A look back on a century of student activism at Duke

Students join hands on the quad during the Silent Vigil in 1968. | Courtesy of Duke University Archives.
Students join hands on the quad during the Silent Vigil in 1968. | Courtesy of Duke University Archives.

Since the renaming of Trinity College to Duke University in 1924, the institution’s values and campus culture have been notably shaped by student voices. 

To commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Allen Building takeover, a testament to the strength of student spirit at Duke, The Chronicle reviewed materials at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to look back on 100 years of student activism.

The early days


Sentiments of student activism first appeared on campus with the establishment of a Young Women’s Christian Association chapter at Trinity College in 1917. Originally chartered during the height of World War I, the organization was revitalized under a new constitution in 1925 to become the YWCA at Duke University.

In addition to supporting the war effort, the YWCA — alongside its male counterpart that was established soon after — was active in improving race relations on campus. In 1934, an interracial committee within the YWCA drafted a report detailing the organization’s involvement in the first conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held in North Carolina.

Student uprising of 1934

The spirit of demonstration picked up in 1934 with a ‘student uprising’ surrounding qualms with the University’s interference in student disputes. A statement by then Student Body President Joseph Shackford to administrative officials condemned the “autocratic policy of the administration” that “sterilized” and “emasculat[ed]” student-governed structures like the University’s student government and Pan-Hellenic Council.

“We find little spirit of freedom at Duke, though we feel that such should be the heart and soul of a great university,” Shackford wrote.

Shackford’s statement came after 1,500 students gathered in the University gymnasium on the night of Feb. 7, 1934, to call attention to their dissatisfaction. In response, Duke administration created the Committee for Investigation and Recommendation on Student Affairs. Composed of student and faculty representatives, CIRSA was tasked with compiling a report on the student grievances and recommending a course of action for administration.

The dispute was ultimately resolved after CIRSA shared its final report in March, but many of the student leaders were punished by administration for their involvement. Four of the students who served on the CIRSA committee graduated at the end of the spring 1934 term, but the remaining four were prevented from holding leadership positions in their respective campus organizations, which included The Chronicle, The Archive, the Pan-Hellenic Council and the football team. They were also overlooked for appointment to Omicron Delta Kappa, the national honorary leadership fraternity.

Bus strike of 1949

The spirit of activism on campus saw a return in 1949, when students mobilized en masse in protest of bus rate hikes by Duke Power Company, now Duke Energy. Led by The Chronicle, students organized a boycott of the buses running from East to West Campus, instead opting to walk to class or ride with car-owning students, many of whom donated their time to shuttle their peers back and forth.

“Shortly after nine o’clock an estimated 45 cars were lined up bumper-to-bumper in the main quadrangle to volunteer their services,” reads a story in The Chronicle from Oct. 17, 1949. “The surplus of cars over the number of students needing rides continued unabated through the morning and well into the afternoon. At no time were students waiting on West Campus stops forced to walk to the other campus.”

The protest — dubbed “Shoe Leather Day” — received overwhelming support from the Durham community, with many local businesses donating their delivery trucks to the shuttle effort.

Duke Power was initially unresponsive to the movement. A tongue-in-cheek line from the Oct. 17 Chronicle story reads: “Duke Power Company officials seem to have a very limited vocabulary consisting of two words — ‘NO’ and ‘COMMENT.’”

However, after the one-day strike was extended to a week of student action, company stock took a ten-point drop in the market. The story was picked up by news outlets around the country, including the KnoxvilleNews Sentinel, the Omaha World-Herald, the Clarion-News, the Columbia Record, the Athens Banner-Herald and others. Bus rides from East to West Campus are now provided free of charge to all passengers.

The ‘60s

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade on campus. As largely youth-led movements against a variety of social and political injustices rocked the nation, college campuses took center stage in the public discourse — and Duke was no exception.

Labor disputes

1965 saw the birth of a new student publication on campus, The Real World. According to an editorial published in its first issue on Nov. 17, “The Real World came into existence several weeks ago to fill what we felt was a gap in the mesh of campus communication. It was our intent, then as now, to establish and maintain legitimate and independent criticism of the University’s activity, both within the confines of its own community and also within the culture which it is attempting to evaluate.”

