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The Duke Vigil reunion: When history calls

If you peer into the rearview mirror of time, at the Duke campus of the 1960’s, the image will likely be hazy. You might be influenced by course readings or Ken Burns’ specials. Or perhaps by dubious tales told by parents or grandparents about a freewheeling era of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

But as those of you who attend the panels and workshops at the coming Duke Vigil 50th Reunion symposium, April 12-15, will learn, it was about a good deal more. Our generation challenged the way America—and, to some extent, the world—understood racial and gender equality, sexual expression and orientation, economic disparity, the environment and U.S. foreign policy.

Having said that, this is also true: We weren’t that special. When we got here, the student body was a lot whiter, mostly native-born, and largely privileged, with men well outnumbering women. We were middle-class kids from affluent, Northern suburbs; or from small and midsize North Carolina towns and cities; and a smattering of military brats and urban working-class kids on scholarship. And, yes, the very first handful of African-American undergraduates.

For the most part, we weren’t particularly idealistic or altruistic; prescient or socially conscious; or brave—much less fearless. We arrived in Durham with the same complacent, unquestioned assumptions about American life as our parents and grandparents. Then we were transformed by real life. We only managed to wake up when history grabbed us by the collar, shook us, and turned our world upside down.

True, there was a small but visionary group of activists already on campus who were way ahead of us. For them, the Vigil would be less an awakening than an opportunity to express long-held beliefs in a way that would speak to the university community and the world. At Duke and elsewhere, our generation was inspired and led by this cadre, whom one writer called “a prophetic minority.”

But for the majority, it was the times that swept us up and carried us along: civil rights and antiwar movements, followed in short order by the women’s movement and what would later be called the LGBT movement. Then we made the times, first as movement foot soldiers; and later, where our skills, abilities and passions took and sustained us.

So it was just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who was in Memphis to support the union representing the city’s predominately African-American sanitation workers—that the Duke Vigil erupted. It began with an occupation of the university president's house, continued with a silent, peaceful sit-in on the main quad and ultimately involved 1,500 students. One of our primary demands was that the university recognize the striking nonacademic workers’ union, which was fighting to raise the pitiable 85 cents per hour wage to $1.15 for its predominately African-American members.

At Duke in the ’60s, many of us began to recognize that the message of the weed-fueled geniuses of The Firesign Theatre comedy troupe was correct: “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Once removed from our insular home environments, our minds were opened. All (or most) of the cultural and political attitudes we brought with us to Durham were to be challenged, reexamined and, in some cases, revised, discarded or fought against.

While we may not have invented sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, we did learn a few things worth passing along. We learned about America’s deeply rooted racism from towering academic figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke’s John Hope Franklin and Samuel Dubois Cook. They and others ignited our moral obligation to battle all forms of inequality. Of special note was Frederick Douglass, who admonished us—from across a century—that the struggle for justice “may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

In our time, we learned from the Kent and Jackson State killings, Watergate and Iran-Contra that there are only three justifiable ways to view governmental authority: skepticism, cynicism or contempt. From our own experience, we learned that it was easier to stop an ill-conceived war thousands of miles away than a local freeway that flattened historic African-American neighborhoods.

In the days and weeks to come, leading up to the Vigil Reunion symposium, you may have the opportunity to hear from Duke veterans of the Vigil, as well as of other marches and demonstrations, about how the ’60s shaped their lives. This is not to say that the ’60s experience meant a lifelong commitment for everyone. Over the past half-century some of us have burned out, sold out, trimmed our sails—or, alas, to mix another metaphor—even turned our coats.

Like many of you, many of us stepped out on Marches for Our Lives around the country on March 24, led by the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. They’re teaching us all a lesson about not giving up against seemingly insurmountable foes such as the NRA. That reinforces another lesson we’ve learned along the way: Struggle continues and evolves, even in what seem like fallow or quiescent periods of history.

Thus, like others of my fellow travelers, I was prouder of the pioneering Duke Student Anti-Sweatshop Labor Movement of the late 1990s than I was of any national championship. And I never felt more invigorated than when I laced up my old marching shoes in 2011 and joined my local Occupy movement, led by young people chanting: “Stand up! Fight back! This is what Democracy looks like!” Or, watching from afar, as members of the Duke community, including area alumni, participated in Moral Mondays in Raleigh, demonstrating the enduring power of bearing witness. And sometimes, as Durham’s recent mayoral election will no doubt demonstrate, political insurgencies can yield incremental change. Similarly, so can the battlefield of the courtroom.

Although there may be a bit of reminiscing, our intention is for the Duke Vigil Reunion symposium to be more about mobilization than nostalgia. We hope the performances, panels and workshops—along with the Reverend William Turner Jr.’s Chapel sermon on Sunday—will provide you with a useful road map to continued activism. One of our rallying cries was, “Dare to struggle, dare to win.” Even when we lose in the short run, as we often have, we know that there is joy in struggle.

So, here is my geezer message to you: No generation—certainly not mine—has a monopoly on righteousness or sparking social change. You can be more than we were. You can have a greater impact on this nation. History is happening to you now, calling you to action. It’s your turn. A Caligula is in the White House, denying climate change and implementing a draconian refugee and immigration policy. He’s enabled, if not egged on by the hooded wing of the Republican Party, exercising a stranglehold on Congress and Sunbelt state legislatures. The latter is brought to you by the real deep state: organizational thugs such as the NRA, the Koch brothers and ALEC.

There is much for all of us to do, together. 

Journalist Mark I. Pinsky (Trinity ’70) is the author of seven nonfiction books, including Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan, which begins on the third floor of Flowers Building, where he once wrote a regular Chronicle column called “The Readable Radical.”

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