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A pilot podcast project by University of Iowa student and UIPM Education Assistant Emily Lefeber. In At The Center Of It All, Emily explores major happenings on campus which the beautiful Old Capitol has lived through, with the University of Iowa students, campus and community always persevering. In this episode, Emily shares research on the last time the campus closed for an extended period of time due to a major event. It just so happens that it was almost exactly 50 years ago, but not for a public health outbreak. This time, it was due to nationwide unrest that found its way to our campus: protest over the Vietnam War.
At the Center of it Episode 1: The Spring of 1970
Hi everyone and welcome to At the Center of it All. My name is Emily Lefeber. I am currently a student at the University of Iowa studying History and Political Science as well as Museum Studies. I’m also an education assistant here at the Pentacrest Museums. Normally, I work on educational programming. Right now, although we’re missing all of you and our galleries, collections, and programs, we’ve been busy working on new and creative ways to stay engaged from afar. You’re listening to a pilot podcast we’re calling At the Center of it All, which of course references our beautiful Old Capitol Museum, and its central location on campus.
So, the other day, our director, Liz Crooks, shared a thought during one of our Zoom meetings that got me thinking. She mentioned something about just how much the University of Iowa Campus has been through since its founding in 1846 – and how our museum, Old Capitol, has been important during all of these events. From riots to pandemics to student movements – all of it. Our Old Capitol really has stood at the center of it all. If a building could talk, I’m sure Old Capitol would assure us that this too shall pass.
As I sit in the safety of my home – well, my parents’ home, I started to look into some other examples other major events that might share similarities to the large scale of event we are living through today. I started researching one of the last times the University of Iowa thought about closing its campus – but for a very different reason. Through my research, I learned that exactly fifty years ago, this year, anti-war sentiment rocked the Iowa City community. So, it seems fitting to discuss the Spring of 1970 and how the Old Capitol stood witness to it all. Much of the information that follows comes from the University of Iowa Digital Libraries, which is an awesome resource. For full citations, please visit the text version of this project.
SEGMENT 1: SETTING THE STAGE
Fifty years ago, this year, classes on the University of Iowa’s campuses were disrupted for an entirely different reason. It wasn’t for any sort of public health outbreak. It was because of protests against the Vietnam War.
The Spring of 1970 was a chaotic time for college campuses across the nation. Opposition against the Vietnam War was growing, and anti-war protests were growing louder. The war dragged on and the government continued to send young Americans across the globe to fight a war the American public viewed as unnecessary.
Today’s story starts not in Iowa, but in Ohio. Beginning on May 1, students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio protested the war in growing numbers after an invasion of Cambodia was rumored. Riots and violent classes between students and local police led the major of Kent
to close all the bars in the town, with the support of the Ohio Governor. The following day, the National Guard arrived. Rather than helping the situation, the arrival of the National Guard instead fueled student frustrations.
On May 4, 1970, three days later, a major crowd began to gather to protest. At 11:00 in the morning, an estimated 3,000 protestors and spectators were gathered on the Kent State campus. The protest began peacefully, speaking out against the Vietnam War and the National Guard’s presence on campus. The Guard ordered the protesters to disperse. The crowd refused. Tensions escalated. Rocks began flying at the Guardsmen. The protests were suddenly, not so peaceful.
The Guard responded by marching towards the protesters, forcing them up a nearby hill, known as Blanket Hill, and then down the other side. At this point, the guard seemed to retreat back up Blanket Hill. Until 28 guardsmen turned and fired their rifles. In just 13 seconds, nearly 70 shots were fired into the crowd and into the air. Four students lost their lives – Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer. Nine others were injured – some were shot in the back as they ran for safety.
The shooting triggered nationwide student protests at over 450 colleges and Universities, including, of course, The University of Iowa.
SEGMENT 2: PROTESTS IGNITE IN IOWA CITY
Iowa City was no stranger to student protests; anti-war demonstrations had been happening on campus throughout the 1960s. Iowa City was, and still is, home to passionate discourse about current events; instructors, staff, and students had always engaged in lively civil debates. Demonstrations against the war at the ROTC presence at Iowa occurred throughout the 1960s in the early months of 1970.
Students were increasingly frustrated. They felt ignored. They cared about the future of their country, but it seemed like no one was listening. The wanted change but they lacked money and power. The war in Vietnam continued. The 1971 University of Iowa Hawkeye Yearbook compared the Kent State shooting to the Boston Massacre, which occurred on May 5, 1770, in which British soldiers fired into a crowd of rebel protesters, killing five. The soldiers were exonerated of their crime, just like the Kent State Guardsmen. Students were shocked by what happened at Kent State and they were angry. It was a big deal.
