbands and handing out flowers as a symbol of peace. Marchers came to the courthouse from all over Seattle including UW, Seattle University, Seattle Community College, Seattle Pacific College, and a contingent of community marchers from Westlake Mall.[65] 

The crowd respectfully listened to speakers which spilled over the courthouse lawn (across 5th Avenue) as well as filled the public library plaza. The speakers included Mayor Wes Uhlman, Seattle Liberation Front member Chip Marshall, and others who emphasized the peaceful aspect of the demonstration. The students were determined to stay peaceful and respect the day of mourning. One of the speakers, history professor Giovanni Costigan, was met with roars of applause when he said, “I ask that we do not desecrate the memory of those four students (the slain Kent State students) by random acts of violence.”[66] After the speeches, the student activists marched back to campus. A few students spilled over to the north and southbound lanes but demonstration leaders and state troopers quickly cleared them. The day ended with few incidents and no violence.

Over the weekend following Friday, May 8, strike leaders organized a formal strike committee with representatives from various student groups on campus. This committee decided antiwar efforts should continue and they voted to officially declare a strike at the UW to last until their demands were met. Plans were announced to launch an alternative university called the New University which would hold classes off campus. The strike committee also hoped to expand the movement off campus sending leafleting committees door to door in working class neighborhoods throughout the city.[67]

Enthusiasm and endurance began to wane as the strike moved into its second week.  Several hundred students continued to picket and leaflet but the enormous support that the strike had seen a week ago was fading. In a May 9 Seattle Times article, staff writer Don Hannula noted the drop-off in student participation, “Again the war in Southeast Asia was 8,000 miles away.”[68] Concerned about approaching final exams, more and more students returned to their classes, crossing the thinner and thinner picket lines. By the end of the second week, the strike was effectively over. But the climate of activism and projects like the New University would continue.


In May 1970, the national week of student strikes was one of the largest protest movements and act of solidarity throughout the country as well as at the UW. These strikes did not bring an end to the war or racial inequality. Nevertheless, UW students achieved a series of victories. The strikers were able to get classes cancelled on Friday, May 8, and several departments and faculty members voluntarily called off their classes to support the week-long strike. The national fervor and size of the strike forced Nixon to acknowledge student protestors as citizens with legitimate concerns and not as “bums.” President Nixon met with a delegation of students from various colleges and told them, “I know you think we are a bunch of so and so’s – I used a stronger word to them – I know how you feel. You want to get the war over. Try to understand what we are doing. Sure, you came here to demonstrate. Go shout your slogans on the Ellipse. That is all right. Just keep it peaceful.”[69] Although President Nixon did not support their efforts or change his policy towards Southeast Asia, he acknowledged their concerns and refrained from taking militant action to stop their demonstrations (which had been his policy prior to May 1970). President Nixon’s willingness to meet with students showed that the government finally recognized their frustration with his wartime decisions. This meeting also showcased that student activists were no less patriotic American’s than those fighting in Vietnam.

Although not everyone viewed the strike as a success, students from the UW and other colleges throughout Washington saw the strike as a triumph. Dick McDermott, a Seattle University senior believed the demonstrations were an accomplishment. McDermott said, “they were successful in the respect that a lot of people all of a sudden realized that it wasn’t just the ‘militant radicals’ who are marching.”[70] The national strike was a turning point of the antiwar era which helped curb the negative view of antiwar demonstrators that was forming in the late 1960s and 1970s. Local newspapers such as the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer became sympathetic to strikers during the national week of student strikes. They featured stories about strike events on the front page and portrayed them positively rather than emphasizing their disruptive nature, as they had done pre-May 1970.

One of the greatest successes of the strike was that it educated people about current issues and moved thousands of students from apathy to action. The level of awareness about political and civil rights issues significantly increased. The strike also resulted in a “New University” where professors taught free classes to students on strike issues.[71]Finally, the strike had an effect on each individual who participated. The students felt empowered to know they were making a real change. Years later in an interview with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, US District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez spoke about his involvement in the May 5, 1970, freeway march with pride and mentioned he enjoyed telling his daughters about the experience.[72] Although the strike didn’t result in the drastic change that was being demanded, the UW and hundreds of other universities won small victories and that affected the lives of thousands of student strikers.  Many of these students continued to fight for civil rights and efforts to end the Vietnam War throughout their college and professional careers.

Copyright (c) 2014 Zoe Altaras
HSTAA 498 Fall 2013

[1] Bruce Johansen, “War Protests Begin.” The Daily, May 6, 1970, p.11.

[2] “Anti-War and Radical History Project-Pacific Northwest: Vietnam War: Student Activism,”

[3] Ibid.

[4] Report by Joint Committee in Higher Education of the Washington State Legislature, “Student Unrest in Washington,” February 1971, UW President’s Office Records, Accession 71-34, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 70.

[5] “SDS/Vietnam Committee Demands 1968,” n.d., UW President’s Office Records, Accession 71-34, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 71, folder 2.

[6] “Anti-War and Radical History Project-Pacific Northwest: Oral Histories: Steve Ludwig,” Interview by Jessie Kindig, August 12, 2008,

[7] Walt Crowley, “Seattle Liberation Front,” February 16, 2000,

[8] “SLF Breaks Into Classes.” The Daily, February 12, 1970, p.1.

