VIJAY PENDAKUR: Nice, nice. "Those who professed to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.
The struggle may be a moral one. Or it may be a physical one. Or it may be both. But it must be a struggle." Frederick Douglass.
Good evening. My name is Vijay Pendakur. And I'm the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley dean of students here at Cornell University. And I have the pleasure of welcoming you all to tonight's event titled "Social Justice, Civil Rights, Black Power, Black Lives Matter, and the 50th Anniversary of the Willard Straight Occupation, a Conversation with Harry Edwards." We went with the shortest title possible.
I wanted to open the evening with this famous quotation from Frederick Douglass. Because tonight is about the long arc of struggle in this country for freedom and dignity, from specific events that happened in 1969 to the contemporary struggles that many of us are invested in today. Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to join us for an evening of deep conversation, learning, and maybe even a little laughter.
Tomorrow is April 19, 2019, a particularly important and special day for Cornell's history. Exactly 50 years ago, on April 19, 1969, several dozen black students and a handful of Latino students occupied Willard Straight Hall for 36 hours to call attention to what they perceived as the University's hostility toward students of color, its student judicial system, and its slow progress in establishing an Africana studies program. Nearly 50 white student allies from Cornell's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society rallied outside the Straight to show support for the activists inside.
Partway through the occupation, a mob of white students tried to physically storm the Straight. This confrontation, combined with growing reports of a large group of armed, white law enforcement officers mobilizing in the city of Ithaca, led the student activists to gather rifles to defend themselves. Images of black students emerging from the building holding these weapons when the occupation ended peacefully 36 hours later have come to shape not just a turning point in Cornell's history, but have also come to be emblematic of the year 1969 in the broader arc of the civil rights movement.
In 1969, as the decade neared its end, Americans involved in various social justice, equal rights, and liberation movements were asking different questions about the nature of change than they were in the beginning of the decade. In popular history, we often love to look back on the 1960s as a time of bell bottoms, and long hair, and free love, and great music. And it might have been all of those things.
But it was also the decade of the March on Washington, The Birmingham Church bombings, the assassination of JFK, the murders of the Freedom Riders Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the assassination of Malcolm X, the release of the Moynihan report in 1965, major riots in Harlem, Watts, Philly, Detroit, and many other American cities, the founding of the Black Panther Party for self-defense in 1966 in Oakland, California, MLK's Poor People's Campaign, the Tet Offensive, and the rising death toll on all sides in Vietnam, and in April 1968, one year before the Willard Straight occupation, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the backdrop we cannot ignore if we are going to understand the occupation of the Straight in its proper historical context.
College campuses, just as we see today, were not isolated bubbles of passivity during this volatile decade. Rather, they were microcosms of the society and the social movements of the decade. And all of those social movements played a life on college campuses, as well. From the black freedom movement, to women's rights, and gay rights struggles, to anti-war mobilization, American campuses experienced a torrent of agitation in these years.
Here at Cornell University, a number of key incidents preceded the occupation that are important to seeing the fuller story. Starting in 1963, newly-appointed President, James Perkins, sought to increase the number of African-American students on campus. When he started as president, there were less than 20 black students here. By 1968, there were 250.
While this was a laudable access commitment by President Perkins, the University did not equally commit itself to addressing the campus environment that they were seeking to integrate. So these newly-admitted black students found themselves facing overtly hostile racial climates in the residence halls, cafeterias, and classrooms. By April 1969, campus was smoldering with tensions.
Then on April 18, 1969, 50 years ago today, a burning cross was discovered outside the black women's cooperative living community on campus, Wari House. This local context, in concert with national circumstances, is the foundation for the student occupation of the Willard Straight. Tonight we are in for a real treat, a conversation between two people who lived aspects of this important history, two people who continued to work for social justice and human dignity long after leaving their educational experiences at Cornell.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce one of them to you. Frank Dawson was a freshman at Cornell University in 1969 and took part in the occupation of the Straight. He is currently the dean of career education at the Center for Media and Design at Santa Monica College. Prior to this role, Frank chaired the Communication and Media Studies Department and taught as a professor of media studies at Santa Monica College.
Prior to that, he taught script writing at the University of Southern California in a program geared towards African-American TV and film writers. Dawson is a producer, writer, and founding partner in Newhouse Media Group, which has also produced TV series, and movies, and features in association with CBS Entertainment and now operates independently. Dawson co-produced and co-directed the documentary, Agents of Change, which we screened at Cinemapolis this Tuesday night-- two nights ago-- and which chronicles the 1960 student movement the United States featuring San Francisco State College and Cornell University.
Beyond all of these accolades, I have to say that it's been a pleasure getting to know Frank these last two years since I joined the Cornell family. He's a passionate advocate for social justice and a kind and generous colleague. Tonight Frank will be leading a conversation with Dr. Harry Edwards, our guest of honor. I won't share any more about Harry, because I don't want to steal Frank's thunder.
But after we enjoy watching Frank and Harry have a powerful conversation, there will be a chance for you, the audience, to ask these gentlemen questions. And this entire event is being live streamed so that audiences can tune in from around the world. Now it's my pleasure to introduce Frank Dawson. Let's get him up to the stage with a big round of applause.
FRANK DAWSON: Greetings, everyone. Whoa. While I have not been a stranger to Cornell over the years, it's a pleasure and actually a bit sobering to recognize that your first year of college was actually 50 years ago. Whoa! But it's been a good 50 years of continuing growth and reflection. And I'm honored to be in the renowned Bailey Hall, where I've experienced so many wonderful presentations, lectures, and concerts here so many, many, many years ago.
This picture here-- Pulitzer-Prize-winning picture-- of students coming out of Willard Straight Hall-- I was a bit further in the back in this photo. But this has been the photo that's defined not only 1969 at Cornell but at colleges and universities across the country. And I wanted to switch this picture back and forth. Because this was 1969.