Protests against the ROTC on our campus had begun even before the Kent State Shooting. Most demonstrations were peaceful and involved no arrests. On May 1, three days before the shooting at Kent State, 400 anti-ROTC protestors forced the cancellation of an Army and Air Force ROTC awards ceremony at the University of Iowa. Demonstrators had flooded the Recreation Building, where the ceremony was to be held. They weren’t violent: they sat on the floor and didn’t move. Students sang and talked throughout occupation, disrupting the
ceremony. As before, the students left before arrest were made. This non-violent protest claimed victory over the ROTC event. Then, just a few days later, came the Kent State shootings.
The atmosphere on the UI campus changed dramatically. While most students continued to protest peacefully, the public’s attention focused on the violent protests. Late in the evening on May 4th, approximately 400 University of Iowa students marched on the National Guard Armory. Rocks flew at the building, shattering windows. As the group marched away from the Armory, the students split into smaller groups, staging sit-ins at street intersections. Traffic came to a halt around campus. Some groups threw rocks through windows of many downtown Iowa City businesses.
According to sources I read, the protests continued into the night until early the next morning. Police Officers, dawning their full riot gear, broke up the crowds. The student protesters scattered, most avoiding arrest. Those who were arrested were charged with disorderly conduct and taken to the Iowa City Civic Center to be held since there was not enough room in jail for all of the arrested protesters. There were reports of police violence against protestors. At 2:30 AM, a group of angry students, totaling 300 protestors, moved on the Civic Center to protest the arrests. The group did not disperse until 4AM, when reinforcements were called in by the police. Sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen were called in from neighboring counties to assist with crowd control. The next day, students gathered again, taking to the streets to block traffic.
The next day in our story brings us to Wednesday, May 6th, 1970. Student Body President Robert Beller and Daily Iowan editor Lowell Forte called for the boycott of classes to protest President Nixon’s announcement about the United States’ invasion into Cambodia. Student leaders wanted to continue to the momentum of the previous days’ protests. Things were really heating up. Many students chose to participate in the boycott, while some continued to attend classes.
The University of Iowa president at the time, Willard L. Boyd, feared more violent protests. To try to temper fears, he issued the following statement:
“Above all else, Wednesday must be a day of peace. I appeal to everyone to preserve this university community from disruption and violence which would completely negate any show of our concern for peace elsewhere in the world.”
Boyd continued by telling students to write to their representatives and advised instructors not to penalize any student for failing to attend classes during the boycott. This was a pretty powerful statement coming from our leadership. Find out more about the Spring of 1970 after the break.
SEGMENT 3: ESCALATION
And we’re back! When we left off, things were heating up in Iowa City. UI President Boyd had just called for peace and asked that students shouldn’t be penalized for absences.
During the protests, the Iowa City City Council granted the mayor emergency powers to enforce a city-wide curfew. Additionally, the City passed an injunction which banned all types of disturbances on campus. All persons were prevented from disrupting University events, obstructing traffic, or damaging property. The injunction also gave police the authority to make arrests for any disturbances.
On Wednesday, May 6, about 400 students gathered in front of Old Capitol for a peaceful “sleep-in” protest along with a performance by a local band. The strikes continued through the night and all-day Thursday. At every rally, the Old Capitol bore the letters “ROTC” spray painted on its columns. Around 10PM Thursday night, 50 protestors broke into Old Capitol, attempting to occupy the building. A smoke bomb was set off on the in the Old Capitol leading many to fear that the historic building was burning. However, fears were unfounded. The occupying protesters left Old Capitol voluntarily when asked to do so by officials.
At 2AM on Friday morning, UI President Boyd issued the order to clear the Pentacrest. Police arrested 228 demonstrators, all of whom were sitting peacefully on the steps of Old Capitol. Our Old Capitol Museum stood as the center point of the anti-war movement during the Spring of 1970. Old Capitol has always been so prominent in movements throughout the history of the University of Iowa, but it really comes to life here as peaceful protesters were arrested one by one right on the Old Capitol steps. Boyd would later admit that he regretted the decision to arrest the demonstrators, saying his decision was based on miscommunicated information. The Iowa Military Police Battalion soon moved into the Iowa City area and a National Guard helicopter circled the Pentacrest, disrupting rallies. Frustrations continued to grow among student protestors.