[9] Walt Crowley, “Seattle Liberation Front,” February 16, 2000,

[10] Craig Collisson, “The BSU takes on BYU and the UW Athletics Program, 1970,” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,

[11] “The Brigham Young University Controversy and Related Events: A Report to the Board of Regents by President Charles E. Odegaard Vol.1 no. 1,” March 27, 1970, Charles Odegaard Papers, Accession 2380-005, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 2, folder 34.

[12] Bruce Olson, “No Time for Racism.” The Daily, March 4, 1970, p.4.

[13] Larry Shumway, “Mormons, Blacks and the Mark of Cain.” The Daily, February 13, 1970.

[14] Craig Collisson, “The BSU takes on BYU and the UW Athletics Program, 1970,” Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,

[15] Paul Bridge, “’Slobs’ Get Word: No ‘Bullies’ Will Disrupt U.W. Prof’s Class.” Seattle Times, February 13, 1970, p.1.

[16] Robert C. Blethen, “Radicals Disrupt Classes at U.W. in Attempt to Enlist Support of Students.” Seattle Times, February 13, 1970, Section B, p.4.

[17] “Odegaard Invokes State Trespass Act.” The Daily, February 17, 1970 p.2.

[18] Carl T. Rowan, “Student Revolutionists Look Past Campus.” Seattle Times, May 8, 1969, p.1.

[19] Juan de Onis, “Nixon Says GIs ‘Greatest’, Campus Opposition ‘Bums.’” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 1970, p.3.

[20] Steve Weiner, “’The Daily’ does a Nose Dive.” Seattle Magazine Vol. 7 no. 75, June 1970, p.41.

[21] “Court Stops ASUW Strike Aid.” The Daily, June 3, 1970, p.1.

[22] “Troops Sent into Cambodia.” The Daily, May 1, 1970.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Report by Joint Committee in Higher Education of the Washington State Legislature, “Student Unrest in Washington,” February 1971, UW President’s Office Records, Accession 71-34, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 70.

[25] Don Carter, George McDowell, Rick Anderson, “War Protesters March.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 1970, p.1.

[26] Associate Press, “Anti-War Tide Sweeps Campuses.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 2, 1970, Section A, p.2.

[27] Associated Press, “Student for Campus Strike to Protest Cambodia Action.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 4, 1970, p.1.

[28] Ibid.

[29] James A. Michener, Kent State: What Happened and Why (New York, 1971), pp.325-328.

[30] Ibid, p.327.

[31] Ibid, p.340.

[32] Ibid, p.342.

[33] Ibid, p.vii.

[34] Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle, 1995), p.173.

[35] Julie Emery, “U.W. Tense as Students Strike Over War, Kent State Killings.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 5, 1970, p.10.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Greg Albertson, “Morning Mass Meeting Called.” The Daily, May 5, 1970, p.1.

[38] Frank Herbert, “Student Coalition Calls Strike at UW.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 5, 1970, p.2.

[39] Bruce Johansen, “War Protests Begin.” The Daily, May 6, 1970, p.2.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Charles E. Odegaard, “Telegram.” The Daily, May 6, 1970, p.11.

[43] Bruce Johansen, “War Protests Begin.” The Daily, May 6, 1970, p.11.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Bruce Olson, “Keep Things Moving.” The Daily, May 6, 1970, p.4.

[46] Mike Cassidy, “Peaceful Start: Gas and Clubs Mark Finale.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.2.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Bruce Johansen, “Classes Ordered Suspended Friday.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.2.

[49] Mike Cassidy, “Peaceful Start: Gas and Clubs Mark Finale.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.2.

[50] Marc Krasnowsky, “A View From the Freeway.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.4.

[51] Ibid.

[52]Mike Cassidy, “Peaceful Start: Gas and Clubs Mark Finale.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.7.

[53] “10,000 Block Freeway Again.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 7, 1970, p.1.

[54] Mike Cassidy, “Peaceful Start: Gas and Clubs Mark Finale.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.2.

[55] “From the Freeway.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.5.

[56] Bill Turner, “On Specifics.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.5.

[57] Dan Greenberg, “Lower Campus.” The Daily, May 7, 1970, p.8.

[58] “Student Strikers Move Into U.W. Classrooms.” Seattle Times, May 7, 1970, p.21.

[59] Martin Works and John deYonge, “U District a ‘Fluid Battleground.’” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 8, 1970, p.4.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle, 1995), p.175.

[63] Report by Joint Committee in Higher Education of the Washington State Legislature, “Student Unrest in Washington,” February 1971, UW President’s Office Records, Accession 71-34, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 70.

[64] Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle, 1995), p.176.

[65] “10,000 Rally in rain For Day of Mourning.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 9, 1970, p.1.

[66] Ibid.

[67] “Civil Rights and Labor History: Proposals to Mass Strike Rally, submitted by Steering Committee," May 10, 1970,

[68] Don Hannula, “City Calm as Protests Subside.” Seattle Times, May 9, 1970 p.10.

[69] “White House Opens Door to Protesters.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 10, 1970, p.3.

[70] “A Look Back at Seattle’s Week of Protest.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 10, 1970, p.17.

[71] “New U in Third Day.” The Daily, May 15, 1970, p.9.

[72] “Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project: Video Oral History: Ricardo S. Martinez,” interview by Edgar Flores and Oscar Rosales, February 8, 2006,