by a faculty group that this person was not subver-
sive," Haber said.
Getting rid of the approval committee would
eventually become one of Haber's priorities. But in
the fall of 1954, Haber was just a University fresh-
man who skipped class to attend his first demon-
stration - more out of curiosity than conviction.
"I probably didn't know it was a demonstration,
because why would I have known that this was
called that?" Haber recalled. "So in a way, it was
A group of mostly graduate students was protest-
ing the University's decision to fire three faculty
members who had refused to sign loyalty oaths.
Haber became involved with this group, which
included members with socialist and communist
tendencies. Eventually, Haber and his friends found
a faculty advisor and started a political issues club
on campus. Though the club remained discussion-
based for the first few years, the University was
once again, slowly but surely, becoming a place
where students could challenge accepted ideas.
"I witnessed the coming-into-consciousness of
activism; from very quiet to quite active," Haber
What was happening at the University of Michi-
gan was also slowly taking shape on campuses
nationwide. Bob Zellner, the first white southern
field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordi-
nating Committee, a student group that fought for
racial equality, remembers the emerging energy of
"We were just coming out of what they call the
silent '50s, and everybody was getting involved,"
Zellner said. "It was a mass movement. It was very
For the next few years, that excitement
only grew. As students across the country
became involved in the struggle for civil
rights, women's rights and world peace, the Univer-
sity of Michigan led the way. On March 24,1965, the
University held the first-ever teach-in, where over
3,000 people participated in lectures, discussions
and debates about the Vietnam War.
Haber remembers that day fondly, aswell as what
followed. "A hundred and some campuses across
the country did it," he said, "and a whole network
of academics, intellectuals and people who were
knowledgeable about Vietnam and about history
became a community, a knowledgeable public."
The creation of a knowledgeable public was
what was necessary, in Haber's view, to effect real
change. Once the public became informed, the gov-
ernment would alter its policies to reflect the view
of the people. Or so the activists thought.
"That didn't happen at all," Haber said. He
recalled a debate with federal authorities on the
Vietnam War, which was organized by Haber and
the Inter-University Committee for Debate on For-
eign Policy. "We wiped the floor with them. But it
had no impact."
This inability of activism to generate actual
change in the realm of public policy frustrated
many in the movement, who increasingly turned
to more dramatic - and in some cases, dangerous
- methods of getting their point across. Radicals
argued with each other over whether to remain
nonviolent or whether to bring home the reality of
war to the American people by committing domes-
tic violence. The assassinations of President John
Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Ken-
nedy - and the air of conspiracy that circled these
murders - only made activists more concerned that
peaceful tactics weren't working.
"When you get lied to on the one hand and when
knowledge doesn't make any difference on the
other hand, and people had walked around in cir-
cles and froze for peace every winter, what is the
point of getting out there and freezing your butt off
with a sign?" Haber said.
These dilemmas were soon compounded by
infighting between various groups within the
movement. The black members of SNCC clashed
with the white members. Female members of SDS
accused the group of being patriarchal. By the
1970s, SDS, SNCC and plenty of other groups had
ceased to exist. The movement lost many of the
threads holding it together.
And that, if one believes the hype, was the end of
ut contrary to popular belief, student activ-
ism didn't die - it merely took different
forms that some would argue have been
more effective, though less visible, than the tactics
of the '60s.
"I think there's a little bit of a fetishization or
romanticization of the '60s," said Vasugi Gane-
shananthan, Zell Visiting Professor of Creative
Writing at the University, who has written exten-
sively on '60s activism. "This idea that caring for
the sake of caring, thatsomehow passion is in and
of itself an end - I don't know that I agree with
While no one can deny the passion of the '60s
activists, many felt - and still feel - that their
achievements were fewer than they expected..
Ganeshananthan believes that you can look at
it both ways. For one, some of their more radi-
cal tactics scared away people who were in the
mainstream. These acts also drove compromise
positions further to the left.
"And then there's the other argument that in
order to enable real change you need people to be
on the far, far left, because then the compromise
is to end up somewhere in the middle and then at
least you sort of shift the dial a little bit," Gane-
shananthan said. "I just tend to not find those
arguments that compelling."
That's not to say that 60s activism didn't
accomplish anything. Haber's activities were
partly responsible for the University rolling back
many of its egregiously sexist and racist policies,
such as requiring curfews for female students
and forbidding interracial dating.