Tensions came to a peak that Friday night on May 8th, 1970. A UI campus building, the Old Armory Temporary, dubbed the “Big Pink” for its bright façade, was completely burned by protestors using molatov cocktails. The building, which housed the Rhetoric department and graduate student offices, was located next to where the Alder Journalism and Mass Communications building now stands. The building is said to have been chosen due to its poor condition. The “Big Pink” was built just after World War II and was supposedly insulated with corn husks. The walls were so fragile, someone could easily punch through them. Though it was built as a temporary solution, the building had been in use for about 25 years. It’s burning symbolized both the peak of the riots and the fear felt across campus.
The building was completely destroyed, reduced to ashes by flames. The remaining wreckage sagged, weighed down by water used to douse the flames. Offices were reduced to a charred swamp. For several nights after, faculty members took turns guarding main University buildings, fearing their building would be burned next.
SEGMENT 4: CAMPUS CLOSES
Saturday, May 9th 1970 passed without event. Armed police stationed at the Old Capitol watched as students silently walked across campus. The National Guard helicopter continued to circle overhead.
Rumors spread quickly throughout campus about future plans. Some said bombs were found being assembled in the dorms. A list supposedly circulated which ranked buildings to be burned and destroyed next. Many rumors turned out to be unfounded, but many students still feared for their safety. Concerned parents brought their students home; other students called their parents begging to return home.
Sunday, May 10th, President Boyd announced that students would not be required to finish classes or take final exams if they wanted to leave Iowa City. Students could leave campus and return home if they feared for their safety without penalty before the semester ended on May 26th. Students who chose this option accepted a letter grade based on work completed through May 3. Nearly 2/3 of the student body, that’s nearly 12,000 students, prepared to leave campus. The worst was over.
Classes continued quietly for the few students who had chosen to stay on campus. Eventually, the National Guard and the Highway Patrol withdrew from Iowa City. The flurry of protests, strikes, and riots settled. Iowa City, the University, and the Old Capitol had survived the storm.
SEGMENT 5: A STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
Professor Nancy Macko, a professor of art and practicing artist at Scripps College in Southern California and creator of the Fragile Bee exhibit previously displayed at Old Capitol, was a student at the time. Macko now chairs the art department at Scripps and teaches a variety of classes including digital art, printmaking, seminars on feminist art, and gender and economics classes. She was kind enough to share with me her experiences at the University of Iowa during her freshman year at Iowa. Here’s what Macko writes of her memory of the Spring of 1970.
“I didn’t have a major yet. I was a freshman arriving in January at the beginning of a spring semester. Iowa was certainly a shock to this girl form Long Island. Iowa was flat, snow covered, cold, and a there was lot of talk about farming. I lived in a dorm that was painted hospital green and shared my room with a local girl. She spent hours on her upper bund bed giggling and cuddling with her boyfriend. I made friends with some of the girls on my floor. I was very interested in art, though I hadn’t declared it as my major yet.
“As for the protests, I didn’t know what to think. I was really apolitical at the time and a friend was inspiring me to be more aware of what was going on. The way I remember it, it seemed like we had just come back from spring break when the Kent State Shootings took place and campus closed. It seemed like I had barely returned when I was home again in Long Island. Once home, I did become much more aware of the protests that I had been – the protests against the war and the growing divide in the country.”
Nancy returned many years later for her gallery opening of The Fragile Bee at the Old Captiol Museum and remembered the town and campus quite differently. She was happy to see how it had grown, how beautiful it was. Things change quickly and a lot can happen in 50 years.
SEGMENT 6 CONCLUSION
Clearly, Iowa City is full of passionate, creative, and determined people. We have the strength to survive challenging times. Over the past month, our community has gone through so much – through sickness and isolation. But we will persevere. It’s quite comforting to know that someday we will look back on this pandemic from fifty years in the future the same way we look back at the Spring of 1970. In both cases, the Old Capitol stands at the center of it all.
All of this to say, this will pass. And we can’t wait to see you when it does.
Thank you all for listening. My name is Emily Lefeber and this has been At the Center of It All. Special thanks to Nancy Macko for sharing her experiences of Spring 1970 and a shout out to the University of Iowa Digital Libraries for their amazing resources for research and scholarship.
Did you enjoy this podcast? Do you remember the events of the Spring of 1970? Share your memories with us in the comments below! And let us what other topics in Iowa History you’d like to learn more about!
That's all for this time. Stay safe everyone and we’ll see you soon.