(what follows is an excerpt from a work-in-progress; find more here)
Lyndon Johnson told the nation
Have no fear of escalation
I am trying everyone to please
Though it isn’t really war
fifty thousand more
To help save Vietnam
from the Vietnamese…
— Tom Paxton
If you were around at the time (or have ever read much contemporary American history), you might recall that 1969 was something of a high-water mark for both the war in Vietnam and student protests against it.
The body counts reported night after night on the evening news reached a crescendo the previous year, when more than 300 young men were sent home in a box every week. At the start of the year, 1969 was on a similar pace.
On Thursday, March 27, a small cadre of activists at my high school staged a demonstration of our own.
Our protest was motivated as much by our righteous indignation over the war as it was by the apprehension among high school seniors everywhere that after graduation, we too would become eligible for an all-expenses-paid passage to those Asian jungles. We could have easily wound up in Vietnam unless we continued our education or found some other form of deferment (like conscientious objector status), or just left the country — which is exactly what a lot of kids my age at the time were doing.
At Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, I ran with the smart kids, the hippies, the artists, and the musicians. Some of that college-bound crowd formed the nucleus of the Student Peace Group. We used that platform to express our disapproval of Lyndon Johnson’s war — or, more precisely, the likelihood that we could be shipped off to fight it for him.
Our opposition was ironic considering that most of us had been active supporters of Johnson’s re-election 5 years earlier, when he vanquished “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” Republican ideologue Barry Goldwater in a landslide (which, come to think of, is also ironic because Barry Goldwater seems entirely reasonable compared to the brand of wing-nut extremism that dominates his Grand Old Party nowadays).
That was 1964; now, a few years later “All The Way With LBJ” had given away to “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” And the frightening answer to that rhetorical question was “oh, 300 or so…” Every day.
By the spring of 1969, Johnson had been forced out of office. Now Vietnam was Richard Nixon’s war, and despite his being elected on the vague promise of ending it, there was little likelihood of the war being over by the time the class of ’69 graduated from high school.
For the most part, our “activism” was expressed quietly, within our fairly limited circles. But during that winter, within weeks of Nixon’s inauguration, we started thinking about doing something more… well, activist.
We decided to hand out leaflets! Yeah! That’ll end the war! Leaflets!
Maybe it wasn’t going to end the war, but it sure would drive the school authorities to distraction. It seems hard to believe now that simply passing out leaflets to promote an anti-war rally would be viewed by the authorities as an act of defiance, but that’s what it turned in to.
At the very least, we felt like we were drawing on an honorable tradition. Why, the very word “leaflet” evokes the early origins of the our the republic. The American Revolution — remember? It started with patriots distributing leaflets and pamphlets protesting British taxation. What could be more in keeping with our democratic traditions than handing out leaflets?
Those historical precedents not withstanding, I think we knew it would turn in to a thing. That was part of the rationale for doing it. The school had a policy that prohibited any form of ‘unauthorized’ political activity. That included leafleting. It was, in other words, a violation of school policy to stand at any entrance to the building and hand out political materials.
So that’s exactly what we decided to do.
It was a double-barreled opportunity for youthful rebellion. We would not only express our opposition to the war, but we would stand in defiance of a school policy that was a direct contradiction of America’s founding ideals.
The leadership of our Student Peace Group had heard that there was going to be a large anti-war rally in April in New York City. We contacted the organizers of that event, and those radical instigators provided us several hundred copies of a leaflet they’d had printed to promoted the rally.
* * *
The morning of March 27, 1969 was cold and grey, one of those spring-only-according-to-the-calendar kind of days. About a dozen of us newly, self-declared radicals gathered at the Ethical Cultural Society — a big old Victorian house just a few blocks from the school — and worked out the final details of our subversive activities: We would march down to the school in waves and station ourselves at every entrance before classes began. As the students and teachers approached the doors, we’d hand ’em a leaflet.
