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Student Activism in the 1930s
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    Activist Impulses: Campus Radicalism in the 1930s
    Robert Cohen

    Family Influences on Student Radicalism

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    The Students Return. Cover art from The Student Outlook, October, 1934.
    "The Students Return." Cover art from The Student Outlook, October, 1934.

  1. Hearst and his allies failed to understand that dissidence and activism were being taught far more effectively outside than inside the classroom. Nor did they comprehend that such instruction did not usually come from members of the teaching profession. Rightwing critics of the student movement were correct in one respect: the students" elders helped to pave the way for the campus insurgency; however, they were focusing on the wrong elders. It was not the school teachers and professors, but the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers of campus activists who did the most to incline them toward student protest. Of the student activists in our sampled group, 41.6 percent credited some family members or home influence with facilitating their politicization. Family was by far the most frequent factor the students cited as they discussed the people whose influence fostered their emergence as campus activists. [32]

  2. The fact that so many students credited family—and especially parents—for their dissident politics suggests that the campus activists of the 1930s were surprisingly free of youthful narcissism. Up until its final years, the student movement displayed little generational rage. These student rebels promoted political protest, but not a cultural rebellion or youth culture in revolt against the lifestyle of their elders. Snapshots of 1930s campus rebels show that this was not a movement of youthful bohemians. The protesters tended to wear suits and ties, skirts and dress coats, which resembled nothing so much as the attire of their parents. The entire style of politics was adult-like. In fact, movement organizers wanted to leave behind the juvenile modes of behavior that had characterized the fraternity-dominated youth culture inherited from the 1920s. Any violence or rowdiness on college campuses in the 1930s was much more likely to be the work of fraternity men and their hazing than anti-war protesters and their much more sober protest activity. [33]

  3. Though the Depression era student insurgency represented a movement of young people, it prided itself on its ties with parallel movements of adults. This reflected the Left ideological orientation of its leaders, who saw class rather than age as the most important dividing point in America. These activists viewed the student movement as an auxiliary—albeit an important one—to the labor movement and its struggle for a more egalitarian social order. This lack of generational rancor was made explicit, for instance, in the American Youth Congress' founding platform in 1934. In its preamble to this document the Youth Congress voted to

    reject the explanation which seeks to place the blame on the old as such for the evils which youth can repair just because they are young. We do not believe that the fundamental problems before us are special "youth problems," amenable to solution by special "youth demands" alone. We declare that they are the general problems of the masses of the people, who are subject to the same insecurity and the same danger, to be solved by all those whose interests drive them to seek a solution, young and old, youth from industry, farm and school. [34]

    This rejection of generational politics was based on more than abstract theory; it was drawn from lessons that American student activists learned as they looked at Europe's reactionary youth movements. That is why the Youth Congress' preamble argued that stressing the special virtues of youth was dangerous and potentially fascistic:

    Emphasis upon a youth movement which glories in regimented ranks of young people, enthusiastically moving towards some goal-the goal itself being secondary-resembles the fascist movements of Germany and Italy where the sufferings and idealism of youth were perverted by the selfishly calculating guardians of a decaying economic order to bring oppression and terror to the masses of people. [35]

  4. As in this public document, the autobiographical essays student activists wrote in the mid-1930s reflect far more generational solidarity and respect than hostility. In most of the activists' essays that mention their families, those references are positive. These activists seemed eager to link their own political activism to some legacy from their parents or siblings. Most seemed to take pride in citing this shared determination to better society. [36]

  5. The types of positive connections the activists drew between themselves and their parents were as varied as the students themselves. In some cases, students gave much of the credit for their own politics to activist parents. ASU leader Molly Yard, for instance, expressed reverence for the activism and political integrity of her parents, both of whom had served as Methodist missionaries in China. Yard was especially proud of her father, a "belligerent idealist" and "radical" who "resigned from his position" in the missionary movement because "he did not see eye to eye with those in control." Here Yard was referring to her father's agitation against the missionary movement's racially segregationist practices. She also praised her father's subsequent work as religious director of Northwestern University, where his "decisive stand on all problems of race, economics and religion" again cost him his job. Yard concluded that thanks to "my parents' beliefs and their stands I have had quite a thorough education in the realm of social progress." And in fact, the link between Yard's own career as a student activist and her father's agitation is striking. Following in his footsteps, her first campaign—and one which would carry her into national leadership in the student movement—was against bigotry and discrimination in Swarthmore College's sorority system. [37]