The Real World’s creation was couched in the context of a labor dispute concerning Duke’s non-academic employees. 

“A university is responsible not only to its students and faculty, but also to all those within its very walls who sweep the grounds and scrub the blackboards,” wrote Sarah Evans in The Real World, regarding the dispute. “As the leading university in the South and the largest employer in Durham, Duke has so far rejected this responsibility.” 

On Nov. 5, 1965, around 40 maids in West Campus dorms walked off the job to protest poor working conditions. The next day, workers picketed the Allen Building, prompting administration to announce a five percent raise effective in January (though five percent only came to about 4 additional cents per hour for the maids). Representatives of the workers’ union, Local No. 77, secured a meeting with administration the following week to negotiate a new personnel handbook, but the administration refused to sign a legally binding contract acknowledging the union.

“The demand for a contract is the one point on which the union cannot yield, for without a contract the university is in no way bound except by its own collective conscience … there is no guarantee it will consider the union as a bargaining agent the next time a problem arises,” Evans wrote.

Evans followed up with a piece on Feb. 25 updating readers on the situation. While the union and University administration were able to agree upon a formal grievance procedure and secured an increase in wages for employees, these advances were undermined by “several incidents of intimidation of Union members by department supervisors and lower management.” 

She again implored administration to redress the situation, if not for the sake of treating its workers with respect than for respecting the desire of its students to act with integrity.

The Civil Rights Movement 

Amid the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrations in support of its goals were a consistent presence throughout the ‘60s, both on Duke’s campus and in the greater Durham community. 

Divinity School students participated in sit-ins and picketing at a number of local businesses in Durham — primarily drug stores and movie theaters — in 1960, 1961 and 1962 to protest discriminatory hiring practices and promote the adoption of merit employment structures.

“We believe that segregation is an injustice which hurts our whole community; we ask the patrons of Durham theaters to support our call for a change in policy,” wrote Lucia Brunn, co-chairman of the Human Relations Coordinating Committee, in 1961.

Duke students were also found supporting voter registration efforts for Black residents of rural communities in eastern North Carolina in the early days after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in August.

Despite being faced with logistical barriers like literacy tests and hostile registrars, as well as more serious threats like interactions with members of the Ku Klux Klan, the students were not swayed in their pursuit of justice. 

“We are going back this weekend … The least we can do is share the strength that’s been given us,” said one student who participated in the 9-car expedition to eastern North Carolina. 

Students participated in and supported a variety of acts of civil disobedience to support the movement over the years. In 1966, students rallied around four professors who attempted to integrate a public restaurant in Chapel Hill in 1964, donating to the defense fund for participant Peter Kloper after he was convicted on trespassing charges.

FBI on campus

Student opposition to administrative activities exploded in the latter half of the decade, initially due to the presence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on campus. 

The issue began when then-junior Tommy Taft revealed he had shared information about another student’s participation in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations the previous year with Rufus Powell. At the time, Powell was an FBI agent based in Durham, though by the time the story broke, he was on payroll at Duke as secretary of the University.

An article published in the Greensboro Daily News on Mar. 30, 1967 examined the threat to the University’s commitment to freedom of expression posed by the issue.

“There is a serious danger that free inquiry and discussion could be seriously stifled by any form of surveillance that undercuts the confidence of any citizen, student or not, that his remarks will not be recorded secretly and held against him,” reads the article.

In 1978, The Chronicle obtained files through the Freedom of Information Act confirming that the FBI was “actively investigating Duke students, faculty and personnel who were involved in civil rights and anti-war activities on campus” and that the agency “kept detailed accounts of student demonstrations held on campus between 1966 and 1972.”

The Vietnam War

Anti-war demonstrations were common on Duke’s campus, similar to other universities across the nation at the time. Students regularly protested the draft, participating in marches and standing in solidarity with their classmates who refused induction and condemning military recruitment efforts on campus.

Much of student mobilization focused on Dow Chemical Company, the sole manufacturer of the napalm used in chemical warfare campaigns against Vietnamese military forces and citizen collateral. Duke owned 5,000 shares of Dow stock at the time, prompting students to call for divestment.

1968 ban on picketing

Student-administration relations took a turn for the worse in 1968 when President Douglas Knight implemented new regulations on picketing and protests on campus on Jan. 6.