And another photograph that's been up here earlier-- which I hope they will bring up again right now-- Bert Cooper, John Garner, and Robert Rowan were pictured. There they are. This was during their first two years at Cornell University. This is how they came into the University.
And you juxtapose that with the picture just two years later-- what happened? For me, they were upperclassmen at Cornell. They were in the Glee Club, as far as this picture is concerned. They came to Cornell when I came to Cornell in 1968.
But by the spring of my freshman year, John Garner had left the University in frustration-- one of the leaders at Cornell of the black students. And Cooper and Rowan became vocal and committed participants in the occupation of Willard Straight Hall, as did many others, including myself. All three of those men are gone today. All three are gone today.
Bert Cooper and John Garner both became medical physicians after they left Cornell. Cooper finished his time here. John Garner left but then went to college and got an engineering degree. And then he went to medical school, and became a medical doctor, and served time at Harlem Hospital in New York, as did his wife, who was in my class-- who was also in that building in 1969.
Time has passed. Times have changed. But have they really changed? In conversations that we've had with students since I've been here on the campus, including the luncheon today, there is still some issues that students are facing today. And part of, hopefully, what we will accomplish this evening and my conversation with the esteemed Dr. Harry Edwards will begin to address some of those questions and attempt to get some answers.
Social activist and Professor Harry Edwards was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, where he grew up as the second child in the family of eight children. After graduating from high school, he moved to California, where he attended Fresno City College then transferred to San Jose State University, where he majored in sociology-- graduated summa cum laude with his BA degree in sociology. In 1966, Dr. Edwards went on to receive his MA degree in sociology from Cornell University right here, where he has not been back to this college in 50 years.
This is the first time Dr. Harry Edwards has been back to Cornell in 50 years, despite having made presentations-- what is it 1,000 colleges across the country, in addition to most of the Ivy League colleges. And it's a tremendous honor to have him here for the first time in 50 years. Dr. Edwards was hired to be a professor at the University of California Berkeley, where he taught courses on race relations, the sociology of sport and family.
And in 1985, he was hired as a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers and developed the Minority Coaches Internship and Outreach Program with Coach Bill Walsh. Two years later, Dr. Edwards became special assistant to the commissioner of Major League Baseball to help increase representation of minorities and women in baseball. From 1987 through 1995, he worked with the Golden State Warriors-- I'm sorry. I was a New York Knick fan-- long suffering-- Golden State Warriors, specializing in player personnel counseling and programs. The programs and methods he developed for dealing with challenges facing professional football players were adopted by the entire National Football League in 1992. And in 2000, he retired from the University of California Berkeley.
Dr. Edwards has written extensively on the connections between race, sport, and society. He is the author of The Struggle That Must Be, an autobiography, The Sociology of Sports, and The Revolt of the Black Athlete, along with countless articles on race, sports, and the sociology of sports. We are honored to have with us this evening Dr. Harry Edwards.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: [INAUDIBLE]
FRANK DAWSON: Yes, indeed.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: All right. Good. I'm going to sit on the left over here, OK, man? Is that OK? Is that cool?
FRANK DAWSON: It does not necessarily represent our political opinions.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Get comfortable. You guys did such a great job introducing this program-- brother down here and you didn't leave a heck of a lot to say.
FRANK DAWSON: I know that's not true.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: So in conclusion, let me just say--
FRANK DAWSON: Well, we'd like to structure our conversation around social justice. And social justice, we can be talking until next year about, particularly in terms of where we're in our country right now and things that are evolving around the world, as well. And so it's important to understand, first of all, some context.
When you look at that imposing picture from 1969 and how that came about, it's important to understand how and why that came about and what the context was for it. As students coming in in 1969, we were children of the civil rights movement. We had seen the issues that our parents' generation and their parents' generations had had to deal with.
And so we felt a responsibility to make some change on our own part, as well. And so if we could talk a little bit first about the civil rights era and its impact in terms of students coming onto college campuses beginning in the late 1960s and moving on to about the middle--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Yeah. It's always been fascinating to me to look at a picture like that. And I really wonder what those who did not live it see. I know what I see.
I came here as a graduate student in the fall of 1964 committed to writing a master's thesis on the black Muslim family-- which I did-- going down to New York City to talk to some of the congregants in Malcolm X's group. I got a chance to talk to Malcolm on a couple of occasions, to know him, to sit like we're sitting here.
I worked with Dr. King. We had press conferences together. I got to talk to him the way we're talking here.
I was in the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. I knew Angela Davis extremely well. I got to really become totally immersed in the civil rights movement.
I lived with H. Rap Brown for a period of time. Stokely and I were very close. And over the course of a five-year period, I saw things happen that you only see in a situation that's a state of war in most instances.
Six months after my last in-person hello to Malcolm X, he was assassinated. I met with Dr. King on January 14, 1968. We were supposed to meet again on April 28. On April the 4th, he was assassinated.
I was in the Black Panther Party and saw 20 members of the Black Panther Party shot and killed. And over that same period of time, Huey Newton was shot. Eldridge Cleaver was shot. Bobby Hutton-- the first member to join the Black Panther Party in Oakland-- was shot 17 times-- a 17-year-old kid.
I saw the situation in Mexico City, where hundreds of students were shot down-- the situation in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where they were trying to integrate a bowling alley. The police opened up on some students and shot a bunch of them down, wounded a bunch. This was the atmosphere and context at that time. And it wasn't something that you just read about and saw. It was something that you lived.
I remember, on June 6, 1968, we-- myself and a bunch of students-- were putting together placards and banners. Because Bobby Kennedy was supposed to leave LA and come up to Northern California, which was really his wheelhouse in terms of political support-- the San Francisco, Oakland, Bay Area. But he didn't make it, because he was shot to death in LA that night.
And then I go back and think about it. I look at Dr. King. I look at Malcolm X. I look at Bobby Hutton. I look at Bobby Kennedy.