"They also responded by making the curricu-
lum more flexible," Haber said. "The University
had accommodated in some way to courses that
touch on human rights."
In Haber's view, these changes have encour-
aged students to pursue careers that are activ-
ism-oriented, such as international law.
Student activism since the '60s has been about
making arguments that are not only compelling,
but also attract people to participate in the move-
ment. Such a shift has led to an increase, not a
decrease, in student activism.
"It may be that there's more student action
now than there was in the '60s, it's just so
diverse and in so many different mediums,"
Zellner said. "Now there's trouble everywhere
and there's action everywhere, so there's prob-
ably as much activity now as there was then, or
Today, students are evolving activism online,
in conferences and through internships and
careers in humanitarian and social justice fields.
And they are constantly assessing their methods
in light of the past.
This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary
of the founding of both SDS and SNCC. To
celebrate this anniversary and discuss how
activism has changed, many '60s activists, includ-
ing Haber and Zellner, reunited last month for a
conference entitled "Bring It Back, Take It For-
ward." Of course, there was no better place to hold
it than Ann Arbor.
While the conference, organized by the School
of Social Work, purported to remember the past as
well as look to the future, many of the attendees said
that they preferred the future. One person who felt
this way was Bill Ayers, the co-founder of Weather
Underground who was recently thrust back into
the national spotlight in 2008 when it was alleged
that Barack Obama was closely linked to him. Ayers
participated in a panel discussion during the con-
ference and shared his thoughts.
"I don't have any nostalgia for the '60s at all,"
Ayers told the conference attendees. "I don't have a
nostalgic bone in my body."
Ayers worried that student activists today think
that their actions have less merit because they
aren't repeating the same activities of the '60s.
"I think the myth and symbol of the '60s in some
ways sits heavily on young people today who think
that, somehow, the trick is to reproduce the time
when we had the best demonstrations, the best
music and the best sex," Ayers said. "Actually the
sex is still great, the music is good (and) we don't
need to replicate the demonstrations of the past."
In an interview after the panel, Ayers explained
that he doesn't buy the notion that students are
somehow less active or passionate today than they
were back then. "I think that people who see it that
way are looking for a replay of something that was
in the past," he said. "It's ridiculous."
In fact, many of the conference attendees felt
that the heightened student activity of today was
all the more remarkable because it's more difficult
to be an activist now than it was in the '60s. This is
not to say that activism was easy in the '60s. Zell-
ner told attendees that five of his colleagues were
murdered by southern racists during his first three
years working for SNCC. But though the physical
risks of being a radical have greatly decreased, the
economic costs are higher than ever. -
"There was a lot of risk, a lot of real, physical
risk in the '60s, but it is much more difficult now,
economically, to be an activist," said Andrew Lich-
terman, a nuclear disarmament activist, during a
question-and-answer session after the panel. "It's a
lot harder to start your own small institution on a
Since the 1960s, the cost of a college education
has skyrocketed and the pace of college has acceler-
ated. The result is that students don't have nearly as
much free time to dedicate to activity. And Haber
thinks it's noaccident that the tempo of college life
has sped up over the last 50 years.
"They had some system planners (that thought),
'How do we close down activism here at this insti-
tution?'" Haber said. "Well, you speed up the work-
er and you don't give them any toilet breaks," Haber
said. "You run it like a factory."
Haber recalled that there used to be longer
breaks at Thanksgiving, the winter holidays and
during the school year, which lasted into June. This
made it easier to dedicate time to activism and still
catch up on schoolwork before exams. But this free
time has largely disappeared.
"Now, you miss a day, you miss a week, you can't
do it," Haber said. "You're wasted around this
noose of student debt or parental financial engage-
ment or expectation, and you can't just be an
activist. I used to say activism is a five-year under-
graduate degree, whatever your second major
might be. You drop out, you take more time - but
you can't do that now."
With greater and greater fiscal constraints
placed on students - especially those from the
state of Michigan, where the economic downturn
has been especially brutal - it's more difficult for
them to justify neglecting their school work in
order to focus on something else. The University,
parents and financial realities are all demanding
that students go to class, even if the inequality in
the world is calling them to be activists. In light of
such hardships, the fact that activism is thriving in
See ACTIVISM, Page 8B