Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

May 1970 Student Antiwar Strikes

by Amanda Miller

The May 1970 antiwar strikes became one of the largest coordinated sequences of disruptive protests in American history, with walkouts spreading across more than 883 campuses involving more than a million students. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that American forces had invaded Cambodia in an effort to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. This secret widening of the Vietnam conflict drew immediate condemnation around the the world and fierce protests from antiwar activists in the United States, especially on college campuses. Five days days later, Ohio National Guard troops fired into a crowd protesting at Kent State University, killing four, wounding nine. Calls for a nationwide student strike escalated and in the days that followed students at hundreds of campuses boycotted classes. Mass protests, marches, building takeovers, attacks on ROTC facilties, clashes with police were reported at many. Authorities suspended classes on 97 campuses and 20 remained closed for the remainder of school year. [continue introductory essay below]

Here we map and list 883 campuses where protest activities were reported. This is a partial list of actions, derived mostly from reports compiled by the National Strike Information Center, a student group at Brandeis University. The maps are hosted by Tableau Public and may take a few seconds to respond. If slow, refresh the page. Here are other New Left and Antiwar Movement maps .

Move between six maps and databases by selecting tabs below

In Progress: We continue to seek additional data and are eager to correct errors. Please Help. If you know something about the actions and outcomes on particular campuses or location, please share it here.

Sources: National Strike Information Center newsletters from Kent State University Digital Archives and the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Library, Brandeis University. Additional entries from On Strike ... Shut It Down! A Report on the First National Student Strike in U.S. History, May, 1970 (Chicago: Urban Research Corporation, 1970); New York Tmes, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Atlanta Constitution digital copies from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Research and data compilation: Amanda Miller.

Maps: James Gregory


The May 1970 Student Strikes

by Amanda Miller

In a televised address on April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that US military units had entered Cambodia in an effort to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines. For many Americans, the announcement felt like a betrayal.  Nixon had campaigned on the promise to end the Vietnam War and had recently begun the process of “Vietnamization,” the slow withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam and their replacement with South Vietnamese forces.  Though Nixon insisted that this was not an invasion of Cambodia, to many it signaled that the war in Southeast Asia was not ending; it was expanding.  The next day, outraged students began to protest the Cambodia incursion on college campuses across the United States and, at a meeting of student activists in New Haven, the idea for a national student strike was born.  Student protests were further galvanized when National Guardsmen opened fire on protesting students at Kent State University on May 4, injuring nine and killing four.  The nationwide strike that ensued was, in many ways, the peak of the student antiwar movement. 

 What was the May 1970 Student Strike?

While the antiwar movement was always driven by students, the May 1970 Student Strike was unique in that the campus became the center of political activity and protest.  By the end of the first two weeks of May, the strike had expanded to almost 900 campuses in every state except Alaska and millions of students, many of whom had never participated in the antiwar movement before, took part.  Over 100 campuses were officially closed for at least one day in response to mass student unrest, final examinations were cancelled or made optional, ROTC programs were eliminated, and twenty-one campuses were shut down for the remainder of the school year.  

One of the more unique aspects of the student strike was that for all its national scope and scale, it was essentially localized and spontaneous in nature.  Strikes, actions, and events were organized and carried out on a campus by campus basis without the support of any major national civil rights or antiwar organizations.[1]  In contrast to other nationwide protest actions against the Vietnam War, like the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam of 1969, the student strike was not planned and promoted in the weeks and months leading up to it.  Instead, the strike was executed within days of the event that sparked it.  By May 7th, a strike that had started in New England had spread to hundreds of campuses across the country, not only major universities but also to small colleges and high schools that had not previously experienced significant protests. That such a spontaneous movement could gain such widespread support so quickly is remarkable and speaks to students’ deep frustration with the war in Southeast Asia and their fury over the Kent State shooting.