And it dawned on me that, in 1963, not only did you have the bombing in the church, not only did you have the assassination of Medgar Evers. But on my 21st birthday, I was getting ready to go out and buy my first legal beer in 1963. But it was November the 22nd, 1963.
I go out and everybody's all, the school has been canceled. And everybody is standing around. Some people are crying.
I'm wondering what happened. Well, they had just killed the president. So that was the atmosphere of lived experience.
So the people in this building-- when it became clear that not only were the police not going to protect them around Willard Straight, but they were letting people come in who did damage, beat up folks, came in with pipes, and one thing or another, and the police themselves were marshaling an armed force down in Ithaca, the option was to either abandon the quest or to put up such a strong show that everybody knew, we got to change course, or this is going to be a disaster. What black people understood was that, unarmed, there was almost a certainty of a massacre. Armed, they had to talk to you. They had to figure out a way. How do we get out of this now that it's got this far off the road?
FRANK DAWSON: If we could just back up a little bit first. Because what happened to students on this campus, and in this town, and in this environment that would cause something like this to happen? And that's why I talk about context once again. You mentioned the assassinations at the time. It was a--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Violent era.
FRANK DAWSON: It was a violent time. And also, on the part of students-- and again, there were demonstrations everywhere-- the Vietnam War. It was not uncommon for there to be demonstrations at Cornell and other places, as well.
Yet, when blacks things began demonstrating on the campus, we were told, why don't you guys just shut up, and go to class? And to me, our position was we have to be loud, because, otherwise, we will not be heard. We were somewhat invisible.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Well, it wasn't just invisibility. Those circumstances exist to a substantial degree still to this date. Black people, women, other traditionally excluded groups are not perceived in the power bastions and institutional bastions of American society as being creditable witnesses to their own experiences and outcomes. They simply are not.
This goes all the way back to slavery, where the slave masters said, my slaves are happy go lucky. It carried through into the Civil Rights movement, where people in the South said, our Negroes down here in Mississippi and Alabama were perfectly happy until those outside agitators came in. And it carries through in the North, as well.
Because I don't care what your sentiments are. 1,000 black people can stand up to this date and say, that police officer shot that man in the back while he was running away, and have it on film, and the response will be, but we don't know what happened before the camera started. And we don't know what happened after the camera started.
And so you find these cases where 147 black men, women, and children are summarily executed in the streets of America every year since 1968, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed. And nobody is even charged, much less prosecuted, for what otherwise would be an outright case of murder under cover of the badge. Because we are not perceived to be credible witnesses to our own outcomes and experiences.
Well, this is what the students also recognized back in the day. And the fact that you had to talk loud-- you run into the tone police. In other words, jeez, I understand exactly what you're saying. But jimminy criminy, the way you're saying it-- my goodness gracious. Why can't we just-- you know? And you run into the tone police.
I did an oral history here. And the guy that was doing the interview said, isn't it true that there were a couple of militants who took over the black student meeting and compelled these students to take over Willard Straight Hall when there were stable, good students who didn't want to do it? Didn't they just take-- I said-- and I said it straight-- that's bullshit.
And he said, well, did-- is that what you told the faculty? I said, of course, that's what I told the faculty. Because that's what they could hear. They wouldn't hear it if I said, well, jeez, you know, have you considered the fact that most of those students who took that building may have believed in what they were doing? They wouldn't have heard me.
FRANK DAWSON: Well, it's important to understand, also, that Willard Straight had came about when it was kind of like the straw that broke the camel's back. We had demonstrated.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Yup.
FRANK DAWSON: It was like--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Weeks.
FRANK DAWSON: It was like one of my courses was demonstrations. I should have gotten credit for it. We had so many demonstrations for so many different things. Willard Straight Hall didn't just happen. But things, again, began to escalate.
I came to this campus in September, 1968-- Mexico City, the Olympics.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Right before I was fired from San Jose State.
FRANK DAWSON: What I'd like to introduce-- at least, as far as audience is concerned-- an understanding that what was happening in the society, and what was happening outside, and off the campus had an impact on who we are and what we did on these campuses. So Mexico City 1968--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Yeah. This was an outgrowth of us shutting down San Jose State over the fact that-- the question that we raised at San Jose State in the fall of 1967 is, why should we play what we can't work? They wouldn't hire us as coaches. They wouldn't hire us as professors. If you were black and not enrolled in an athletic program, not brought in as an athlete, the way you get on San Jose State's campus in some instances was with a mop or a rake in your hand.
And so we wanted to really break that up. And one of the things that we found was that the United States Olympic Committee was just as bad as the colleges and universities across the country. They had never hired an African-American-- Jesse Owens, or Ralph Metcalfe, or anybody else, Wilma Rudolph. Nobody qualified to be on the United States Olympic Committee. But the centerpieces-- in terms of the centerpiece activity, the track and field events, was dominated by African-Americans. So we attacked them.
And so the whole demonstration in Mexico City-- we figured out, coming out of 1936 and what happened then-- was a venue where we could make a statement that nobody else was in a position to make. We could make a statement on the global stage about human rights, not civil rights. But other students understood the relationship between that and the struggles that they were fighting on their own campuses.
There were no black coaches at Cornell as far as that's concerned. And I think there may have been one black professor. I'm not sure.
So at the end of the day, all of this translated into a universal type of protest-- motive that young students across the country picked up on. And to see those young men in Mexico City with all of those death threats-- I mean, Tommie Smith and John Carlos got hundreds of death threats. I got over 300 death threats. And to show you where San Jose State was coming from after they had fired me-- when the death threats came for me to San Jose State, they would put them in the mail and forward them to me.
But young people were galvanized around change and knowing what the possible price could be. And people look and say, well, weren't they afraid? That's a tough question.
I mean, I remember standing outside of a rally with Huey P. Newton. And some of our White Student for a Democratic Society comrades were making a say, well, don't trust anybody over 30. And I've known the man, Huey, is standing there and laughing. He said, we didn't expect to live to be 30.
