On April 22, 1936, half a million college students nationwide walked out of class for the Third Annual Student Strike Against War.
As impressive as that sounds, it is even more impressive when you consider that in the mid-30's there was less than 1.5 million college students.
This was the culmination of five years of student organizing and political agitation.
WWII would soon cut short this student movement, and it wouldn't rise again until the New Left of the 1960's.
However, this first mass student movement would lay the foundations for the next generation of student activists.
Until the economic and political crisis of the early 30's, student groups normally stayed clear of politics, and the few participate politically that did were concentrated in large eastern cities.
The origins of radical student politics in the United States can be traced to City College of New York.
The student body of CCNY in 1931 was one of the poorest in the nation. 80% of students there in 1938 were Jewish, most of them were from eastern European refugee families. Their concern about rising fascism in the world made this the perfect location for the creation of the National Student League, a coalition of communist and socialist students.
During this period of time it was common for 50-80% of college graduates to be unemployed. By 1933 it was normal for students (and the public in general) to question the viability of the capitalism.
While students were generally leftist, college administrations remained solidly conservative.
Start of a movement
College president Frederick C. Robinson was beyond conservative. He was a fascist sympathizer. He confiscated the magazine and suspended the charter of the Social Problems Club. When the members of the club protested, Robinson suspended them from school.
The NSL's next action was to send a student delegation to Harlan County, Kentucky in support of the striking miners who were being "legally murdered" by company thugs. About 80 student left New York by bus on March 23, 1932. Their arrival was met by angry crowds, somewhat similar to the reception to the Freedom Riders 30 years later.
The following year saw the Reed Harris case.
Harris, the crusading liberal editor of the Columbia Spectator, ran stories exposing the bad conditions in the campus dining hall with regard to the preparation of food and treatment of student waiters. He was clumsily expelled, in the course of a series of events which highlighted the high-handedness and hypocrisy of the Columbia administration...
Harris’ expulsion precipitated a sort of small-scale free speech movement, with thousands of students coming out in the first collegiate student strike of the decade on April 6, 1932, to manifest their indignant protest. The result was mainly a victory; Harris was reinstated, although he had first to make some concessions.
The faculty, OTOH, was increasingly put in a difficult situation. They often had sympathies with the students, but college administrations cracked down harder and harder. Some colleges started demanding loyalty oaths from the teachers. Public displays of radical politics often ended with faculty members being fired.
But it was compulsory ROTC that pushed things over the edge.
Ohio State and Cornell faculty and students petitioned the trustees to abolish compulsory ROTC. University of Minnesota students sponsored a "Jingo Day" protest and 1,500 attended.
On “Jingo Day,” President Robinson calls the police to disperse demonstrators. Students accuse President Robinson of attacking them with his umbrella; the administration accuses the students of “preventing the normal functioning of the school.” The Social Problems Club, the Student Forum, and the Liberal Club, as well as The Campus, the student newspaper, are suspended for supporting the demonstration. Twenty-one student leaders are expelled.
In 1934 the two radical student organizations launched what seemed to many at first a rather wild idea, but which turned out to be the most successful single action of the movement: a “Student Strike Against War.”The date was set for the anniversary of the United State's entry into WWI, April 13, 1934. Students were told not to skip classes, but to actually walk out of their classrooms.
This first student strike, coordinated by the SLID was a surprising success with 25,000 participating, almost all of them in New York, despite administration threats.
“They are making fools of themselves.... What war are they worrying about anyway?”
- Fordham dean, 1935
CCNY President Robinson didn't get it.
President Frederick B. Robinson invites an official delegation of students representing Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy to be honored on October 9, 1934 at a special assembly in CCNY’s Great Hall. A fight breaks out at this event when campus authorities seek to halt the anti-fascist remarks of the CCNY student body president.Robinson was heard to call the anti-fascist protestors "guttersnipes". This became a rallying call for the students.
The Robinson administration expels twenty-one anti-fascist student leaders for disrupting this college event and dissolves the Student Council. Over one hundred students are called before a college disciplinary committee.
At Kansas University speakers urged students to work toward eliminating war profiteering and to remind people that war is "not inevitable".
The success of the second Strike Against War was followed up by the Third in 1936. This time the nationwide turnout was so enormous that the major media began questioning if the young people of the United States would even fight to defend the country in the event of war.
The turnout in the south was nothing short of amazing.
according to one enthusiastic observer, "For the first time the majority of students in the Negro colleges participated: Hampton Institute, Morehouse College, Virginia Union as well as the veteran Howard..."Unlike the 1935 protest, this year's protest at KU was not without its problems, when someone lobbed a teargas bomb into the demonstration.
The 1936 strike had begun with a march by the “Veterans of Future Wars,” who satirized a military unit by wearing paper military hats and carrying signs saying “Unfair to Organized Hypocrisy.”Only eight days after this huge peace demonstration, 1,000 students at CCNY staged the first large sit-in in American college history. They were protesting the firing of faculty activist Morris Schappes. Student agitation continued throughout May. Finally in June the NYC Board of Higher Education reinstated Schappes and twelve other dismissed faculty activists. Robinson was defeated again.
“Will the Communists Get Our Girls in College?”
- 1936 article title in Liberty magazine
At this point it appeared that students at American colleges had become totally radicalized.
So what happened?
Administrators began offering college facilities, such as auditoriums, for student meetings. They no longer threatened draconian punishment for demonstrations. “Peace Assemblies“ replaced the anti-war strikes.
In 1937 the Civil War in Spain began to look like just the first step towards world war. Pacifism began to lose its appeal. Comintern was pushing for a popular front against fascism, and that was incompatible with pacifism.
When the socialists were kicked out of the student movement in 1938, the Roosevelt Administration gave its approval of the American Students Union, in a letter of greetings to the convention from the President.
Finally when Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact in 1939, the entire left-wing split down the middle.
On December 19, 1938, President Robinson submitted his letter of resignation. Ongoing student opposition had now bled into the CCNY Alumni Association.
Schappes is arrested on March 18, 1941, and sentenced to up to two years in prison for refusing to identify other communists within the CCNY faculty.