We fully expected that we would all be sent to the principal’s office –and that when one of us was chased away from an entrance, somebody else would take their place with another stack of leaflets until they, too, were apprehended and likewise sent inside to be disciplined.
Columbia was a large school, built over several decades; the original campus was constructed in the 1930s, with gothic revival arches over the windows and entrances; a newer, more rectangular wing housed the gymnasium and newer classrooms. That’s where I was to take up my position.
I was in the second wave. I waited on a sidewalk outside the campus and watched, while one of my best friends, a sharp, no nonsense kid named Arnie — stationed himself by the door to the gymnasium.
I watched while Arnie offered a sheet of paper adorned with the “peace” symbol and the words “war” and “protest” and “rally” to other students as they approached the entrance. Some took the leaflet and just went inside. Some refused to take the leaflet. I saw a couple take the leaflet and defiantly toss it on the ground as soon as it hit their hand.
Among the faculty, there was the same wide spectrum of opinions about the war as you’d find anywhere in the country. There were some teachers — liberal arts types, mostly — who opposed the war, and some who were for it. There was something about gym teachers, though. They tended to support the war and took a dim view of the hippies who opposed it.
I half-hid behind a large oak tree and watched as one of the crew-cut gym teachers approached Arnie. From that distance I couldn’t really hear what they were saying but I could see Mr. Crew Cut snatch the leaflets out of Arnie’s hands and then grab him by the upper arm and march him into the building.
Then it was my turn.
I had my own little stack of leaflets, so out of my little hiding place I came. I sauntered confidently across the parking lot and planted myself on the pavement in front of the same door that Arnie had just been hauled through. I could feel my pulse quicken as the first student approached me. I handed her a leaflet. She didn’t say anything, she just took it in her hand, looked at briefly and without any reaction went through the door.
A couple more kids went by; none of them refused the leaflet, but neither did they say anything in support or objection to its contents.
And then I saw another crew cut practically running up the pavement. A gym teacher named “Mr. Cross.” How appropriate…
“What do you think you’re doing, young man?” Mr. Cross asked me.
“What’s it look like I doing,” I said, squirreling up as much obstinate wise-ass as felt safe in this particular situation. “I’m exercising my Constitutional guarantee of free speech. You know, the one our forefathers fought and died for? The same right that my brothers and sisters are being sent to Vietnam to protect? I’m exercising that right…”
Before I could finish that sentence, Mr. Cross cut me off.
“You know this is against school policy, don’t you?”
“Yes, but the Constitution says….”
“The Constitution?? Where do you think you are?” As he goes off on me, I’m thinking: this was enlightenment phys-ed style, rationale along the lines of ‘This is is a school. The Constitution doesn’t apply here.’
“Give me those!” he snarled as he snatched the leaflets out of my hands.
“You’re going to the principal’s office,” he said. He started to reach for my arm just like the teacher who had hauled Arnie off, but I twisted away from him.
“I know where it is…” I said. Indeed, I was quite familiar with the principal’s office, having spent a fair portion of my junior year there instead of going to my physics class. But that’s a whole other story…
As I went through the door, I looked over my shoulder, and could see another one of my friends, Kenny, come out of his staging area and head for the same door that first Arnie and now I had been ushered through…
The principal’s office was on the opposite of the school building from the gym entrance. As I walked the hallways in that direction I could tell that this was no normal Thursday at Columbia High. The hallways were buzzing with talk about what was going on at every entrance to the school. There wasn’t one kid who hadn’t been offered one of those leaflets. Some were still carrying them, reading them, showing them to each other.
I heard one kid say “they’re all gonna get suspended…”
I could hardly wait.
When I got to the principal’s office, the magnitude of what was happening quickly dawned on me. There weren’t three or four kids in the principal’s office. There were already a dozen kids there.
This was a big deal. This was “a thing.”