  6. Yard's political background was, of course, somewhat unusual. Among WASP student activists—raised in the politically conservative 1920s—only a few had so strong a radical role model as she. Radical parents were more common among student activists who were the sons and daughters of immigrants, especially Russian Jewish immigrants. Several of the essays by these students attest that they were not only second generation immigrants, but second generation student activists. "My father," wrote one ASU organizer

    was one of the student leaders in pre-revolutionary Russia [who] . . . carried on a great deal of educational work among the peasants. He left Russia because he did not believe in compulsory military training .... It is interesting to see that youth of a previous generation fought the same issues that we are fighting now. [38]

    A Barnard ASU member described her Jewish immigrant parents attending "underground meetings" during Russia's 1905 revolution. In America her father, a dentist, became first a socialist and then a communist, active

    in the fight for socialized medicine, and more recently in arousing approval for the Wagner Health bill .... At home I was taught the meaning of racial and religious tolerance, and was told stories of pogroms in Russia, of the persecution of Negroes in the South . . . [39]

  7. Another significant model for student activists came from parents and even grandparents who had been involved in liberal rather than radical organizing. Several of the young activists had parents who were veterans of the settlement house movement. A Vassar ASU organizer wrote with pride of her mother's role in "social work, she and a friend founding a summer camp for children from the slums, which is still in existence and cares for a thousand underprivileged youngsters annually." It was easy to see why she might be attracted to anti-war protest at Vassar, when her "parents were both opposed to war on principle . . . [and] neither my younger brother nor I was allowed to play with toy guns or soldiers." [40] A high school ASU organizer recalled that her grandmother had been an "active social worker in the Henry Street settlement." Over the summers her family housed young workers in their large country house to give them an escape from the slums. Through this family activism and "these contacts [with the underprivileged] I became conscious of some sort of social inequality based on wealth, which seemed puzzling and unjust. By the time I was ten, I had some vague ideas of a socialist society as an ideal." [41] A University of Chicago ASU member traced her politics to family ties with other phases of progressive era reform:

    My mother was . . . brought up in a stiffling bourgeois . . . society. Nevertheless, she had liberal tendencies .... Her first activities were anti-sweat shop labor agitation, visiting the sweat-shops to see for herself the actual conditions. Then she became an active suffragette. She remained a liberal throughout my youth and still is one. She started encouraging me to read the newspapers at an early age. I wasn't very interested .... Finally my mother shamed me into a real interest when, at an early age, she asked me who Mussolini was, and I didn't know. That settled my ignorance, and I didn't dare not read the papers. [42]

    By her high school years she was an ardent pacifist, involved in the ASU and emulating her mother's activist career.

  8. Several of the student movement's more prominent African American activists came from homes where parents had been involved in civil rights agitation. James Jackson, who organized on behalf of the NSL, the ASU, and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, recalled that his father was a loyal follower of W.E.B. DuBois. "We grew up with Crisis (the NAACP magazine edited by DuBois). As a matter of fact we learned to read on DuBois' column 'As the Crow Flies.'" His father was assaulted and arrested while participating in protests against Richmond's segregated trolley car system. The elder Jackson also took part in protests against racially restrictive housing covenants in the 1920s. With a role model like this, it was natural for the son to become a civil rights activist long before entering college. His activism began with a battle against segregation in the Boy Scouts of America, and a campaign to establish the first black Boy Scout troop in Virginia. [43]

  9. More commonly, however, student movement organizers had parents who, though not active in the liberal or radical politics, were Left-liberal sympathizers. In many of these cases the students drew connections between their own activism and the liberal or radical values taught them by their parents. "My parents were liberal almost to the point of socialism," noted a Harvard ASU leader, who termed this "a determining factor" in his political development. A Vassar ASU organizer wrote that she owed her political orientation to her father, "a paper manufacturer .... Although his job . . . boosted the family social standing yet his own farm upbringing has been to a large extent responsible for his liberal outlook and a sympathy toward labor that, one may safely say are unusual in a New England business man." [44] "The liberal tradition in my thinking I got mostly from my parents," explained an Amherst ASU activist.