The policy forbade demonstrations from “interfer[ing] with entry to buildings, offices or classrooms,” “prohibit[ing] the normal flow of pedestrian or vehicular traffic” and “mingling with organized meetings or other assemblies for the purpose of harassment.” Students violating the new regulation were “liable to separation from the University” and those not associated with the University were “subject to arrest and prosecution under applicable laws.”

“The mood of the college and university campuses across the nation has changed drastically within recent years, and the need for a clear policy on such matters now is self-evident,” Knight said in defense of the action.

1968 silent vigil

Later that year, students found themselves in violation of the policy when they organized a silent vigil following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The students first occupied President Knight’s house before moving to Chapel Quad, where the demonstration continued for several days.

Martin Luther King Jr. in Durham in 1958. Photo from the General Negative Collection, State Archives of North Carolina.

The vigil was later accompanied by a boycott of campus dining halls in support of Black employees who were engaged in a battle with administration to gain collective bargaining rights. As a result of student action, the workers succeeded in establishing a 24-member Employees Council and an administration-sponsored Duke University Employee Relations Council to mediate future disputes.

Allen Building Takeover

Perhaps the most notable instance of student activism at Duke was the Allen Building Takeover of 1969.

At 9 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 13, between 50 and 75 Black students occupied the Allen Building, the site of Duke’s administrative offices, in a powerful show of student dissent. They delivered a series of 11 demands to University administration, which included such items as forming a “department of Afro-American studies,” establishing “a black dorm on campus,” increasing the Black student population to 29% in proportion to the Southeast’s racial distribution, earmarking Black student’s fees for a Black student union, an immediate end to tokenism of black representation in university power structures,” among others.

Despite multiple requests from administrative officials to vacate the premises, the students remained in the building until 5:15 p.m., after which point police arrived. A confrontation with the police officers ensued, resulting in the clubbing and tear-gassing of students. The students held a mass meeting in Page Auditorium to unpack the situation and discuss future plans at 8:30 p.m., which resulted in a call for a three-day student strike “to gain amnesty and reinstatement of suspended blacks” at 11:30 p.m.

“I do not and cannot condone the illegal occupation of any building on any university campus for any reason at all. This sort of action, this sort of aggressive action is no way in which to resolve a problem. It simply compounds it,” said then-president Knight in a Feb. 15 statement for WDBS Radio.

Knight announced that a committee chaired by Dean of Student Affairs Bill Griffith had been formed in October 1968 to explore options for improving the experience of Black students on Duke’s campus and another similar committee was formed earlier that week under the leadership of sociology professor Alan Kerckhoff.

“I regret more than I can ever tell any one of you, that it was necessary to bring police onto the campus in order to secure Allen Building last Thursday,” Knight said. “But no honest choice was made evident to us during the ten hours which we tried to work with the situation and in which we proposed a great variety of possible solutions to those occupying the building.”

The Faculty Committee on Student Concerns — Kerckhoff’s task force — met at 3 p.m. on Feb. 16 to deliver a report he characterized as forming “a basis of clarification of the past and the present as well as a pointer to the future.”

“We are concerned with maintaining academic values of learning, objectivity and evaluation of ideas and persons and these are paramount in our educational mission,” Kerckhoff said. “We will make every effort to be responsive to interests and concerns of black students and to special problems of acculturation to the academic environment, to the maximum extent, consistent with our educational mission.”

Allen Building Takeover | Courtesy of Duke University Archives
Allen Building Takeover | Courtesy of Duke University Archives

Negotiations between students and administration continued through March, resulting in continued disagreement that ultimately prompted students to protest in the streets of downtown Durham. Many students threatened to leave the University to attend the newly chartered Malcolm X Liberation University, led by activist Howard Fuller with locations in Durham and Greensboro.

On March 19, a University hearing found the students who participated in the Takeover guilty of violating University regulations and sentenced them to one year of probation.

Contemporary movements

The activist sentiment of Duke’s student population dimmed significantly after the ‘60s drew to a close. Nevertheless, efforts to participate in national movements for political and social improvement and to hold administration accountable to student and employee grievances still continued, albeit in smaller, more isolated movements.