But that wasn't the issue. What were we going to get done in the meanwhile? So this took courage.
FRANK DAWSON: Right. And the Olympics was such a wonderful platform for all of this. And one of the words that you uttered was "global." And there is a poster that I'm hoping we will be able to see from the 1968 Olympics.
This is one. And then this is the iconic photograph on the right there. And there's a second one of a poster. Ah, this is the one that, for me, was, again, a connection in terms of what was happening here at Cornell and what about black students were demonstrating for as far as the launching of a black studies program.
Now here you are in Mexico City in 1968. And it wasn't just about African-American and black folks here--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Human rights.
FRANK DAWSON: Human rights, global. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Yeah. It's fascinating. Nelson Mandela had a copy of this poster and a photo of Smith and Carlos on the podium in Mexico City smuggled into his cell on Robben Island.
And if you look at the December 6, 2013 copy of The New York Times, on Sports Friday there is a article there that they do as an obituary statement to Nelson Mandela. And they report how he looked at that poster and that picture. And it dawned on him that this was a model for change not just in sport but in South Africa overall.
So when the ANC-- who we were in contact with and worked with in terms of this whole Olympic effort-- pressed him to disband the Springbok rugby team, which was all white, he said, no, no, no, we're not going disband it. We're going to expand it. And we're going to use it as a model for what we want to do in South Africa overall.
We're going to expand our institutional involvements, not start just wholesale disbanding institutions because of what they were. We're going to turn them into what we want them to be. His commitment to that was affirmed by what we were able to do in terms of modeling a dignified protest of human rights violations in the United States.
But other countries picked up on it. In point of fact, the photo of Smith and Carlos on the podium in Mexico City has been deemed for the last two decades the most iconic sports picture of the 20th century. And it's because of the impact that it had on people in terms of affirming their right to protest-- far right, as Dr. King used to say.
FRANK DAWSON: Can we can we talk a little bit about the cost, the cost individually to people who stand up for something? And the reality is, here at Cornell, how many of the upperclassmen, folks who had been on campus here for a few years before my class came in as freshmen-- the numbers of those students who left Cornell because of that experience. And goodness-- just emotionally what that was to have participated in that and gone through with that.
Myself and my classmates, we never made it to Barton Hall for the big teaching. We went over to Cornell United Religious Works. And they helped us rent an automobile. And we got out of town and went to the Penn Relays just to decompress. It was that emotional-- and the fact that so many left.
But what I will say, in terms of the students that left-- how successful even the students had left had been. Numbers of students, again, who'd left became engineers-- that transferred to other schools and became medical doctors still. But they had to get out of this particular environment. That was the cost of their involvement in Willard Straight Hall in 1969.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: There's always a cost that's involved. I think about Malcolm. I think about Dr. King. I think about Ralph Featherstone, whose car was bombed. I think about those students at Orangeburg.
I think about the Black Panther Party members that I knew who was shot down. And there's never been a protest where the American mainstream stood up and said, amen. We support that. That's why they call it a protest rather than a picnic.
You're going to be in that kind of a set of circumstances. And when you go back and look at the price paid, even by people who just had the audacity to try to be themselves-- it's like that first wave of athlete activist, Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, and Joe Lewis, who were really demonstrating legitimacy. They all paid a price.
Jack Johnson was hounded out of the country and eventually put in jail on some trumped up across the interstate lines for illicit purposes with a woman in charge. Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens were hounded by the IRS for most of their lives. Paul Robeson was declared an Orwellian non-person.
Jackie Robinson-- I remember sitting down in the green room on Howard Cosell's show with Jackie. He was in his late 40s, maybe had just turned 50. And his hair was as white as snow.
And I asked him. I said, what has been the impact? How has this impacted your life and your health? And he said, it's taken years off my life. It took decades off his life.
And so you look at Muhammad Ali and the price he paid. You look at Smith and Carlos, the price that they paid. Even in my circumstances, I was fired from San Jose State and wound up with a 3,000-page FBI dossier, and the death threats, and all the rest.
And unless you are truly committed to this struggle, you wind up going crazy. A lot of people came out of the '60s wound up on drugs. There was a lot of pressure.
FRANK DAWSON: Right. Well, I think we've been able to cover a little bit of the civil rights movement and black power. So in terms of where we are today and students today, when we talk generationally, you and I both got a few thousand miles on the tires. Then does it get traded in for another model?
We've had a chance to talk to some students today. But unfortunately, we're talking about some of the same struggles that we had many years ago. So what is your view of the situation today?
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Well, I try to take a position today that I've always taken anytime I have the privilege of being in a company of young people. From time to time, I'm asked, what are you going to say to them? And my position has always been I'm not going to say anything to them. I'm going to sit down and listen to what they have to say.
Because they're going to tell you what kind of world they live in and what the issues are that they're concerned about. And in listening to these young people today-- bright, committed, strong, purposeful-- they recognize the horrors that they're dealing with. Even at Cornell today, there are dark places. Blacks in American society living in a constant set of circumstances of intermittent darkness, which is to say there are dark places that they pass in their lives every day out of which a monster could spring, out of which a disaster could spring, out of which something could spring that would not just change their day but their lives.
And they know that that's a dark place. A police car passing by is a dark place. An institution where you know there are vast areas of that institution-- where not only are you not welcomed, you are psychologically assaulted. And these students are aware of that in their environment.
What they have to understand is that to compare it to the era that we lived in, their challenges are great. Their struggle is perpetual. But it's different.
We do not have black leaders being shot down in the street. We do not have masses of students being murdered. We do not have people and we talk to and looked at everyday being shot down the next day unless they run into a cop somewhere.
They have to understand that it's not that things are better. It's that they are different. And so they shouldn't panic over the circumstances that they're in. And I don't buy this thing, the, oh, jeez, we've had an African-American family in the White House for two consecutive terms. We've made tremendous progress.