 The National Strike Information Center

The National Strike Information Center, created at the May 1st meeting in New Haven, was vital in spreading the strike across the country.  The center, a student-run endeavor based at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, described itself as, “a central clearing house for all information regarding strike activity at high schools, colleges, and universities across the country.”[2] The National Strike Information Center was born when students from many  East Coast schools gathered at Yale University to protest the bombing of Cambodia and the trial of Bobby Seale.  There, at a meeting of hundreds of people, the original plans for a student strike against the war were laid and the Brandeis students volunteered to make their campus  strike headquarters.[3]  Two nights later, the strike center began operations after one student phoned Gordon Fellman, a sociology professor who would provide guidance and assistance to the students as the strike grew, and asked to use Perlman Hall, the sociology building, as the strike headquarters.[4]  The center started receiving phone calls from campuses across the country that very night and Brandeis quickly became recognized as the unofficial headquarters for the student strike and all information related to it.

Though the strike center was located at Brandeis, it was not sanctioned by the university and was completely controlled by student volunteers.  In addition to Professor Fellman, the students received help from some other Brandeis faculty and staff. Most importantly, the students managed to gain access to phone lines and a switchboard, critical equipment in what would become a nationwide communication system. Later the Brandeis administration insisted that the students reimburse the university for $9000 in long-distance phone charges and printing bills..[5]  The students were able to raise $6,000 by October of 1970 at which time Professor Fellman sent a letter to the editor of The New York Review of Books requesting donations to cover the remaining $3,000.[6]  This confirms the NSIC’s economic independence from the university while suggesting that the center was working with a much more supportive institution than many of the striking students in other parts of the country.

Working the phones and tabulating information from all around the country, NSIC volunteers set up an operation that helped spread the strike and guide strike tactics. Every two to three days, the center produced mimeograph strike information bulletins listing campuses on strike, clarifying strike demands, and highlighting important news. These newsletters were mailed to news organizations and to a long list of campuses where they helped sustain the sense of solidarity, demonstrating that each campus was part of a nationwide mobilization of unprecedented dimensions.  The strike center received most of its information through the six regional headquarters or by individual campuses calling in to self-report that they were on strike.  This information was verified “whenever possible,” but it is unclear exactly how this was done.[7]  Many of the campuses were said to be “on strike indefinitely” which meant, according to one volunteer, that “the strike will end when the war ends.”[8]   

The NSIC’s contribution to the student strike was invaluable.  Without the center’s dedicated team of volunteers, coordinating a spontaneous, nationwide strike with the technology of the 1970s would have been nearly impossible.  Communication across the country was difficult, expensive, and slow.  Students at Brandeis, along with students at every other campus who seized school telecommunications centers or simply called the NSIC to report a strike, helped to overcome these obstacles.  This open communication network made students across the country aware that they were part of something larger than what was going on at any one given campus.

 Strike Goals

The short-term goal of the student strike was simple: “no more business as usual.”  Antiwar students used the strike as a tactic to make sure that their concerns could no longer be ignored or be pushed to the side as the sentiments of merely a vocal minority.  An editorial published in several student newspapers during the strike states that it “demonstrates clearly our priorities, for the significance of classes and exams pales before the greater problems outside the classroom.”[9]  In this way, the strike served to show students’ commitment to opposing the war over all else, with some risking lower grades or losing all credits for the semester to take a stand and push for change. 

The New Haven conference of May 1 and the Brandeis Strike Information Center articulated a broader agenda that situated the Cambodian invasion in larger radical framework. The NSIC newsletters listed three demands. First, “that the United States government end its systematic repression of political dissidents and release all political prisoners, such as Bobby Seale and other members of the Black Panther Party.”  Second, “that the United States government cease its expansion of the Vietnam war into Laos and Cambodia; that it unilaterally and immediately withdraw all forces from Southeast Asia.”  And the third, “that the universities end their complicity with the U.S. war Machine by an immediate end to defense research, ROTC, counterinsurgency research, and all other such programs.”[10]  These demands reflect a multi-faceted critique of the United States as an imperialist and racist power.  They reveal radical students’ support for the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement in general.  The second and third demands are both related to the war, but one is international in scope, pressing for a dramatic change in US foreign policy, while the other is much more local in its focus, advocating for reform of the university and protesting the role of the military in higher education.

