the Quad-February 13, 1969
Forty-five years ago today I walked up
the hill from the Biological Sciences Building past the Duke Chapel onto main
quad to see a large assembly of my fellow students milling about in front of
the Allen Building. While not as frozen as it is today in North Carolina, it
was pretty cold and still getting dark early. The sky was orange and blue (not
Carolina blue, of course) and most of the students were shivering especially we
New Yorkers who thought we had gone south to school not realizing that Gone
With the Wind was not a weather report on the entirety of the Deep South,
particularly in February.
That morning, about 60 of the
Afro-American Society students of Duke, of which there were still very few, had
taken over the Allen Building, the administrative center of Duke University in
protest making specific demands for equality at Duke. To paint the picture a
bit more clearly, just 3 years before I had been taken to my first segregated
cafeteria in downtown Durham near the tobacco factory that is now a
shopping center. George Wallace had come to speak in 1968 in Durham. All the
rally signs that day were posted on very heavy poles that could double as clubs
if need be. It might have been cold that day, but Durham, North Carolina was
still Rebel territory, far below the Mason-Dixon line.
This was less than a year after the
multi-day Vigil on the Duke Quad in protest of the sub-minimum wage paid to the
custodial and kitchen staff at Duke. The Vigil had won the protesting students (they
slept on the quad and Joan Baez showed up to support them with then husband draft protester David Harris)a victory over the administration. The wages had been increased.
Of course, this cost us our daily room cleaning service (I know, I couldn’t
believe it either) that we had enjoyed for 6 days every week while school was
in session, but we felt this was the right thing to do and were more than
willing to clean our own rooms (or not).
This latest protest, February 13, 1969, unlike
the Vigil, was black students only. By 5 PM when I arrived on the quad following
chemistry lab I was unaware of what was transpiring (no texting back then). The cold and
the dark would surely have dispersed the crowd which had grown to about 2000 if
hunger wouldn’t have. But the Duke administration chose to deal with this “crisis”
(the students were not destructive), by calling on the help of the Durham
police force. The riot squad had assembled in a parking lot above the quad. They were
putting on their gear by late afternoon and were marching on the quad to
clear the Allen Building.
They were unaware that they were being
watched by the fastest defensive back on the Duke football team who, once the
police started to move, ran to the Allen Building and got his fellow students
to leave the occupied offices. When the Durham police arrived to clear, arrest
or harm the students, all they found was an empty building.
But once you invite police in riot gear
on your campus, you flirt with disaster. The long arm of the law had been
unleashed on those “hippies” like me (long hair, beard, beads and a peace
symbol around my neck) and they poured tear gas down the Gothic quad. I watched
(and coughed) as it rolled two stories up the most beautiful piece of real
estate I have ever seen, now or then. You all know that I love that place like
no other and it was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen as my classmates
and I ran coughing to our dorms.
That incident led to the dismissal of the
Duke President from his duties and the coming of Terry Sanford, former North
Carolina Governor and Senator to be the Duke President. The rest from Coach K
to Duke Medical Center is history as it became a university I probably could no
longer get into. Fortunately, both my kids are smarter than I was and they each
received Duke degrees of which there are five in my family. We bleed Duke blue.
Several of those African-American
students were my fraternity brothers for ZBT at Duke, a largely Jewish
fraternity, was the first to accept Afro-Americans into the brotherhood.
Obviously, 45 years later, these events are
indelibly etched in my soul and mind. They explain my disquiet with entrenched
bureaucracy (that will surprise some of you who felt I was an entrenched
bureaucracy) and any form of tyranny. As Lewis Black would say (and my kids
would say about me), I have trouble with authority.
This is all a prologue to the message of
Please remember the power of civil
disobedience when all else is failing. If the place you work is on the wrong
path you can tolerate it. You can leave it. But if you really love the place as
I love Duke, you will work to change it, within the system as much as possible
and outside a bit when the need arises.
Today is a somber day in Duke history but
it is also a reflective one. Without the
actions of the Afro-American students that day eliciting the overreaction of
the Durham cops, Duke would never have blasted into its current state of
prominence in academia, athletics and medicine.
None of us could have known at the time
what was transpiring in front of us. It looked like the protests going on all
over the country in the 1960s coming late to the south, but it was more than
that at Duke. It was a tectonic shift to modernity that took a good southern
university into the realm of being a great national and world-class one.
day the trustees of Duke were given a choice. They could have stayed the course
or decided to be great. They chose greatness and in hiring Mr. Sanford who I
got to meet a few times and who was a wonderful man to the students, they got that greatness.
MD Anderson was already great. Is it still?
If you are satisfied with the status quo and you believe that you work in a place
of greatness, then stay sitting on your hands. But if you believe that
Anderson’s best days are ahead of her, as I do, get to work and make it so—any
way you have to.
I got too old and ineffective. What’s your