Progress is one of those concepts that's a lot like profit. At some point, it comes down to who's keeping the damn books. And you look at it. And people say, well, we've made a lot of progress.
That's true in one sense. But their struggle continues. And these young people are wrestling with that.
The thing that I was so gratified about was that they recognized that coming out of here with an Ivy League degree, being at an Ivy League institution doesn't mean that they have it made. There's a struggle to be waged. And they are looking for, how do we do that?
Now, the thing that I always try to tell young people is don't-- look, everybody is going, man, what are we going to do about Trump? Don't trip on Trump.
FRANK DAWSON: Can we not talk about that?
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Yeah. I'm not going to do that. Because the thing is not what we're going to do-- look, Trump is going to end up in that dustbin of other misfits who have occupied the Oval Office. He's going to be right there alongside of Chester Arthur. Yeah, you'll remember Chester, don't you?
Yeah, well, what we got to be concerned about-- what are we going to do about this train wreck what are we going to do about the institutions what are we going to do about the changes that have been made? How are we going to get this back on track? And there are a lot of young people out there. You see some of them who have been elected to Congress. You see others who've been elected to local governments and who are doing things.
You see these young students here who are saying, we can do this. We're going to get this done. And I'm extremely hopeful and gratified by what I see.
FRANK DAWSON: I agree. I wake up every morning and say, this is the day that it's going to change. Finally, the sense of outrage across the country-- because most of the people in this country are good people. At some point, today is going to be the day. So I'm an optimist. That's how I wake up every-- today is going to be the day.
But just in terms of time and moving it forward, I think it's very significant that we are here acknowledging and commemorating the 50th anniversary of this event. A number of years ago, maybe I wouldn't believe that that was going to happen. So give credit where credit is due.
In terms of the evolution of this university, there's still a lot that needs to be done. But at least we're having conversations which are important. And this forum and this recognition of this time is giving us a little bit of that opportunity. There's never enough time.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: We can't quit talking to each other.
FRANK DAWSON: Exactly.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: I have some friends. Oh, he voted for Trump. I'm never going to talk to him again. I mean, come on.
People go, Dr. Edwards, you and Jim Brown had been close. I say, hey, look, I've been talking to Jim for 50 years. And if you think I'm going to stop talking to Jim over something-- because he's sitting up there with Kanye West and Trump-- come on. I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to stop talking to Jim over this nonsense.
So at the end of the day, we're going to be just fine. And there is a streak of decency. And I continue to push this. There's a streak of decency in the American people, which is not going to be defeated.
The abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly white folks pushing for the end of slavery. That was Frederick Douglass. But it was white folks who provided the money and provided the forums.
We went through a civil war and came out of it. And we, the people, picked up the pieces-- went through a bloody labor movement and came out of it. And we came out of it better, just like the Civil War.
We went through a women's suffrage movement. And we came out of it better-- went through a civil rights movement that killed more people from the turn of the 20th century until Dr. King's assassination than died in 9/11. But we came out of it better.
We're in this Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo moment. We're going to come out of it better. Because that's what we, the people, do. And that's what's going to happen now.
That's what I saw in these young people at lunch today. We're going to be just fine. I'm not concerned about that. What I'm concerned about is a clarity of understanding of the history of how we got here, so we can avoid at least some of the pot holes and pitfalls moving forward.
FRANK DAWSON: Thank you. We're going to turn it over to some questions from the audience. There are microphones, one on each aisle here. And also, there some questions that have been submitted.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: They're probably scared now.
FRANK DAWSON: Yeah, I don't think so-- not these Cornelians. The first one here is for you. What role do you think black NFL players have in fighting social justice issues?
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Well, I think that what my former counselee at the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, did was not just heroic. I think it was appropriate. I think that it was timely. I think it was dignified.
And just as the first wave of athlete activism with Jack Johnson and that group was for legitimacy, and the second wave of Jackie Robinson, and Larry Doby, and Kenny Washington, and Woody Strode in football, and Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper in basketball was for access, and the third wave with Thomas Smith, and John Carlos, and Bill Russell, and Jim Brown, and Arthur Ashe, and Curt Flood was for dignity and respect, this fourth wave is for command of the definitions. So they were trying to define what was happening to black people in relationship to the police as a gross calculated injustice. And to show you how deep the struggle for definitional hegemony went, there was an immediately an effort to switch it away from that definition of the situation.
And all of the sudden, it was disrespectful for the flag. It was disrespect for the soldiers. It was disrespect for the anthem. I don't know of a single black athlete in the NFL who stood up and said, I'm doing this because I disrespect the flag. I'm against the anthem.
Although, if you read go to that third stanza, there's ample grounds to disrespect the anthem. But we made an agreement. We'll respect the anthem as long as you live up to it.
And what Colin, and Eric Reid, and Anquan Boldin, and Bennett, and some of these other athletes were saying was, you've fallen way short on this. So I think that they have a role. They have a historic role as the fourth wave of athlete activists.
There's a fifth wave already well this side of the horizon, framed up not by Black Lives Matter but by the #MeToo movement as a consequence of assaults on Roe v Wade and on Planned Parenthood. You're going to find these athletes taking a stand. Already, WNBA has donated $5.00 from every ticket to Planned Parenthood. You have cheerleaders who are taking a knee.
And of course, what that has to do with is the fact that this is an effort basically to chain women to the bed and the stove again. And so athletes are going to play a role in that struggle. And even though we don't see the leaders present at this point, that doesn't mean that they're not on their way.
We've never been able to see leaders coming. So I think that that is something that's going to go on. But if you understand the history and evolution of these athlete rebellions and understand where we are in terms of the #MeToo movement and so forth, you can almost predict what the next wave is going to look like.
FRANK DAWSON: OK. Don't forget, they're two microphones there if anybody in the audience here has questions. This one here-- if you had to do the Straight takeover over again, would you do anything differently?