How widely the NSIC demands were shared is unclear. Among the millions of students who participated in the May 1970 strike wave,  many and perhaps most had more limited concerns.[11] They were angry about Nixon’s escalation of the war and angrier still about the Kent State massacre,  It is clear that the shooting at Kent State was a huge motivating factor behind the student strike, yet it goes completely unmentioned in the NSIC demands.   Kent State was a major reason why the strike lasted so long and reached so many campuses, even those that had not previously been engaged in antiwar activities.  This is evidenced by the fact that student protests peaked on May 5, the day after the Kent State shooting.[12]  Historian J.E. Eichsteadt argues that “the Kent State killings ensured that the already historic protests across the nation would only get bigger” because “the war had literally come home.”[13]  That four students had been shot simply for protesting made the student strike personal for students, and for some superseded the importance of the invasion of Cambodia.

Another instance of where the NSIC strike demands did not fully match the motivations of some striking students was on the issue of civil rights.  From the beginning, the national student strike, as its founders imagined it, was deeply connected to the civil rights movement and racial justice.  The idea for strike came about at a meeting regarding the trial of Bobby Seale and demanding freedom for imprisoned Black Panthers remained an important strike goal for many students, including those at NYU who occupied a $15 million computer lab to demand that the University contribute $100,000 to the Panther bail fund.    However, there is little mention of the racial justice demands in reports from many other campuses. Furthermore, there was a telling contrast between students’ outraged reaction to the deaths of four white students at Kent State and their comparative silence over the shooting of two Black students by National Guardsmen at Jackson State University on May 14.  The Jackson State deaths did not result in a new surge of  protests and indeed did nothing to slow the decline in protests that was already noticeable by this time.[14] 

Motivations for participating in the strike were ultimately as diverse as the students themselves.  However, if one were to list the issues that drove the vast majority of students to strike it would include the invasion of Cambodia, the shootings at Kent State, the presence of ROTC on campus, and the imprisonment of members of the Black Panther Party.  Taken together, these issues paint a picture of the political and social climate of 1970 that made the student strike possible.

 Tactics

Striking students used a broad variety of tactics beyond boycotting classes to further their key strategy, which was the complete disruption of day-to-day campus operations.  These tactics included protests, marches, picket lines, the occupation of buildings, vigils, arson, and economic boycotts.  Students demonstrated, marched, and conducted vigils on campus, in city centers, outside government offices, and at military bases and armories.  These protests were generally peaceful and even militant protesters tended to use vandalism and destruction of property over outright violence to intensify the impact of their protests.  The most blatant use of violence at protests related to the strike came not from students but from police and National Guardsmen, who used tear gas, bully clubs, and sometimes gunfire to break up demonstrations.  The National Guard was called onto at least eleven campuses across the Midwest and South, engaging in sometimes fatal showdowns with protesting students.  In addition to the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, two students were shot by Guardsmen at Jackson State on May 14 and nine were injured by Guardsmen wielding bayonets at the University of New Mexico on May 8.  Violent response from law enforcement seems to have done little to quell student protests and if anything seemed only to further galvanize them, as can be seen by the massive response to the Kent State massacre.  Student protests were a key tactic for bringing local and national attention to the strike outside the college campus and publicly displaying why students were boycotting classes and what their demands were.

Another of the most important tactics striking students used to ensure that their demands were acknowledged was occupying, burning down, or otherwise vandalizing campus buildings, especially those housing ROTC offices.  ROTC buildings were targets for student protest because they represented the military’s ubiquity throughout American life and because one of the strike demands was the abolition of ROTC. 

Different schools used different combinations of these strategies, meaning that the national student strike looked different on each and every campus declared to be in some way or another “on strike.”  At UC Berkeley, where the strike was by and large peaceful, strikers shut down campus operations completely for the remainder of the academic year and sought and “reconstitute” the university as a space for organizing against the war in Southeast Asia.  At other schools, like Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, strikers likewise succeeded in halting operations for the remainder of the year, but protests were more militant and were met by violent opposition from local law enforcement and, in some cases, the National Guard.  In these cases, protests were so impactful that administrators were forced to cancel classes for some length of time, whether it was a day, a week, or the rest of the school year, signaling students’ success in disrupting campus operations.