    My father has a responsible position in a large leather corporation .... But instead of having any particular reverence or respect for businessmen he has considered them a rather shallow group in any kind of intellectual accomplishment. Also a sympathy for labor has distinguished him from most of his associates. By talking with my parents I have gradually absorbed this same attitude of not having the business world as an idol as some middle class youths have. [45]

  10. Parents also transmitted their political values indirectly, through formal educational institutions. Liberal or radical parents would commonly send their children to progressive and experimental schools, which brought them into contact with teachers who would help politicize them. [46] Academia's rightwing critics, in their rush to indict teachers and pose as defenders of the family, conveniently ignored the phenomenon of family involvement in choosing to send their sons and daughters to liberal educational institutions. This phenomenon was evident, for example, in the case of the parents of a Vassar ASU member. Although her father had been a Hoover Republican, as the Depression intensified, he moved towards New Deal liberalism and had no qualms about sending his oldest daughter to liberal Vassar. This daughter returned from Vassar "and brought home a great many liberal and radical ideas that were new to our family," explained her younger sister. "My father admits now that my sister made him give much more serious thought to the political and economic problems of our day," a process which led him to embrace "democratic socialism . . . as the goal we must work for." [47] The father was more than willing to pay for his younger daughter to attend Vassar, and she—influenced by her family's leftward shift—became a prominent ASU organizer during her college years.

  11. Even when parents did not try to teach their progressive political views to their children, this could occur unintentionally. A socialist student from Antioch College noted that though his parents were radicals "they themselves avoided discussing political questions with me, because they did not want to influence my ideas." But "unhindered browsing in the family bookcase" led him to his parents' politics anyway through a reading of Edward Bellamy's utopian socialist novel Looking Backwards:

    When I found that mother could not explain . . . why Bellamy's beautiful system was not adopted, I turned to reading and lectures for the answer. I religiously attended the lecture series at the Labor Institute, becoming acquainted with socialist thought and gaining my first knowledge of the labor movement. My . . . belief in the necessity for change was intensified. [48]

  12. Joseph Lash also grew up with socialist reading material in his home. In his case it was the Yiddish socialist press, which opposed World War I, giving Lash (even though this was not discussed with his parents) the impressiOn that "we must have been mildly anti-war." With Lash, however, the most memorable anti-war lesson he received as a child from his father occurred accidentally. While walking with his father down Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan during World War I, the two were approached by federal agents searching for draft evaders. The agents demanded to see the draft card of Lash's father. "My Father," Lash recalled,

    who had fled Czarist Russia in 1905 and had an abiding fear of the arbitrariness of officials, especially police, in their dealings with Jews was very frightened even though as the father of five children, all under the age of eight . . . he was in a deferred status. The agent looked at his card and waved him on. But a small boy is very sensitive to his father's reactions. He had communicated his sense of fright to me. I can still feel it. [49]

  13. The relationships between children and parents are, of course, too diverse to be fit into any one model. Not all the activists who mentioned their families in their autobiographies saw themselves as simply following in the footsteps of their parents. Sometimes the relationship was more complex than that, and the path from the parents' lives to the child's politics more winding and rocky. A CCNY communist wrote in his autobiographical essay of the painful experience of his parents. They had left Lithuania in pursuit of the American dream. "However, the land of 'golden streets' soon became a land of poverty," working in sweatshops and living in a "Lower-East-Side firetrap." Although the CCNY student's elder brother finally prospered and moved his parents out of the tenement, these ghetto years had left scars. "It was not very long ago," admitted the young communist, "that I looked upon this background with shame. I also felt ashamed of my 'greenhorn' parents." Through the radical movement, which made his working-class origins seem a virtue rather than a vice, this young activist believed he had overcome his feelings of shame and inferiority. Here radicalism seemed to offer a vehicle for both generational reconciliation and the child's redemption of the parent's American dream:

    If the working-class movement meant nothing more than the reestablishment of pride in my working-class parents, it was enough. I am proud of the struggles that my parents went through to feed me. I am proud of their true love for America, not the hypocritical flag waving of our professional patriots. Not only has the working-class movement meant this for me, but it also has given me an accomplishable vision of a new society, a society, which my parents thought they would find here. [50]

