April 17, 2009
It’s all Tory’s fault. She is the one who pushed me into the Facebook age, utilizing the computer to have ongoing dialogue with all sorts of people, with many others aware of your conversation. Her argument was that this would be an additional way to connect with members of the congregation. And she has been correct.
However, like many of you, Facebook has reconnected me with friends and acquaintances from across America. This includes Warren and Tony, two guys who were on my freshman college dormitory floor in 1968, with whom I had no contact or to be honest even thought about in 40 years. The timing was appropriate as my daughter Sara is about to graduate from college and my last child, Mica, will begin her freshman year in August.
Perhaps it is also appropriate to be talking about my college years on this Shabbat, where we read the commandment for the Priesthood prohibiting the drinking of wine or any other intoxicant. I’ll send that rule with Mica as she goes to Georgia.
My college years came at a particularly tumultuous time in our nation’s history. United States forces were enmeshed in what was by then an unpopular Vietnam War. Campus riots had broken out at Columbia and other universities across America as the children of privilege identified with the disenfranchised of our country. During the Spring of 1968 we experienced first the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and then a few months later, Robert F. Kennedy. The concept of America as melting pot was itself melting. The civil rights era of cooperation was over as African Americans called for “black power.” Individual groups were advocating for their unique identities- feminists, gay activists, Latinos, Native Americans, Italian Power, Irish power, even Jewish power.
With that as background, I began my freshman year at Cornell University in beautiful Ithaca, NY. I know that everyone thinks that their campus is the most magnificent in America, but I would argue that Cornell could certainly be in anyone’s top ten. Located in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, the campus is situated between two magnificent gorges atop a large hill overlooking the valley below. Magnificent old tall tress dot the campus. The quads are flanked by ivy covered buildings, hence the name “Ivy League.”
It was in this idyllic setting that I began my college years. Cornell students tended to be pretty bright with a good awareness of the world, but still we were college kids. We were there to learn and have a good time. My freshman floor reflected much of America, mostly white Christians, a number of Jewish students primarily from the New York metropolitan area, one African American student, geographically diverse (I had never heard of Bemidgi, Minnesota), some rich, while others not as rich. We were a campus community like many others.
Then, as I was reminded by my Facebook reconnection, 40 years ago this week- April 19, 1969, black students occupied Willard Straight Hall, the main student union building during Spring Parents’ Weekend. They were protesting racial issues on campus; lack of minority recruitment, irrelevant curriculum, the lack of an African-American studies program and general racist attitudes in the administration and student body. This would not be the first building takeover, nor the last, but it was noteworthy. Upon resolution of the dispute the students emerged with right arms raised in what was then known as a “black power fist,” but holding weapons with the left. That picture spread across America on the cover of many a newspaper and magazines, making the Cornell takeover different for all others.
I remember the weekend distinctly. In my mind, I had been raised precisely for this moment. My hometown of Hempstead, New York on Long Island was not your stereotypical Jewish suburb, in fact the opposite. Though my section of the community was white, primarily Catholic with a few Jews, the central high school was about 80% black. My parents had been leaders in interfaith and interracial relations. I’m not going to say I had a large number of African-American friends, but I certainly had many classmates. I’m sure it will not be a surprise to any of you that my primary social activity revolved around synagogue youth group and my NFTY region, hence what I do to this day. Still, based upon my background and my religious values, I sympathized with the cause of the students who took over the building.
But did it have to be Parents’ Weekend! Of course my parents were there as events unfolded, made more poignant since my father was an alumni. They had arrived on Friday night; the takeover occurred over that evening; we woke up to the news on Saturday morning and followed events all day. Saturday evening we went out for dinner, attended a concert and then they dropped me off at my dorm. Word spread that some of the so-called “jock fraternities” were planning to attack the Straight and evict the demonstrators. (After the fact we learned that weapons were not initially brought in, but were smuggled in when those rumors became known.) I decided to become part of what was referred to as a “defense perimeter,” wimpy white students like myself, who hoped by our mere presence to prevent any kind of an attack. I of course even then had no idea what I would do if I had actually been confronted. Fortunately, the night transpired uneventfully.
I returned to my dorm and the next morning met my parents for breakfast, somewhat dreading the conversation about why I was so tired and my previous night’s activity. I had the feeling they would not be pleased, so I decided a good offense was the best defense. I explained that they had been wonderful parents, instilling within me strong values of rights, fairness and equality. With that as a basis, I felt as though I could not stand idly by. (Yes, even then I threw in Torah terminology.) I am not sure whether it was with admiration or begrudging acceptance, they responded, “well Robert ( at times like this I was “Robert”), you have to do what you think is right. Just be careful.”
As I recall, the takeover ended without incident a day or two after that night. Prior to its conclusion, I attended a massive rally led by SNCC- the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, along with thousands of others. There was wide-spread support for the African-American students. I stood outside the Straight as the demonstrators emerged, holding my arm up in the air in support of their cause. However, upon seeing the guns, for we did not know they had them until that moment, my arm slowly retracted. I supported their cause, just not the potential for violence.
I still support the cause of race relations in America. 40 years have passed and much good has been accomplished with the most prominent sign of it being the election of Barack Obama as our President. Yet there is still much work to be done, as became apparent during the Presidential campaign. Though the economy and the war in Iraq are taking precedence, it is my fervent hope that the document offered by President Obama during the campaign on race relations will not be forgotten. There is still prejudice and racism prevalent in our society, in our New Orleans community and our Jewish community. We of all people should know that long-held perspectives cannot be eradicated over night, but must be confronted within both the white and black communities. The feelings and results of generations of discrimination, repression, poor education, fractured families, disenfranchisement and poverty do not disappear with the election of a black President. It is a hopeful sign for the future, but our neighbors still bleed and we cannot stand idly by.
And what happened at Cornell? The University now has one of the finest programs in Africana Studies and established the Africana Studies & Research Center. As with all universities in America, the number of black students has increased significantly. Awareness and sensitivity to issues of race continue to be on the community agenda, though beyond the minorities themselves, very few white students take advantage of the various ethnic studies programs, this in spite of the rapidly changing demographics of America. The SNCC leader from that time is now a Professor in California. My African-American dormitory friend recently retired as US Attorney in Brooklyn and has been a strong advocate for civil rights through the law.
On this Shabbat following Passover and upon the 40th anniversary of the Cornell University takeover, we all still realize that redemption is not yet complete. We must work towards that end.