Activism at Haverford: A Brief History

For the most part, the majority of activism which Haverford students have taken part in is deeply entrenched in the school’s Quaker roots.  Looking through the archives of Haverford history found in Special Collections, which includes pictures from most decades of the 20th century, Haverford students seem to have engaged prominently in anti-war protests, a form of activism derived from the Quaker mantra “war is not the answer.”   Beyond this, however, Haverford students have generally taken a stance at the sight of violence.  That is, violence in both the literal and metaphorical sense.  Attacks on aggrieved communities, both explicitly and implicitly, have triggered protests on campus.  From elitist policies in the admissions process to housing policy that disproportionately affected communities of color, Haverford has been engaged in a unrelenting fight towards justice and equality.  Protests against war have pervaded our country’s history, but rarely do we come across a community that has been persistently dedicated to combating violence of this sense as Haverford.  Interestingly enough, there is little on non-archival records of what protests Haverford students have engaged in over the years.

The beginnings of recorded Haverford activism can be found in subtle details from the early 1900s, around the time of World War I.  A picture of a Haverford Service Unit, comprised of people from both the college and the community, is seen in rank-and-file formation, carrying stretchers.  The outstanding aspect of the photograph is found in its caption, however.  Taken in 1917, the caption for the photograph explains that this service unit was specifically prepared for non-combat roles, which can be read as an act of passive protest, in which members of the community did not actively engage in the war, but only sought to mitigate its humanitarian damage.  This same ethos carried over to World War II, although evidence of protests to this gruesome war was harder to find.  An indication, however, of Haverford’s aversion to the war can be found in the letters of Fred Rodell, a graduate and prominent American legal scholar at the time of the war.  He wrote several times on his objection to the war and how he saw it as fundamentally destructive to all who participated.

A more tangible moment in history for Haverford can be found with the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Haverford alum Philip Noel Baker in 1959 for his contributions to peace during the Second World War, especially in relation to disarmament.  The influence of Haverford and its Quaker ideals is obviated in his actions and efforts towards peace.

It almost seems logical that the next, and perhaps the peak of, protests at Haverford began in the 1960s.  One of the most prominent testaments to this time period as an age of revolution at Haverford was the appearance of Bayard Rustin, a prominent civil rights advocate, next to John Coleman, the former president of the college.  They were photographed on campus, walking with students, coffees in hand.  The connection between the two speaks, I think, to the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and Haverford.  Rustin would not have been extended an invitation had Haverford, and Coleman specifically, felt strongly about the work he was doing.

The year of 1967 was a year of significant movement in the Haverford community.  In conjunction with students from Bryn Mawr, students engaged in protests of the Vietnam War.  (These Bi-Co engagements would provide, years later, a foundation for the coeducation of Haverford.  For if we could march with women, could we not learn with them as well?)  Protests in which Haverford students partook spanned from campus, where students held protests and vigils on Founder’s Green and outside Roberts Hall,  to Washington, D.C., where Bi-Co students participated in a march on the Pentagon against the War in Vietnam.

More locally in 1967, Haverford students stood through snow and freezing temperatures to protest housing discrimination that was occurring in Lower Merion, as redlining pervaded the suburbs of America.  Students took to the streets with picket signs and catchphrases , including “Agents of Respectable Racism:  Mainline Board of Realtors,” “Project FREE,” and “For Real Estate Equality.”  They even presented a nuanced version of the Quaker maxim “love thy neighbor,” which read “Love Thy Neighbor: Let Him Live Next Door.”  It seems, at least at first glance, that Haverford’s students were just as concerned with local injustices as they were with large-scale, national prejudices.  They took seriously the suggestion of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In 1970, members of the college, both students and faculty, traveled to Washington, D.C. in the wake of the Kent State shooting and the US invasion of Cambodia.  They spoke with prominent senators, protested, and learned more about the policies driving the two issues with which they were concerned.

In 1977, minority students, headed by the Black Students League (BSL), initiated a boycott of the campus meal plan as a method of protesting “sexism, racism, and elitism in higher education.” BSL had previously enacted a protest in February of 1972, focusing on the same issues, where students blocked the entrance to Founders Hall; however, its success was questionable.  Students turned in their meal cards in a show of support for the “coalition demands,” effectively beginning what is known as a hunger strike until the administration’s policies changed.  Students of all backgrounds joined in the protest.  They hung a banner from the pillars of Roberts that read “Quaker institution or racist institution?”

On February 13, 1980, the administration followed students in co-authoring a letter to the editor of the New York Times.  The Haverford administration, led by President Robert B. Stevens, was joined by those of Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore.  The letter was titled “Beyond Compulsory Military Service.”  It was written in response to President Carter’s call for draft registration.  The letter’s main argument was three-pronged.  First, in the wake of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, the United States could not, in the opinion of the school president’s, reestablish itself as a peaceful world force if legislation on a mandatory draft were pushed quickly through Congress.  The authors called the potential legislation “reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” and would have resulted in a similar outcome.  Second, if draft registration were required, it should include women.  A push by Haverford students to allow coeducation some ten years prior could have influenced this decision.  Full coeducation was not achieved until 1980, however.  Third, registration should not be strictly about military service.  “Registration might instead be a first step towards the implementation of a broadly conceived program of national service,” the letter reads.  It concludes with the thought that both men and women should have the choice to decide between military and civilian service, a testament to Haverford’s adherence to Quaker morals and its protection of students.

Some of Haverford’s most prominent proponents of change came in the form of women seeking coeducation and minority students seeking diversification, as was detailed in an article on the first women to study at Haverford that appeared in the 2007 alumni magazine.  The archives of the later part of the Haverford’s 20th century history are replete with evidence of these attempts, on campus, to pursue the moral betterment and sustained advancement of the community.  

Something has changed, however, in the way we practice activism here.

Jerry Miller, professor of Philosophy and chair of the department, indicated that the public aspect of activism at Haverford is hard to see nowadays, even from the viewpoint of the people who see the students most: the faculty.

“I do not know my students’ political views, and perhaps the classroom is not the right place for those discussions,” Miller said.  

He reflected on his past, noting that when he was studying at Yale, sit-ins, marches, and other forms of activism, particularly in relation to protesting apartheid, were rampant.

“It was all very visible,” Miller said.   However, the most important point that Miller made was not explicitly stated.  It came in the form of noting how activism has changed, particularly on campus, as we entered the 21st century.  The newfound pervasiveness of social media has encouraged activism to undergo a fundamental kinesis in how it is practiced.  This has been apparent in just one semester of living at Haverford.

Haverford’s graduates supply a ready testament to its pursuit of justice, even barring the historical complications one faces when objectively evaluating the history of this institution.

Activism at Haverford has generally followed the course of history, responding to the movements of the times and protesting the injustices that continue to plague 21st century America.  Activism has been and will continue to be an integral part of our history as a college.  Our history is rich with moments where we took stands against injustice.  We are part of that history.  Regardless of its form, activism has shaped Haverford students, both consciously and subconsciously, simply by exposing us to the Quaker tradition of fighting injustice.  The era in which we now live demands that we persistently combat injustices, physical and metaphysical, rather than responding only to the flagrant events with which we are regularly presented.  If nothing else, let the Quaker roots in which we are steeped lead us towards the peace of equality that each of us seek.

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