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Well?
FRANK DAWSON: Well, I guess I have to answer this question. But the fact is that everyone that was in that building was not of the same mind. There were differences of opinion. It went across the spectrum.
And one of the things I'm proudest of is that, no matter what issue we had to deal with-- and there were a lot of issues in that building-- we were able to come to a consensus. Everybody gave here, gave there. And it was a real lesson for me, which is why I say, a lot of times, I really appreciate my education at Cornell. But I learned more outside the classroom than I did in the classroom in terms of my future growth and who I was to become.
And I think that's important, that this university, despite all the difficulties that we had, we were able to grow from it. So I personally would not do anything different. We survived. We came out of there.
And I have to say, so many people-- which we're going to see some comment on later-- were able to do some wonderful things with their lives based on their experience here, whether it was good or bad, in terms of the growth that they had in dealing with that. Because like I said, we were, like, 18 years old, 19 years old. So no, I personally would not-- if you talk to the other 50 people who went into that building, you may get 49 other responses to it.
And I also say, 50 students went into that building. 100 people came out. They weren't all Cornell students. There were community people from Ithaca-- I hope some of them are here-- that came into that building. There were students from Cortland State University who came into that building. So people, when they heard that we were in danger, and what we were doing, and could relate to what that struggle was, other folks came into that building also and marched out of that building with us. And so that was a big lesson for me, too. So there was nothing personally that I would change.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Another thing that I think should be emphasized is that the tone deafness, the deafness of the University in terms of truly understanding those black students were going through-- they had no clue. When I tried to call the president, the chancellor-- I forget what they called it at that time-- of the University and say, hey, this is serious-- because I've seen it. I knew what it grew to.
He's not taking any calls. He has nothing to say to anybody until they come out of the building.
They had no clue. And it wasn't meanness. They just couldn't hear you. And this emphasized and heightened the reality that only the formal instruction part of education takes place in the classroom.
Education takes place in the classroom, in the community environment, in the receptive mind of the student, and in terms of the support systems, both community and campus, around those students. And the more challenged a student feels in terms of the community and those support services, the more the receptive mind really is searching feverishly for ways to make the instruction in the classroom make some sense. So Cornell was failing in that fashion.
And it was impossible for them to hear students who said, hey, you need to listen to what we've got to say. We're here, too. They just couldn't hear it.
FRANK DAWSON: Yeah. Some of the prep that I did I did for this was-- Abbie Ginsberg, who is here, is the co-producer also of Agents of Change the film and knows that there's some interviews that we did that did not get into the film for a lot of different reasons. But one was from a professor who was here at Cornell during that time and was staunchly against what we had done and felt there was a threat on academic freedom. And listening to him again-- I listened to the whole hour-long interview again.
And it really struck me how he did not understand at all. Even though he changed his position later in life and said, the University is actually a better place today because of it, at that time, it was so clear that he had no clue whatsoever in terms of what black students were going through on this campus at that time and how connected it was to the communities that we had come from. He just did not see that at all.
All he saw was the University and the University's position. And that was kind of interesting. And I think that's one of the challenges that we have somewhat today, as well.
Oh, someone's at the mic. Please, question.
AUDIENCE: Good evening, and thank you so much for being here. At the outset, I'm grateful to you for your decades of work in making this world an incrementally better place for us. So thank you very much.
My question to you is sort of in line with your recent comment about freedom of speech, particularly in the context of an academic environment. Given the environment that we're in today sociopolitically and the broader scheme of being very divisive, freedom of speech can be both an agent of change and inclusion, as well as an instrument of exclusion and discrimination. And that's particularly challenging in an academic environment that prides itself on having freedom of thought and speech. So what is your take on, how do we negotiate this in making sure that will lead to a more constructive place while not, perhaps, going back on our freedom of speech? Thank you.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: This the first time I've been back to Cornell in 50 years. And I think, probably, the basic reason is that it might have been something I said.
So you hit the operant word. How do we negotiate this? There is no hard-cut word, or method, or formula that works in every situation. Somebody wants to bring in somebody that is adamantly white supremacist, adamantly anti-gay, adamantly pro-gay. There's somebody who's absolutely opposed to that.
How do we, as a community, arrive at a principled position in terms of that speaker? And that means conversation. But I say that with this caveat. That conversation can't start at the point of crisis.
Because then, emotions are running so high, everybody has dug in and taken a position. And nobody is willing to move. That's an ongoing conversation that is institutionalized into the fabric of the culture that you're a part of. So if you're not talking to people on the other sides of the issues now, you can just about forget resolving anything once it comes to a crisis situation.
If you are talking to people across-- this is why I say, we can't stop talking to each other. The only time that we don't have a chance in this great experiment in diversity and change is when we stop talking to each other, barricade ourselves off into camps, and start loading the weapons. At that point, we are finished.
As long as we continue not just to believe in our fundamental democratic principles and institutions but to practice that, we have a chance. So I think that you hit the operant word when you said, how do we negotiate these issues? But you can't start at the point of crisis.
It's got to be every day. It's got to be a cultural style. It's got to be embedded in how you do business on a day-to-day basis on a campus.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
FRANK DAWSON: Thank you-- very good. First one question here and then we'll go to the mic again. How has Cornell's climate changed since 1969? And I'd like a student to address that question. How has Cornell's climate changed since 1969? You've heard the history of what's happened before. How has the climate changed for you on this campus today?
Are you going to the mic? Mm-hmm. It's right there.
AUDIENCE: Hello. My name is Julia Reeves. I am a junior studying sociology-- also, co-president of Black Students United. And I was one of the lucky people to be able to go to the lunch earlier today. So I spoke about this a little bit earlier at the lunch-- not with you guys. Sorry.
But I think there's a disconnect between a lot of the alumni and the current students, where we just don't know what happened before we got here. We got here. And we got so busy with work, with thinking about our professional development, with thinking about our own personal development, and then also trying to navigate the inequality that's on this campus. We don't know.