  14. Only five out of the 125 student activists in our sample linked their politics to rebellion against their parents. Three of these five, however, indicated that during their student activist days they had gotten over this stage of youthful rebellion; they had become both reconciled with their parents and comfortable with their new politics, which was now based on political principle rather than generational hostility. But even these low figures do not fully capture the insignificance of generational rage in producing student radicalism. Almost half of this small group of five, it turns out, had in their stage of generational revolt, been rebelling against radical parents! These two included an SLID activist from Cleveland College who confessed that her socialist father's "long tirades against 'the system' which he delivered with never diminishing gusto at each dinner-time, fell on unreceptive ears, resulting in my junior high school days, in a strongly negative attitude towards anything of social content . . ." A Wayne University student, whose father had been a socialist since his days in Yugoslavia's "student terrorist organizations" wrote that he also "went through a period of adolescent revolt" against his father's politics. "Ever since I was a child I was almost religiously indoctrinated with Socialism and Atheism." During his period of rebellion, the son "became completely sceptical about Socialism in the same manner as one brought up in a religious environment becomes sceptical about God." But in both cases, these second generation radicals returned to the politics of their parents, the first because friends in the student movement re-connected her with her radical roots through their anti-war agitation, and the second because his own readings persuaded him that his overbearing father had been right about the merits of socialism. [51]

  15. Of the three students who had rebelled against non-radical parents, one did not do so in a spiteful or purely emotional manner. The rebellion of this ASU activist evolved out of tensions which may naturally arise between first generation college students and their much less educated parents. In this case, the parents were southerners with "strong prejudices against foreigners, Jews, and Negroes," who, to their radical daughter seemed hopelessly narrow-minded. She confessed in her 1938 autobiographical essay that she had developed a "superiority complex" toward her provincial parents. In defense of this attitude, the young activist noted that her "superiority feeling accomplished a good purpose. It kept me from adopting their prejudices." Having staked out her own political territory, this rebellious daughter, however, came to realize that she could respect her parents even as she rejected their prejudices. She wrote that her feelings of superiority had "now, I am glad to say, [been] supplanted by respect for them because they are really intelligent parents, and good parents, who have struggled hard to give us advantages they didn't have." [52]

  16. No student movement is entirely free of at least a few youths whose embrace dissident politics as a way of antagonizing parents with whom they have been in conflict. This was clearly the case with an SLID activist whose autobiographical essay reflected disdain for her family of Wyoming farmers. She noted that she had become active in the student LID "partly because I agreed with its aims, partly because I knew my family wouldn't like it." In his memoir, Is Curly Jewish?, Paul Jacobs made a similar connection between his radicalization and generational conflict. Jacobs had a tempestuous relationship with his middle-class Jewish parents. and felt "contempt for the values of the family." He termed his emergence as an active leftist at CCNY "an affirmation of my contempt for and impatience with the making of money, pursuits I identified with my parents .... The CCNY radical regarded businessmen as a very low form of life." Yet what is striking about these two cases, was their rarity; they were the only ones out of the 125 activists in our sampled group who traced their politics to an unresolved, open, and ongoing conflict with parents. [53]

  17. The generally high level of respect of student activists for their parents was often reciprocated. Few of the activists in our sampled group reported that parents had tried to interfere with their political lives. The lack of such parental interference contrasted starkly with the much more frequent incidents of political suppression of students by teachers and educational administrators. Indeed, in most of the major free speech fights involving conflicts between student activists and administrators, parents sided with their children against school authorities. This occurred in 1932 at Columbia University, during the first major campus free speech fight of the decade, after the Columbia administration expelled student newspaper editor Reed Harris. The expelled editor's father, Tudor Harris boasted to the press: "My son and his associates have brought new vigor and life to the editorial page" of Columbia's student newspaper, "heretofore little more than a 'yes' organ"; he publicly condemned President Butler for expelling his son, and declared that he "would regard a diploma received at the hands of a college president who would sanction, let alone direct, such an action for such a cause as a stigma." [54]

  18. At UCLA during the West Coast's biggest free speech fight in 1930s, parents again played a prominent role in opposing repressive administrators. Soon after the UCLA administration had suspended five students on charges of assisting in a communist plot "to destroy the University" in 1934, the parents of four of these students rushed to their defense. The parents issued a joint press release attacking UCLA's provost "for the injury he has done these young people for blasting their reputations when they are on the threshold of life before giving them a hearing in which they could have disproved such charges"; they demanded that UCLA quickly correct "this injustice." The same thing happened at the University of Michigan in 1935, when an expelled NSL activist's father publicly challenged President Ruthven's disciplinary action against his son. Similarly, Hunter College's president found that a delegation of parents were among the first to protest his decision to take a campus job away from a student because of her anti-war activity. [55]