At other schools, especially those with no previous incidence of campus activism, the strike lasted for just a day or two and classes carried on without striking students.  However, this was still a meaningful marker of the extent of young Americans’ dissatisfaction with their leaders’ actions and policies and many students continued protests both on and off-campus even after their official strike had ended.  In this way, the tactics that protesters employed on campuses at which the strike did not enjoy majority support, beyond simply boycotting classes, contributed to their ability to disrupt campus life and bring discourse on the war to the forefront.  Thus, there is no consistent definition for what it meant for a campus to be “on strike” beyond that students there engaged in at least one of the broad variety of potential protest actions available to them and that some students boycotted classes there for at least one day.  Contained within this definition is a vast multitude of protests, occupations, and boycotts, all of which contributed to an atmosphere of chaos and deep unrest on colleges all across the nation. 

Strike Geography

Students in every state joined the protests of May 1970, including Alaska which is the only state where we have found no record of a proclaimed campus strike. That campuses across the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Missippippi, joined the strike movement speaks to the importance of this singular moment. Still the geography of the student was uneven with especially dense clusters of struck campuses in the Northeast, the Midwest, and West Coast. These clusters to some extent reflect the density of colleges and universities in these areas, but also reveal the places where support for the support for the strike was the strongest.  

According to the Urban Research Corporation’s report on the strike, participation was strongest in the East and Mid-Atlantic, where 47% of schools reported strike activity of some kind, and weakest in the South, where only 15% of schools were affected.[15]  In our database, the states with the most impacted campuses were New York (153 actions), Massachusetts (145 actions), and California (106 actions), but Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois schools were also heavily impacted.  These statistics are not particularly surprising, given the geography of other progressive student movements and organizations of the 1960s and 1970s and suggest the strike’s ties to the New Left.

Universities and four-year colleges accounted for two-thirds of the institutions affected by strikes, but our database also includes 106 two-year colleges and 135 high schools.    Most community colleges affected were located in the Northeast, the SF Bay Area, and Los Angeles, Western Washington, Illinois and Michigan.  High school participation was much more limited and was restricted to major hubs of student protest like eastern Massachusetts, New York City, and the Bay Area.

Despite the strike’s overwhelming success in traditional strongholds of student activism on the coasts and in the major cities in the Midwest like Chicago and Minneapolis, the student strike was in no way restricted to these areas.  One of the most intriguing features of the strike was the widespread participation of liberal to moderate students at historically moderate to conservative campuses in moderate to conservative states.  Many “typically conservative campuses with little history of antiwar activism” participated in the strike with great enthusiasm, with students taking over buildings, staging demonstrations, and boycotting classes for days on end.  For example, 200 students took over an ROTC building at the University of Nebraska and Grinnell College in Iowa was closed for several days.  Actions like these, which were far from uncommon, Christopher Broadhurst argues, are “testament to the extent of student protests in May 1970.”[16]  It also challenges the idea that student antiwar activism was isolated, existing in only the bubble of the progressive college campus.  In May 1970, students across America, though they came from widely disparate backgrounds and held a broad range of political ideologies, overcame geography and their differences to come together and make their voices heard.

Impact

The Student Strike of May of 1970 was nonviolent on the vast majority of participating campuses.  However, there were some protesters who threw rocks and bottles at police officers, and there were also some scuffles between strikers and pro-administration students.  Also contributing to the violence was backlash from students and others who supported the war or otherwise opposed the strike.  This backlash manifested itself violently in some cases, like at the University of Washington, where eight strikers were injured when thirty “club-carrying vigilantes” went onto campus one night to “get the demonstrators” and at Hofstra where pro-war students organized a campaign to “strike back.”[17] 

In total, injuries were reported for over 100 demonstrators, 28 policemen, and two National Guardsmen, and six students were killed.[18]  It is unclear if violent response from law enforcement and counter-protesters did anything to quell striking students’ protests or dampen their commitment to the strike.  If anything, police violence only amplified student unrest, as can be seen from student response to the Kent Sate massacre.  Nonetheless, violence from strikers, law enforcement, and opponents of the strike contributed to an atmosphere of chaos on many college campuses in May 1970.  It was this atmosphere that made it feel, as Henry Kissinger put it, as if the “very fabric of government was falling apart.”[19]