We don't know what's going on. It's hard for us to reach out to other people to figure out what it is that we need to be doing. Because we don't know to reach out in the first place. Because we're just so disconnected from not only one another but the people who were here before.
So how do we start to bridge that gap? So I guess that's not an answer but a question to your question.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: No, that makes sense. Because most of these institutions do not make it a point to propagate their own history. When they say Black History Month, they mean you've got a month to talk about black history. And we're going to do everything we can keep from talking about it here.
But I'll tell you. I think that Cornell is beyond-- I've run into Cornell graduates all over the country, all over the world, really, as I've traveled. And I think that we've moved beyond the point that it was when I came here as the first black graduate student in the Sociology Department since 1951. I got here in '64.
And when I walked in, I walked into the chair of the department's office and introduced myself. And he didn't even look up for about two minutes. And when he did look up, he said, can you read? Can you write? Have you ever written anything longer than a letter?
It was absolutely absurd that a black individual would be in a graduate school or on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship or what have you. But as it turned out, that was the guy that I decided to make as chairman of my committee. And he pushed me to-- because I knew what the outcome. For me to get out of here, I would have to be the very best at whatever I did.
And he pushed me to write, at that time, the longest dissertation in Cornell University history. I wrote two books, The Revolt of the Black Athlete and Black Students, and 28 articles before I even finished my PhD dissertation, which became the first integrated textbook in the sociology of sport thanks to that individual. And ultimately, of course, I came to know him very well.
And he was one of the sweetest men, one of the sweetest human beings I've ever encountered. I really came not just to have a respect for him but a tremendous amount of affection. But he didn't know.
And I've seen that time and time again. The guy that was the head of the FBI that was responsible for putting together this dossier on me and running me all over the country in the 1960s, he and I have now, for the last 20 years, have had a standing appointment for lunch. We eat lunch twice a month.
And I found out that he wants the same thing for his two granddaughters that I want for my two grandsons. And on that basis, we've had some great conversation. And I love and respect him dearly. He's just a phenomenal guy.
So we're in these cul-de-sacs of isolation. And I understand how-- students are out there turning in the wind and really don't know. Where are we? Where do we go from here? Where is the University now? How do I compare this with what happened 20 years ago, what I hope for 20 years from now?
We have to somehow break through that. And it's a communal responsibility. All of us have a role in that. One of the regrets that I have in not coming back to Cornell for 50 years, for half a century, is that I haven't had that continual contact and relationship with the students here, so they can look and say, damn, if old Edwards can make it, I know damn well I can make it. So we're going to do great things. So I regret that part of it.
FRANK DAWSON: Yeah. We talked at lunch about some things that could be helpful as far as the Black Alumni Association is concerned and being better outreached. They're doing a much better job in terms of connecting alumni but not necessarily with students. And that's something that I certainly would be interested in trying to help with.
We have time for just one more question. And this gentleman has been waiting here at the mic.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. Brother Edwards, I just want to say thank you for not only remembering and calling out the people we know who have been in the struggle but also people like Brother Featherstone. I grew up in DC.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: OK.
AUDIENCE: So this is something that's important to me. What I find really interesting-- I was here in '69. And I was also a freshman that year. I didn't make it. I ended up dropping out in '71.
But a couple of thoughts-- one is that, when I've heard about the 50th anniversary, I figured, OK, I'm a pensioner. I can get up there. So my wife and I drove up from DC.
And preparing for this, I looked at some of the earlier stories from, let's say, the 40th anniversary and also some of the stories in the Ithica Journal that were commemorating this anniversary. And what struck me about it is that we continue to struggle over-- so what really did happen in terms of, what was the history?
And then trying to make meaning of it is going to be a constant, I think, discussion. So one of the things I learned from this presentation today was the connection between guns and progress. Now Charlie Cobb has written a book called This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed, The Role of Guns in the Civil Rights Movement, which makes me wonder. So what is the future, then, as we push for progress in an increasingly polarized and perhaps violent discourse? Are we going to be forced to deal with violence more and more?
And I guess the other comment I'll make-- to make it even more complicated-- is it one of the lessons I took from having been at Cornell in '68 and '69 was being part of that struggle. I was not in the building. But I was in the outside, the human sort of wall to protect from another invasion.
And then reading the coverage in Times and Newsweek of the Straight takeover-- and after reading that coverage, I've never read Time and Newsweek again because of how badly they reported it-- and these question about how we really can get our story told accurately. So again, thank you for this program.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Thank you.
FRANK DAWSON: There have been books written about this event. Abbie and I have made a film about it, which have people looking at it probably a lot differently in terms of the voices of the people who were involved. And I think it's important to hear many voices. When I was a professor, the area that I taught in was media literacy, teaching people how to deconstruct information and how you have to have multiple sources of information in order to reach some kind of truth, if you want to call it that, for yourself. In terms of your question about guns, Harry, can you address that one? Because I don't think I want to touch it.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Yeah. Look, we're not going to shoot our way out of these problems. We're not going to shoot our way out of our gender problems or our race problems. We're not going to shoot our way out of our homeless problems. We're not going to shoot our way out of our medical problems.
We're going to have to sit down and talk to each other about these issues. The challenge is having an honest conversation about it. I've told people often that this myth that America loved Dr. Martin Luther King is exactly that. Without Malcolm X, and H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton, and Angela Davis, and all of those people out there on the left, they wouldn't be listening to Dr. King.
The reality is that there is a balance here that we have to recognize as imperative in terms of the dynamic of moving things ahead. But at the end of the day, we have to understand that everybody has to have a seat around the table. As militant and absolutely committed as I was to changing sport, at the end of the day, I had no problem sitting down with David Stern. I had no problem sitting down with Pete Ueberroth, the commissioner of Major League Baseball.
