Activism at SF State percolated throughout 1960s

Anti-war demonstrators gather on the SF State Quad to protest against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

SF State students demonstrate against the Vietnam War on the campus Quad. SF State Political Science Professor Robert Smith says the anti-war, free speech and civil rights movements were all present on campus for most of the 1960s.

Free speech, civil rights and anti-war movements all present on campus ahead of Summer of Love

Part 4 of six stories about the lasting legacy of the Summer of Love

By the time the Summer of Love swept through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1967, San Francisco State University was already deep into the various counterculture protest movements that had begun to mark the decade.

The free speech, the civil rights and the anti-war movements were all present on campus starting in the early 1960s, according to SF State Political Science Professor Robert Smith. The Summer of Love was just one of these movements — the drug use and free love were another way of expressing dissatisfaction with the predominant culture, he said.

“There was a lot of cross-fertilization. People were going back and forth from one movement to another,” he said. “There was a confluence of different protest movements and they eventually moved into one mass protest against the Vietnam War.”

SF State’s various protests very quickly became a model for other colleges and universities in California and eventually the rest of the country, Smith said. That was particularly true of the five-month student strike for ethnic studies and greater representation of minorities on campus in 1968 to 1969.

“I remember coming up here when I was a student at Cal State Los Angeles to see how to organize,” he said. “It had kind of a ripple effect. San Francisco State students went to Brandeis to help them organize there for Black Studies.”

At SF State, activism intensified in the months before the Summer of Love. In April, students and faculty met to publicly debate how best to address the military draft, the war and student rights, and members of the Black Students Union were vocal in what was called the Student-Faculty Conference.

In May, students staged a sit-in to protest the University’s policy of providing information on students to the Selective Service. And in June, students and faculty picketed on the same issue.

SF State activism began to develop in 1960 when students participated in demonstrations against the House Un-American Activities hearings in San Francisco.

“That is generally recognized as the birth of student organizing in the Bay Area. Berkeley gets a lot of recognition because it’s Berkeley, but there were a lot of San Francisco State students there too. That was a defining moment,” said Jason Ferreira, an associate professor in the College of Ethnic Studies.

Students also went to the South to participate in the Freedom Rides in the early part of the decade. And in 1962, a wooden Speaker’s Platform was built on a spot near where the Cesar Chavez Student Center stands today, SF State Special Collections Librarian Meredith Eliassen said.

“It was the first college-sanctioned free speech platform in the nation,” she said. “And when you have an open speaker’s platform, you have protests. It was a place for people to congregate and share their experiences and gather in unity.”

In 1965, the Experimental College was formed, with free courses taught by students, professors and community members. Many of the courses were about social change. A catalog from the summer of 1967, for example, offered courses on self-realization and Gestalt psychology. Another course was titled “Grass, Acid & Zen.”

Right about 1967 is when various student organizations started to come together, Ferreira said. People were developing their organizing skills and were also pressuring the administration to remake the University in ways that would serve the community, he said.

The ideas and alliances behind the Experimental College would eventually lead to the 1968-1969 student strike, and that led to the creation of the first and only free-standing College of Ethnic Studies in the nation.

“The strike didn’t just come out of thin air,” Ferreira said. “It had been building for years and years.”

Next week: Part 5: During the Summer of Love, journalism took on a new slant