 The strikes ended in different ways and at different times.  At some schools, final exams and commencement activities were cancelled.  At others, commencement ceremonies were held, but students used these ceremonies as a space to continue their protest, with student speakers delivering antiwar messages and those in attendance wearing black armbands or refusing to wear traditional academic regalia.  Elsewhere, the strike was more fleeting, ending after the initial outrage over the invasion of Cambodia and shootings at Kent State, and the academic year ended more or less as planned.  By the end of the 1970 school year, however, the strike had ended everywhere and campus activism matching the intensity of May 1970 did not recommence when students returned to school in the fall. 

However, this does not indicate that the strike had failed to make a lasting impact or achieve its goals, as it was never intended to be permanent.  Students had made the continued expansion of the war in Southeast Asia a point of national concern and refused to allow the news of the Cambodian incursion to be quickly forgotten or brushed to the side.  Furthermore, there is no way to quantify the impact that participation in such a movement had on individual students’ politics and understanding of their place and power within the United States political system.  The national student strike was unprecedented in its scale and is an inspirational testament to the power of young people to disrupt politics at a national level and force their concerns to be acknowledged.  

Bibliography

Blum, Alana. "The Anti-war Movement: Looking Back Forty Years Later." The Brandeis Hoot, February 12, 2010.

Broadhurst, Christopher. "“There Can Be No Business as Usual”: The University of North Carolina and the Student Strike of May 1970." Southern Cultures 21, no. 2 (2015): 84-101.

Charlton, Linda. "Brandeis Building Is Center for Student Strike Data." New York Times, May 24, 1970, New York ed.

Edelstein, Mia. "Prof. Fellman Recalls Campus Electricity during Vietnam Era." The Brandeis Hoot, September 25, 2015.

Eichsteadt, J. E. (2007). “Shut it Down”: The May 1970 National Student Strike at the University of California at Berkeley, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin -Madison (Order No. 3266291). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304767948).

Fellman, Gordon. "National Student Strike Center." The New York Review of Books, October 8, 1970, Letters sec.

National Strike Information Center, Newsletter #5, 7 May 1970

National Strike Information Center, Newsletter #7, 11 May 1970

Urban Research Corporation. On Strike ... Shut It Down! A Report on the First National Student Strike in U.S. History, May, 1970. Chicago, 1970.

 



[1] J.E. Eichsteadt, “Shut it Down”: The May 1970 National Student Strike at the University of California at Berkeley, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin -Madison (Ann Arbor: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 2007), 3

[2] National Strike Information Center, Newsletter #7 (Waltham: 1970), 1

[3] Mia Edelstein, “Prof. Fellman Recalls Campus Electricity During Vietnam Era,” The Brandeis Hoot, September 25, 2015

[4] Alana Blum, “The Anti-War Movement: Looking Back Forty Years Later,” The Brandeis Hoot, February 12, 2010

[5] Linda Charlton, “Brandeis Building is Center for Strike Data,” New York Times, May 24, 1970

[6] Gordon Fellman, “National Student Strike Center,” The New York Review of Books, October 8, 1970

[7] Charlton

[8] Charlton

[9] Urban Research Corporation, On Strike ... Shut It Down! A Report on the First National Student Strike in U.S. History, May, 1970. (Chicago: 1970), 10

[10] National Strike Information Center, Newsletter #5 (Waltham: 1970), 1

[11] Eichsteadt, 3

[12] Urban Research Corporation, 8

[13] Eichsteadt, 80

[14] Urban Research Corporation, 1

[15] Urban Research Corporation, 5

[16] Broadhurst, Christopher. "“There Can Be No Business as Usual”: The University of North Carolina and the Student Strike of May 1970." Southern Cultures 21, no. 2 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015), 90

[17] Urban Research Corporation, 16

[18] Urban Research Corporation, 16

[19] Eichsteadt, 3