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What I hope to learn from Vigil organizers

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I was in Chicago. My then-husband, Harry Boyte (’67), had hurried home from the west side of Chicago, where bricks had begun to fly and fires to burn. We watched the National Guard marching through the streets. And then my younger brother Bob called: “Guess where I am?” A sophomore at Duke, he’d joined the Vigil in support of Local 77, the union trying to organize the predominantly black, non-academic workers at the university. Bob had managed to find his way to a pay phone near the quad to call and tell me. He knew that while I was an undergraduate and graduate student at Duke, I’d worked for several years with the union along with Harry and other student members of what we called the “liberal action committee.” We’d attended meetings, organized student support, and visited in homes until the summer of 1967, when Harry and I moved to Chicago. It just killed me not to be on the quad for that climactic event. 

Little did I know then, as the events of 1968 played out around the world, that the Vigil would prove to be unique in its combination of scale (perhaps 2,000 students at the peak), self-organization, and peacefulness. It was also more successful than many others.

At the time, as immersed as we were in the causes of civil rights and stopping the Vietnam War, few of us fully understood the global scale of protests in 1968. I did return to Durham that year, in June, and for a time worked as an organizer for Local 77, greatly energized by the Vigil. Harry worked in Edgemont, then a poor white community in east Durham, as an organizer for the former Office of Economic Opportunity, a federal antipoverty program. 

But the reports of violence that began early that year kept coming as millions of young people marched and demonstrated in multifaceted protests against university hierarchies, the Vietnam War, and authoritarian social orders of race, class, and age. In February, in Orangeburg, S.C., only four hours from Durham, police had attacked 200 protesters at historically black South Carolina State College. Three students were killed and 27 injured—some shot in the back—in what became known as the Orangeburg massacre. Students who took over buildings at other campuses such as Columbia for the most part were ejected by police, sometimes with violence. In cities across the country, youthful rioters exploded with grief and rage, looting and setting fires only to be forcefully and violently suppressed. By August, Chicago police openly brutalized young demonstrators at the Democratic national convention as people across the country watched on television. 

The turmoil and the violence that year weren’t confined to the United States. Uprisings occurred all over Europe, including Eastern Europe, and in Japan and many parts of South America. In Paris and in many Italian cities, students and their union allies waged pitched battles in the streets against police and army troops. In October, army sharpshooters mowed down students in Mexico who’d gathered peacefully in a plaza, killing hundreds. By the end of the year, the Vigil stood out as one of the few mass protests that ended peacefully.

Duke students’ alliance with Local 77 across class and race was unusual. Linking student and union demands was common in Europe, where students who took over Paris in May were joined by millions of workers who eventually went out on strike in support of them. But that kind of unity across classes was rare in the U.S.

The alliance between mostly white students and mostly black Local 77 also contrasted sharply with the racial polarization of other student struggles. At Columbia, for example, black and white students occupied different buildings and followed conflicting strategies, though both supported the Morningside community in Harlem’s resistance to university encroachment. It’s striking that while Duke students seemed to have little in common with black workers, many of whom had menial jobs, they still heard the calls of justice and equality and stepped up.

If Duke were unique in its combination of nonviolence, sophisticated self-organization, and alliances that crossed race and class, what are some of the sources of this uniqueness? I really look forward to hearing the stories of participants at the reunion, and for those conversations I offer a few possibilities:

· Years of student engagement with the civil rights movement, and then with Local 77, had resulted in clarity about focus and goals in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The idea of a vigil probably had multiple roots. It certainly echoes the religious roots of many students’ activism. Also, starting in 1965, there had been a weekly vigil in front of the Durham post office against the war in Vietnam.­­ Years of activism made it possible to focus on a winnable battle, rather than solely on a cry from the heart.

· The student leaders of the Vigil quickly developed an impressive level of self-organization, even as the Vigil grew beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. I’m eager to hear more about how they so effectively dispersed logistical tasks of organization and leadership to a very large number of students. To use religious language again, it was a kind of a loaves and fishes moment—without social media. 

· Finally, the Duke faculty and administration, unlike their counterparts at many other campuses, avoided a violent response and took their conversations with students seriously. Many faculty members supported and even joined the Vigil. Members of the administration, whether motivated to protect the public image of Duke or by their own recognition of exploitative and immoral treatment of nonacademic employees, resisted pressure to expel students by force and continued to negotiate with them in good faith.

Out of the sit-in at Duke and other demonstrations throughout 1968 came further waves of protest focused on women’s rights, gay rights, and the environment.  For me, the Vigil was another step on a journey devoted to chronicling social and political movements, especially the women’s movement and women’s history. With this reunion, I look forward to learning more from the organizers and participants in the Vigil about its immediate and long-term impact on their lives. Current students also have much to teach us about the issues that move them. We are on a long road together.  

Sara Evans, Regents Professor Emerita, spent her career teaching women’s history at the University of Minnesota after completing her PhD at the University of North Carolina in 1976. Her research has focused on the history of feminism as a social movement, motivated by her own involvement in civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights activism. Her first book, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left is still in print.  Her most recent book, Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (2003), picks up that story to explore the history of American feminism from the late sixties to the turn of the century.  Her overview of American women’s history, Born for Liberty (1989, 1997), has been translated into more than 10 languages.  She is co-author of Wage Justice: Comparable Worth and the Paradox of Technocratic Reform (1989, with Barbara J. Nelson, winner of the Policy Studies Organization book award) and Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (1986, 1992 with Harry C. Boyte), and editor of Journeys That Opened Up the World: Women Student Christian Movements, and Social Justice: 1955-1975 (2003).


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