Women’s College merges

In 1972, the Women’s College merged with the larger University, partially as a result of student demonstrations by women who “wrote letters and threatened to hold sleep-ins on West Campus.”

Activism around world hunger

Activism around the issue of world hunger marked student efforts in the mid-to-late ‘70s, as students participated in campus-wide fasts to call attention to the issue and raise money for aid organizations like Oxfam-America.

First divestment

Duke students also mobilized around the issue of South African apartheid, calling on the University Trustees to divest from all holdings in the country on an ethical basis. Students held a number of protests in the 1980s around the issue, some of which led to student and faculty arrests.

The campaign was ultimately successful: on May 4, 1986, the Duke Board of Trustees voted to sell its holdings from companies doing business in South Africa, committing to completely divest by Jan. 31, 1988. The move affected $12.5 million of the University’s endowment held in stocks and bank deposits.

Environmental justice

Duke students were also found at the birth of the environmental justice movement, showing up in support of residents of majority-Black Warren County, North Carolina, who were protesting the decision by state officials to site a toxic waste landfill in their community.

The landfill was meant to process tons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste that had been dumped illegally along a 210-mile stretch of highway near Afton, North Carolina. However, the community raised concerns about the potential for the PCBs to leak into Warren County’s soil, which would pose a serious problem for the residents who subsisted mainly on agriculture and sourced most of their drinking water from wells.

Members of Duke’s Black Student Alliance and the Associated Students of Duke University sponsored a rally at the Bryan Center on Sept. 27, 1985 to draw attention to the issue, which preceded a peaceful demonstration in Warren County.

Student Activist Cooperative

In 1987, the Student Activist Cooperative formed on campus to coordinate student interests on campus. A 1990 article in the Durham Morning Herald looking back on the organization’s origins described the coalition as created to “promote student activism, regardless of ideology” and credited the group with influencing administrative policy on a number of issues.

Recent efforts

Students have continued to mobilize on Duke’s campus around justice issues within the University and beyond.

The Iraq War

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, student sentiment on campus was largely in favor of an aggressive counterterrorism policy, and few demonstrations were organized. However, as the war continued for many years, students grew weary of the violence and began to express their dissatisfaction.

On March 21, 2003, nearly 400 students, staff and faculty braved the rain to gather on Chapel Quad in an antiwar demonstration. Meanwhile, a smaller group of students gathered on the edge of the quad outside the Flowers Building to express their support of U.S. military action in the Middle East.

Investment responsibility

In 2013, a group of students organized an effort to advocate for more responsible investment practices by the University. On Oct. 4, members of DukeOpen showed up to a Duke University Board of Trustees meeting with 2,000 petitions, requesting an audience. Security guards barred the door while then-president Richard Brodhead attempted to get the students to leave.

The students failed to get access to the meeting, but a version of their proposal had already been incorporated into the agenda and was passed by the Trustees. The new measures included expanding the investment oversight committee and establishing a Social Choice Fund to promote socially responsible investment practices.

Student activity around investment continued when student group Divest Duke, formed in the fall of 2012, began a campaign to persuade the Duke University Management Company (DUMAC) to divest the University’s endowment from fossil fuel companies. Since then, the effort has largely been led by Duke Climate Coalition, who has held a series of protests on campus, submitted formal reports to the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, participated in national demonstrations, and completed extensive research on Duke’s relation to the fossil fuel industry.

Students rally outside Allen to show their support for Divest Duke.
Students rally outside Allen to show their support for Divest Duke.

Noting significant student interest, the Office of Climate and Sustainability organized a seminar series this year to explore the relationship between climate issues and the finance sector and to consider the question of divestment from fossil fuels at Duke. However, the series has no relation to DUMAC and no power to make decisions or recommendations about Duke’s investment practices. DUMAC has yet to make any movement on the divestment issue.

The Israel-Hamas war

In response to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, which began on Oct. 7 when militant and political group Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel, students on Duke’s campus have taken action in a variety of ways.

20231108 SJP Die In Alyssa Ting 10

Student-organized demonstrations have included multiple vigils, walkouts, and ‘die-ins’ expressing solidarity for the conflict’s victims. Student organizations have also released a number of statements advocating for respectful discourse and University action. 

Zoe Kolenovsky profile
Zoe Kolenovsky | Associate News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department. 


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