1969: A Year in Campus Activism at Stony Brook University
Elise Armani, Amy Kahng, and Gabriella Shypula
Eight years after the opening of the Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York, undergraduate and graduate students alike on the young campus organized around a number of issues ranging from logistical and bureaucratic concerns to local issues in housing and labor, as well as national and international social movements.
The university was growing rapidly under the leadership of University President John S. Toll and, like many campuses in the late 1960s, Stony Brook was an ideological and literal battleground between students and administration. In response to the burgeoning protest culture on campus, university administrators imposed a three-day moratorium in the fall of 1968. Toll canceled classes from October 22nd to 24th to hold a discussion between students, faculty, and administration regarding the young college’s future and to develop a series of initiatives to address student concerns. However, over the following year, student reporters noted little to no satisfactory change, prompting continued student organization and disruption.
Students demonstrated as part of a campus-wide “Student Strike” in May 1969, photograph by Jook Leung. Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Stony Brook University Libraries
From January to December of 1969, students and faculty assembled in support of several causes, including the development of a Black Studies Program on campus, the condemnation of policing and criminalization of drug use on campus, the prevention of military recruitment of students and university research in support of the War in Vietnam, and the unionization of campus laborers. As student journalism from the year demonstrates, Stony Brook undergraduate and graduate students understood their activism in relation to the activities of peers at other universities throughout the SUNY system and beyond, sharing resources and solidarity with student organizers around the nation.
On the occasion of Revisiting 5+1, an exhibition that examines a historic display of Black artists on Stony Brook’s campus in 1969, currently on view at the Zuccaire Gallery in Staller Center for the Arts, we’ve compiled a timeline of activities of student and faculty organizers at Stony Brook in the year 1969 drawing from articles published in the Stony Brook Statesman.1 Original ephemera from the Statesman and other 1969 documents speaking to these events is presented alongside works of art in the exhibition.
“Text Of Black Students’ Demands,” Statesman 12, no. 28 (February 11, 1969): 7. Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Stony Brook University Libraries
The spring semester of 1969 opened with debates about fees and police, not dissimilar to recent graduate worker protests on our campus. Opening new campus tuition bills to find new fees under a vague “University Deposit” line, students stormed the campus business offices to contend with the new FSA charges. A year after what was widely condemned as an unnecessary demonstration of police power, when 200 Suffolk County officers raided campus to make drug possession charges in the middle of the night, students continued to call for the decriminalization of marijuana and that the administration “aid not raid” students.1
In February of 1969, a nascent student group Black Students United (formed in 1968 and now known as the Black Student Union) presented demands to President Toll. Among the principal demands were the formation of a degree granting program in Black Studies, an increased admission of Black and Puerto Rican students, and the development of resources on campus dedicated to Black students. In the weeks following, Toll assembled a committee of sixteen students and faculty members to develop an interdepartmental program in Black Studies, which would offer its first classes in fall of 1969 and ultimately develop into our contemporary Department of Africana Studies.
That same month, students marched through Port Jefferson for open housing, joining a demonstration alongside legendary labor activist Dolores Huerta in support of an ordinance ending racial discrimination in housing.
The month ended with a dramatic confrontation between 200 students and an army recruiter, Charles Gott, holding the recruiter hostage in a gymnasium office for three-hours in protest of the university policy allowing military recruiting on campus. Following the demonstration, approximately 80 students and faculty gathered to discuss the formation of an “anti-imperialist opinion” against “University complicity in imperialism.”
In March of 1969, tensions between the administration and students regarding the university’s proximity to military activities came to a head, culminating in the arrest of several students.
On March 4th, State University at Stony Brook faculty joined scientists at universities around the country in a one day research boycott for peace. Six days later, on March 10th, students protested again against the recruitment of their classmates towards the war in Vietnam, this time on the occasion of Dow Chemical recruiters visiting the campus. The demonstration blossomed into a full scale condemning of university complicity with military imperialism and, in an effort to prove these claims, approximately 100 students forced their way into the Graduate School office in pursuit of files containing documents on faculty research projects, photo-copying several folders of research grants and research-related papers.
The following evening, Michael Cohen and Glenn Kissack were arrested on campus. Cohen, a former student, had been granted “persona non grata” due to his political beliefs and actions against acting Vice-President Scott Rickard and was approached by patrolmen in the cafeteria. Kissack, a current student, attempted to intervene in the arrest and was forcibly removed alongside Cohen. Two days later, on March 13th, 500 students in support of Kissack and Cohen staged a rally outside the administrative offices, then located in the library, demanding that the persona non grata status be abolished, the charges dropped, and that university research files be open for public inspection.