We sat there — and stood there, since there certainly weren’t enough chairs for everybody — waiting for the principal. And while we waited the door kept opening and more kids kept coming in. It was beyond standing room only.
We had a designated spokesman, a kid named Peter who had genuine political aspirations. Peter thought he could be the first Jewish president. He somehow got himself designated spokesman for the group so that his name would be in the papers if it actually came to that.
About a half hour after the ‘action’ had begun, the principal, Mr. Robert Amsden, stepped into his office to find wall-to-wall long-haired hippie students waiting for him.
Mr. Amsden was a gracious, avuncular man in his mid-50s with wavy red-and-grey hair and color-matched large, horn-rimmed glasses. He was a far cry from a stern, pedantic school principal; he was genuinely sympathetic, and despite his own service during World War II had on occasion expressed his own personal reservations about the war in Vietnam — and the likelihood that more than a few of this graduates would be sent there, and some would come home in a flag-draped box.
“Well, what have we here?” Mr. Amsden said, feigning surprise as he came in to his office.
As soon as he said that the door opened, and yet another student in walked in.
“I understand some of you have taken it upon yourselves to break some of our rules…”
The door opened again, and in walked another
It wasn’t too much longer before there were more than two dozen students in the principal’s office — sitting on the floor, leaning against the bookshelves and windows, just standing there — and just one slightly bemused high school principal.
When the incoming tide finally subsided, Mr. Amsden put on his official airs and started to tell us what we already knew: that the rules regarding leafletting had been implemented as a “safety measure” — to assure that there could be no disruption of the school’s sacred academic environment. It was for our own protection — something that the school authorities worried about a lot. The school would be held responsible if anybody got hurt on account of having heard a political opinion.
By the time it was over, the newspapers did indeed report on the incident. On Friday March 28, The Newark Evening News reported that….
The current rash of student demonstrations spread yesterday to Columbia High School in Maplewood after the suspension of students involved in the distribution of anti-war leaflets.
Robert Amsden, principal, said he has suspended 35 students for a two day period — 28 yesterday morning and seven more in the afternoon. He said the students would return to classes on Monday.
However, his statement was disputed by Peter Shapiro… [who] claimed the suspensions totaled 70, adding that other students were being reprimanded to “avoid further disruption at the school.”
According to Amsden… leaflets must be checked by school officials to avoid the distribution of “emotionally arousing material that may spark violence.” … Amsden added that “leaflets eventually become litter on the school grounds.”
If nothing else, our subversive action gave us something in common with Arlo Guthrie: we’d been suspended ‘for litterin’.’
After Mr. Amsden told us all we were going to be suspended, we all waited while he drafted a letter to all of our parents. This being the days before Xerox machines, he had copies made on something called a “duplicator” that stenciled copies with a pale purple ink. A secretary then typed the name of each student on the letter and addressed it to the parents. Mine said:
Dear Mr. & Mrs Stein:
Your son is being sent home for being disobedient. He may return to classes Monday if he agrees to obey the rules and cooperate with staff members responsible for his education and custody. He is to report to his Dean before going to homeroom or classes
Robert L. Amsden
After all that, we were being sent home for the high crime of “being disobedient.”
Looking back on these events from the second decade of the 21st century, it does seem like an interesting choice of terms.
“Civil disobedience,” was after all, a commonly used expression throughout the 1960s. In the civil rights era, “civil disobedience” meant crossing a bridge and getting your skull cracked open by police, or sitting at a lunch counter and being spat on by white patrons.
In the anti-war movement, for affluent, middle class white kids trying to evade the draft, “civil disobedience” consisted of standing in front of a school door and handing out pieces of paper — and being sent to the principal’s office.
I took my letter, and walked the mile home with my neighbor John, who had also been suspended.
At home the day’s ultimate irony awaited me in the mailbox: the day I was kicked out of high school was the day I got accepted to college.
©2016 Paul Schatzkin / firstname.lastname@example.org