I had no problem in sitting down with one athletic director and conference commissioner at the NCAA level or sitting down with Bill Walsh at the San Francisco 49ers-- as much as I talked to Roger Goodell on a regular basis now. Why? Because at the end of it all, it's about getting everybody to the table and having an honest conversation.
Even Dr. King applied for a gun. And I didn't see any contradiction in that, because he applied nonviolently. He didn't go in and strong arm a weapon or anything. But he understood that, in order for me to get to this next place, I'm going to have to do something to protect myself. He was denied the gun.
But what I'm saying is that at the very best this violence is a mechanism. And it's one that we want to avoid. But it also gets everybody to the table. And that's what we have to be honest about.
Without Malcolm X, and H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael, and Huey P. Newton, this country's not talking to Dr. King. They couldn't hear him. So it's a simple fact of the dynamic of what we're dealing with. And we have to look at it like that.
The ultimate goal is to get everybody to the table and have an honest discussion. And as far as the guns are concerned, hey, you know what? When you pick up a gun, you better have some plan for how you going to put it down. We haven't gotten anywhere close to that point in this country, individually or collectively.
FRANK DAWSON: And we have to wrap up now, even though I see Ileana Duran at the microphone, who was in the building.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: You're not going to walk away from this lady here, right?
FRANK DAWSON: She was in the building.
FRANK DAWSON: Yes, Ileana?
AUDIENCE: Good evening. You don't even have to say my name. Because I want to speak to the issue of the silent person, those of us that went in there. And specifically, personally, I did not know who Stokely Carmichael, or H. Rap Brown, or Huey Newton, or the Black Panthers. I came from a migrant family that arrived in New York City in 1959.
And by some coincidence-- which is a little long story-- I ended up being educated in a predominantly white neighborhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn. And I don't know whether I was part of a recruitment effort of Cornell University. But our year-- and I was in the year of Frank Dawson, 1968-- there were approximately 11-- I don't want to say Hispanic, because most of us were Puerto Rican. And I think now that a lot of the Latino students here do not come from underprivileged backgrounds, as was the case in the '60s.
I arrived at Cornell. And I am so grateful of the leadership of the black students. Many of the black students rejected Puerto Ricans, especially the black students from the South. They did not know what a Puerto Rican was.
But the black students from New York City, they did know who we were. And they allowed us to participate in the struggle. There were 11 of us, more or less, there. Of those 11 Hispanic, Puerto Rican students that were here at that time, only two of us graduated.
I have been the only one that has come back at this time. Some of them have died. Some of them dropped out. Most of them dropped out.
Only another person, another woman, who is a dean at some prestigious university in Florida-- and she refuses to come back because of the racism that she faced here. She was black. She was Puerto Rican.
My experience at Cornell-- I felt completely alienated. And I'm sure that many of the students here-- young students that come here-- have that feeling. I am speaking to the student and the young lady that came out just a little while ago.
Do not look to the alumnus necessarily to know where you have to go. You are a human being. And you are here for some reason. And accept your experience here, whether it takes you to graduate or to go to another school-- wherever it takes you.
Here at Cornell, I had my first lesbian experience. I got pregnant. And I had no sexual education. The reason I finished graduating from Cornell was because I got pregnant. And I wanted to make a better life for my child.
But I ended up in my fourth year of bachelor's degree in five and a half years. And only two months before I graduated, I declared a major-- an independent studies major. Because I had no idea where I wanted to go. I had no career counseling at Cornell.
And I ended up in Brooklyn looking for a job. And I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So life takes you to different places.
There are many alumni and many leaders. We know their names. We know their history. But there are many of us that just go through life. And wherever life takes us at the moment-- which, in my case, was the Straight.
There was a question asked of Frank if he were to do it differently. I would not. I would still be there. Those of us that were there, once the situation got very hostile and passed a certain point, we were all willing to die. Because we were together.
And even though I didn't understand exactly what was going on, I knew that I was being discriminated. I knew that I was alone. I knew I didn't have anyone to look up to.
So in that sense, yes, I was part of the struggle. But it's a silent way. Because we all are part of the struggle for human rights. And it's not going to finish, as Sir Harry said. It's an ongoing struggle.
It's a struggle for us here. It's a struggle for women all over the place. It's a struggle for children. And it never ends.
Wherever you are, you need to state your cause, even if it's in a very silent way. But be part of it. Thank you.
FRANK DAWSON: And thank you, Ileana.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: And thank God. Yeah, thank God.
FRANK DAWSON: Coming all the way from Puerto Rico.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: That's what I mean. We are going to be just fine. We're going to be just fine.
Because that's what we, the people, do. And that's an excellent, excellent example. Thank you all so much.
FRANK DAWSON: We never have enough time. But unfortunately, we are out of time. And so we've got to cut this off.
But I want to thank all of you for coming out. I want to thank President Pollack for your support and leadership in terms of this 50th anniversary recognition. I want to thank all the committee members that made this happen, Vijay, Lauren, Eric Acree, Wilma Ann Anderson, and Matt Carcella.
Thank you, all, for the time-- there's a lot of time people putting this thing together. And so thank you. And I would love to see the University continue to move forward. And this is a major step here, as far as this recognition is concerned. So thank you, all.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Thank you.
FRANK DAWSON: And most of all--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: No, no, I'm good.
FRANK DAWSON: --Dr. Harry Edwards--
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: Thank you, all, very much. Thank you, all, very much.
FRANK DAWSON: --for your time, your energy. And I appreciate it, brother.
DR. HARRY EDWARDS: That's good. It's good, very good. Thank you, all-- and a beautiful crowd out here. You folks are so beautiful.
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On the 50th anniversary of a pivotal moment in Cornell’s history, two alumni returned to campus to offer insights not just as witnesses to that history but as participants in it. Frank Dawson ’72 held a public conversation April 18 in Bailey Hall with Harry Edwards, Ph.D. ’73, about social justice and the 36-hour occupation of Willard Straight Hall.