As the administration attempted to quell the disturbance, several students moved into the administrative offices, staging an eighteen-hour sit-in that ended in the arrest of 21 additional students, who were ultimately given a fifteen-day jail sentence. A unanimous statement from the Student Council calling for Toll’s resignation followed shortly after. An article in the Statesman on March 18th connected the activities on campus to a wider phenomenon of “campus repression” under the Nixon administration targeting the activities of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
At the same time, economics professor Michael Zweig faced legal action after refusing to testify against students in relation to the January drug raid. As the first faculty member called to testify, Zweig set a precedent of faculty solidarity with the students and was subsequently sentenced for contempt. The faculty senate swiftly moved to back Zweig, calling for “the discontinuation of legal action against faculty members who refuse to testify against students.” The faculty senate also took the opportunity to formally declare opposition to any state “anti-riot” legislation, which would take away financial aid from students engaging in demonstrations.
Demonstrations continued, with picketers confronting President Toll once again on March 24th, this time about the possibility of the university participating in the Department of Defense’s Project THEMIS grants.
Student journalism from April of 1969 shows a continued interest in demonstrations happening at other universities, including major events at Harvard, Stanford, and SUNY Buffalo.3
Dedicated attention to the concerns of Black students on campus were spotlighted, with the April 15th issue of the Statesman featuring a four-spread feature titled “Stonybrook Black Voice.” In the insert, student writers addressed experiences of harassment and bigotry on campus and reported on their participation in the first of a series of intercollegiate Black Student Conventions, held at New Jersey City State College.
Days later, Black Students United released a statement condemning what they identified as a segregated workforce on campus construction sites and proposed that “direct pressure be put on those unions and companies to force them to recruit and train more minority workers.” The Student Council followed the statement with a call for a construction moratorium until an integrated workforce could be developed.
Opposition to Project THEMIS continued with SDS presenting President Toll with a petition opposing Stony Brook involvement and holding a rally to demand the banning of “all military and corporate recruiters involved in the oppression and exploitation of the Third World and American people” from campus. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Stony Brook’s bid for the grant was rejected by the Department of Defense.
Pictured in the 1969 Stony Brook Specula Yearbook, Black Students United present Stony Brook University President John S. Toll with their demands, February 17, 1969. Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Stony Brook University Libraries
In the final month of the spring semester, students were targeted by yet another drug raid, resulting in the arrest of 18 students on narcotics charges, including two arrested for dealing by undercover officers. Following the arrests, fires were set across campus, burning down a gatehouse and toppling a police car on campus. At 1:30 in the morning, an emergency convening of the Student Council led to the issuing of a statement demanding the indefinite cancellation of classes and a full student strike in response to the continued policing of students on campus.
A general strike and picketing that targeted the administration and Suffolk police followed suit as strikers called for an end to political abuse of unjust drug laws. On May 16th, a general statement on behalf of the entire student body was printed in the Statesman, with intentions to “make clear that [students] recognize the political nature” of the arrests and stating that, “because of the atmosphere of repression” on campus, students would act to suspend “all normal functions for the remainder of the semester.”
The following week, students attended a conference on campus repression at Stony Brook, featuring Zweig, Socialist mayoral candidate Paul Boutelle, and Black Panther Zayd Malik Shakur.
The final days of the semester saw students infiltrate the Suffolk Air Force base on “Open House Day” and picket the Hauppauge Police Station to condemn “politically motivated enforcement.”
After months away from campus, students returned in September to continued debates over the nature of student fees and continued fallout from the drug raids of the previous semester. As new students joined the student body, Residential Assistants in the dormitories came out in unanimous opposition to new drug regulations adopted by the university, which included the threat of expulsion for any students convicted of drug use. Student Government called for all freshmen attending orientation to refrain from taking student ID photos, citing the use of the photos by a Suffolk County Grand Jury. Student Council followed with a statement calling for the confidentiality of student records and the prevention of their use by the police.
In October, continued opposition to American presence in Vietnam was front and center in an issue of the Statesman titled “THE WAR.” Professors from the Departments of History, Sociology, and Economics contributed to the issue with articles on the war’s history, its psychological impact on American teens, and the funding of American militarism.
October 15th, 1969 saw the “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam” event, with demonstrations and teach-ins across the nation. At Stony Brook, students canvassed the county and conducted a reading of the names of “Vietnam war dead” at the Smith Haven Mall. Students for a Democratic Society participated in a welfare demonstration demanding the restoration of the welfare allowance of 100 dollars per child and the immediate withdrawal of troops. On campus, an “Ad-Hoc Faculty-Student Committee on October 15” sponsored two teach-ins led by History Professors Joel Rosenthal and Gene Lebovics.
