A Minnesota PBS Initiative
Dancer to Marcher
Looking back, I realize that the years 1968-1969 were critical in forming the person I was to become. For 30 years since I have been a member of a church-based justice and peace group. I’ve worked for candidates from local school board, to state attorney general, to president, served on a citywide commission, and worked in the Minneapolis mayor’s office and state legislature. And always I’ve kept up a drumbeat of calls and letters to policy makers and published opinion pieces.
Advocacy is central to who I am, and for that I credit the stunning events of those tumultuous years.
Looking out over the masses of young people, I felt a wave of exaltation. Never before had I participated in such an event, where so many like-minded folks were united behind one goal. Surely, I thought, we could make a difference.
In the mid-1960s I was a University of Minnesota student enthusiastically participating in campus life: dances, football games, model UN, exchanges between sororities and fraternities, working in the West Bank library, and generally reveling in the freedom of the university after stultifying high school years. My first wake-up call came at a Coffman Union dance. A blond young man had invited me to dance and I accompanied him to the ballroom lobby during a break, expecting the usual Q and A: Where are you from? What’s your major? Almost immediately he informed me that he was a tailgunner home on leave. I froze. “You mean you shoot people out of the rear of a helicopter?” Yes, he did. I walked away.
The Tet Offensive was launched January 30, 1968. That winter, my co-chair for the annual U of M ski train trip to Canada was drafted and soon began sending me lonely letters; my brother applied for conscientious objector status (rejected); and my college senior boyfriend and his buddies managed to get themselves inducted into a local Army Reserve unit.
Imagine their surprise on the morning of graduation day to find me in a black cap and gown, a master’s stripe on the sleeve, and a white rag armband... [My father] was a Republican who had voted for Nixon way back in 1960. He managed to swallow and take my photo.
April 4, 1968, I was staying late to study in Willey Hall when a student ran through the commons area shouting, “Martin Luther King has been shot!” Several minutes of absolute silence followed, as we late crammers wondered if we had heard aright. Then: exodus, as we hurried off to find TVs or radios.
June 5th, right around the time I graduated, it was Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I have no record of what I was thinking at the time, but I had to have been thrown back to JFK’s 1963 assassination, when I was a high school junior in art class working on my papier maché shepherd for a Xmas display and word came over the school PA system that the president had been shot. We knelt down and prayed.
In late August, as I was packing to leave for graduate work at Chicago’s Northwestern University, I just happened to walk by the living room family TV—and halted in shock. People like me getting clubbed in Grant Park!
At Northwestern I landed in a dorm where activists lived across the hall. Soon I was accompanying them to hear Gene McCarthy speak in the field house on why he had chosen to run for president. I bought a parody of Mao’s little red book, Quotations from Chairman LBJ.
Although I intended to vote absentee Democratic, I signed up with my new friends to poll watch for the Republicans—who feared Mayor Daley would attempt massive voter fraud in order to push Hubert Humphrey to victory.
The Democratic chair of the precinct where I was assigned to watch duties did bring in carloads of voters again and again, many elderly, but they all seemed legitimate voters. On the night of November 5-6, I sat up until 3 a.m. to follow the tally. By then I was sobbing. Nixon as president?! Worse and worse.
Spring 1969, I was among those sitting around Tom Hayden (later married to Jane Fonda) and Jerry Rubin as they held court in the NU student center. Tom was the serious theorist, Jerry the prankster. This was near the time they were to appear before Judge Julius Hoffmann for crossing state lines to incite riot the previous August with other members of the Chicago Seven. All pleaded ‘not guilty’ as Yippies danced in the federal building courtyard.
1969 was the year of college war protests, and we in Chicago had ours. It was held on a lovely spring Saturday.
As we paraded south on State Street, we chanted and sang. "One, two, three, four! We don't want your ******* war!" "Hell no, we won't go!"
Looking out over the masses of young people, I felt a wave of exaltation. Never before had I participated in such an event, where so many like-minded folks were united behind one goal. Surely, I thought, we could make a difference. So many, so dedicated, could surely move the nation. And that belief has stayed with me through the years, despite so many instances to the contrary.
The supposedly culminating event of my Northwestern year was graduation, to be held outdoors in university’s football stadium. My parents drove down from Minneapolis to celebrate with me.
Imagine their surprise on the morning of graduation day to find me in a black cap and gown, a master’s stripe on the sleeve, and a white rag armband. When I informed them that it signified the graduates’ opposition to the war, my father was uncharacteristically silent. He was a WWII veteran and a Republican who had voted for Nixon way back in 1960. He managed to swallow and take my photo.
In June Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops.
Story Themes: 1968, 1969, Chicago, College Campus, Coming of Age, Dissent, Graduation, Martin Luther King Jr., News Coverage, Pop Culture, Protest, Read, Rosemary Ruffenach, Saint Paul, St Paul, Student Protest, Tet Offensive, University of Minnesota