Unprecedented times. It is a term we have heard repeated again and again recently. No year in American history has been quite so odd, unexpected, or divisive as 2020. Even with a year as unique as this one, it is easy to see parallels between 2020 and other tumultuous years in our nation’s history. Perhaps the only year in recent […]
Unprecedented times. It is a term we have heard repeated again and again recently. No year in American history has been quite so odd, unexpected, or divisive as 2020. Even with a year as unique as this one, it is easy to see parallels between 2020 and other tumultuous years in our nation’s history. Perhaps the only year in recent memory that can compete with 2020 in terms of civil unrest and chaos is the year 1968. From the national level to the local level, authority figures and the general public were going head to head and the campus community of Southeast Missouri State was no exception.
The issue at Southeast began on April 10, 1968 when eight faculty members: Roger Harms, Clark Pennington Jr., Herbert Scott, Louis Cantor, John Rearden, Charles Chastain, Keith Nyland and Robert Malosky, were told that their contracts would not be renewed for the following school year. The dismissed faculty members were not told why they were being let go and by the time they found out they were not coming back, it was too late in the year to find a faculty position at another school. While legally the Board of Regents was not required to disclose its reasoning for not renewing those contracts, the Board had made this decision in early March of that year but not informed the faculty members until April. This lack of communication made the motivations for removing these professors seem suspicious and led to an uproar and widespread speculation from the campus community.
The theory that the professors were released from contracts for their involvement with off-campus civil rights and left-wing political work gained the most traction among the campus community. Professor Herbert Scott specifically had been involved in a debate surrounding the censorship by the administration of The Potboiler, a student publication the previous semester; many believed that incident contributed to his removal.
To many students and faculty, it seemed that the administration was continually attempting to silence members of the campus community who could speak out against the status quo. Students were quick to make the administration aware of their displeasure. About a week after the faculty removals were announced, students held what the Southeast Missourian called a “mass rally” in Capaha Park on April 18. Students and faculty alike spoke at the rally, and by all accounts the dissatisfaction was palpable. Some faculty members even considered resigning in solidarity. Even so, some faculty still warned students to be careful in their protest, urging them to, “organize and stay organized, but stay legal.” Clearly, they were fearful of Southeast becoming one of many colleges known for the student unrest spreading across the country that year.
In response, students organized a day-long study vigil on the front lawn of Academic Hall on April 23. Instead of boycotting the school, students spent time on their coursework while still bringing visibility to the issue by positioning themselves in the most prominent place on campus. Petitions were signed and meetings were organized to discuss further action. The students’ movement gained attention across the state, and even garnered the support of Missouri State Senator John Downs, a Democrat from St. Joseph in northwest Missouri. Senator Downs called for a petition to Governor Warren Hearnes to launch a legislative investigation about the faculty removal. Around a third of the student body and similarly about a third of faculty members signed the final petition that was sent to the governor. In addition to the petition, Downs sent a personal message to Governor Hearnes justifying the position. Downs pointed out that if special legislative sessions could be called to discuss construction of new state buildings, they could also be called to “consider the cement which might exist in people’s heads, rather than pouring more into the ground.”
The petition was successful and a legislative investigation began. Even after winning that small victory, students and faculty members alike continued to voice their opinions on the issue, many of which were recorded in the Gadfly, an underground student newspaper. In direct response to the removal of the eight faculty, a special issue of the Gadfly was published entitled “The Death of Academic Freedom at Southeast Missouri State College,” containing the unfiltered thoughts and feelings of the campus community. While much of the campus was united in their frustration towards the college’s administration, the feelings of the wider community were varied. Many Cape Girardeau community members were alarmed at the call for change from students and faculty and saw the protest simply as a means of rebuking authority, unnecessarily encouraging unrest, and paving the way for violence in the community.
Reading the concerns of people on both sides of this debate over fifty years ago, it is difficult not to make connections to current events. While the civil unrest across the United States in 1968 was not exactly the same as it is in 2020, America has a long tradition of protest to learn from. Since the beginning, protest against authority was a crucial part of our nation’s founding story. Even before our most famous petition, the Declaration of Independence, was sent in 1776 to King George III, American colonists engaged in a variety of protests. From boycotting British imports to dumping tea in the Boston Harbor, colonists found ways to express their frustration over their lack of political representation. Their actions set an important precedent, and protests have been a way for Americans to call attention to unmet needs ever since.
In 1968, the unrest on the campus of Southeast Missouri State was just one of many examples of public displeasure across the nation. Protests about issues like the war in Vietnam, race relations, and gender norms were taking place on scale that many had never seen before. Due in part to social media and the connectedness of our world today, the protests of 2020 inspired participants in all fifty states, a scale almost unimaginable in 1968. Even with such far-reaching participation, there are still plenty of people unsettled by this cry for change just like there was in 1968. That fear of protest can be misplaced and may come from a place of misunderstanding. According to a contributor from the special edition of the Gadfly, people who were against protests simply because they challenge authority were missing the point. In his mind “no one need fear protest because it is protest; what we all must fear is the failure of protest which is aimed at necessary reform.” Change can be frightening for those who benefit from the status quo, and there is often resistance to new ideas. Careful examination of any push for change is important, but fear of protests can often prevent open and objective discussions about reform, something Americans in 2020 desperately need.
Graduate Assistant, Special Collections & Archives
Copies of The Gadfly , student committee notes, and other materials related to the faculty removal were donated to Special Collections & Archives by Dr. Linda Burns.
A brief timeline of the events of 1968 can be found here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/timeline-seismic-180967503/ For a more in-depth look into the year’s events, the book The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America by Jules Witcover is great source of information.
For more information about the career of John Downs, you can visit the State Historical Society of Missouri’s website at: https://digital.shsmo.org/digital/collection/ohc/id/585/