The following day, on October 16th, the art exhibition 5+1 opened in the Humanities Building on campus, organized by Professor of Art Lawrence Alloway with artist Frank Bowling. Featuring six Black artists (Bowling, Melvin Edwards, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Alvin (Al) Loving, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams), the exhibition was co-sponsored by the new Black Studies Program and corresponded to the nationwide movement for Black Studies on college campuses.
On October 28th, Black Students United occupied a study lounge in the basement of O’Neill College and claimed it as a Black Cultural Center and dedicated space for Black Students. A college meeting the following day led to the room being formally given to the student group.
On October 30th, students rallied across campus in support of campus cafeteria workers fighting their managing company, Ogden Foods. Led by SDS, students called for workers to be reimbursed for parking permits, an end to sexual harassment of employees, and measures to prevent layoffs and overworking.
Student support for cafeteria workers continued into November with the formation of a Campus Worker-Student Alliance Committee and efforts to unionize the workers with Local 1199.
On November 15th, 1969 a second Anti-War Moratorium was staged and students from Stony Brook took buses to Washington D.C. to join thousands of other marchers.4
As the fall semester reached its close, unionization efforts continued and student involvement culminated with a demonstration sponsored by BSU, SDS, and the Oriental Students Society to protest Ogden Food’s exploitation of Black and Latino workers. Meanwhile, graduate students fought a proposed Brookhaven Town housing ordinance that would severely limit off-campus housing for students.
1969 to Today
As we continue to press on in our organizing for a living wage, racial justice, international student support, and many more issues pertinent to our campus community, it’s imperative to reflect on the extraordinary activism and organizing accomplished by Stony Brook undergraduate and graduate students in 1969. We can take inspiration from their efforts to build solidarity across campus groups, faculty, staff, students, and the local community and their incredible resilience and persistence in the face of a hostile administration.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and information detailing campus life and activism at Stony Brook throughout the academic year of 1969 are sourced from Statesman articles published during the corresponding month detailed in this article’s timeline. See an archive of all back issues from the Stony Brook Statesman at: https://dspace.sunyconnect.suny.edu/.
2. For detailed account of increased policing at SUNY campuses during this period, including Stony Brook University, see Yalile Suriel, “Stony Brook and the Landscape of Public Higher Education,” in Revisiting 5+1 (Stony Brook, NY: Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, 2022), 84-88.; and “The War on Drugs Shapes Campus Police” in Cops on Campus: Critical Perspectives on Policing in Higher Education (University of Washington Press, forthcoming).
3. The Stony Brook Specula yearbooks for the academic years 1968–69 and 1969–70 include multi-page spreads of student photographs taken at local and national protests.
4. Photographs and documents from this event and others can be accessed in the Special Collections and University Archives, Stony Brook University Libraries. Special thanks to Kristen Nyitray, Stony Brook University Libraries’ Director of Special Collections and University Archives and University Archivist, for her generous assistance.
Presented at Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery at Stony Brook University, and in concert with the MFA Boston’s Frank Bowling retrospective that will travel to SFMOMA, Revisiting 5+1 reexamines the 1969 Stony Brook University exhibition 5+1, a show of six Black abstract artists organized by Frank Bowling at the invitation of Lawrence Alloway. The exhibition, November 9, 2022 - March 31, 2023, brings together spectacular art by the original artists with archival material that illuminates the contexts of art world discourse and student activism addressing racial justice. Paired with this historical revisiting is a complementary group of work by six Black women artists, selected by and including Howardena Pindell. Together, the art works, along with photographs and archival materials, unfold experimental painting, sculpture, and film from the 1960s and 70s, and also urgent social issues that continue to resonate today.
The accompanying catalog includes archival photographs of 5+1 by Adger Cowans and from the Frank Bowling Archive, four scholarly essays, including two on activism at Stony Brook and university campuses, and illustrations of artworks and archival ephemera. The catalog also includes profiles of artists included in the exhibition, an interview with Howardena Pindell, as well as a tribute to Pindell’s achievements by Lowery Stokes Sims.
The exhibition is co-curated by Elise Armani, Amy Kahng, and Gabriella Shypula, three PhD candidates in art history at Stony Brook University, in consultation with Howardena Pindell, Distinguished Professor of Art, who also has work in the exhibition. Katy Siegel, Distinguished Professor and Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern American Art, and Karen Levitov, Director and Curator of the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, served as advisors to the project, with significant support from Georgia LaMair Tomczak, Public Programs Manager of the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery.
For more information about Revisiting 5+1: https://zuccairegallery.stonybrook.edu/exhibitions/revisiting_5_plus_1.php
To purchase a copy of the exhibition catalog: https://stallercenter.showare.com/DonationAddToBasket.asp?camp=15