  19. Parental support for student dissent was especially prominent at CCNY during the longest and most turbulent campus free speech fight in Depression America. Here parents appeared at the disciplinary hearings for their sons, who had gotten into trouble with the administration for protesting the visit of an Italian fascist delegation at CCNY. At these hearings, one parent told the presiding CCNY administrators that "if his son should have been expelled for his anti-Fascist beliefs I would not stand for it . . .—anti-Fascist action I always support." "I think my boy has a right to a different opinion," explained another parent. In one very tense exchange with the dean, a protester's mother made it clear that she took a dim view of both the disciplinary hearings and the fascist invitation that had led to it. The dean told her "the point is whether the faculty [or the student body] is going to run the college . . ." She replied, "I suppose students have some rights." "It is the faculty who run the College," argued the dean. "For whose benefit?" asked the mother. "I know the faculty was placed in an embarrassing position, but they should have taken into consideration that the student body didn't wish to receive them [the fascist delegation]." [56]

  20. Nor were such objections confined to a few dissident parents. When the hearings culminated in the expulsion of twenty-one CCNY students one of the city's largest parents organization, the United Parents Association (UPA) protested. UPA delegates, representing 201 parents organizations voted in their January 1935 meeting to oppose the expulsions. The UPA president sent a letter to the CCNY administration charging "that the penalties which have been imposed on the expelled students are far more severe than the situation warranted." [57]

  21. There were even occasions in which parents joined their activist sons and daughters on campus picket lines. This occurred, for example, during the 1936 anti-war strike at Brooklyn College. Here a delegation of thirteen mothers marched together to show parental solidarity with the student crusade against war. The parents at this strike rally attracted press attention with their picket signs, which proclaimed that they "preferred sons to gold stars," and warned that they "had not raised their sons to be cannon fodder." [58]

  22. Parental support did, however, have its limits. Some parents encouraged their sons and daughter to exercise caution and discretion in their political activism. These parents feared that their children might jeopardize their careers if they gained too much notoriety from protest activity. This was the case with Celeste Strack. After her initial conflicts with the USC administration, Strack found that her family was

    scared to death. They were getting phone calls threatening me at home during the summer, when I came home from USC. All sorts of pressure was brought to bear on them. And while they would argue with me, they were never attempting to disown me or throw me out. They were mainly just scared to death. I have to say looking back on it they were very forebearing, considering how conservative they were and how scared . . . and worried they were. [59]

  23. Such fear also afflicted the father of Youth Congress chairman Jack McMichael. The Youth Congress leader's father was a physician in southern Georgia, whose liberal idealism led him to crusade on behalf of low-cost medical care for the rural poor. This crusade by Dr. McMichael had played an important role in fostering his son's politicization. But he grew quite concerned about Jack shortly after the Youth Congress' break with the Roosevelt administration, when the organization was attacked for opposing conscription and charged with communist domination. Aware that his own activism had helped inspire his more radical son, Dr. McMichael advised Jack to be less headstrong and learn from his mistakes. "It has been my nature," Dr. McMichael wrote his son,

    to go ahead with a thing I thought was right, regardless of the consequences, social, financial or other wise. In doing this I have paid a big price .... In looking back I believe I should have been willing to go slower after my objective, and compromise more .... I realize you have your own life to live, and as you know I have never asked you to let me think in place for you. At the same time I would not allow you as a child to do anything I thought might hurt you. My love for you, my age and experience I think justifies me in asking you to avoid doing anything radical. Try . . . to take as much good from all isms and make it fit democracy. It is hard to believe that so many Commentators and such a large part of the Press would say so many hard things about the Youth Congress unless they had good reason for doing so .... Stop and try to believe that at least some of the criticism of these older and more experienced people have made is just. Personally I would be willing to follow Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt all the way .... Please be cautious in what you say and always remember that you may have to justify this later in life. Remember too that your happiness & success mean more to me than anything else. [60]

  24. The most extreme cases of parental criticism were those in which fathers of activists publicly denounced the radicalism of their children. This occurred at Berkeley in 1940, when Professor Samuel May announced he was disowning and disinheriting his son Kenneth because of his communist activism. The father implied that his son—a teaching fellow at Berkeley—had been lured into the communist movement by his new wife, a communist "woman much older than himself." Kenneth avoided any direct attack on his conservative father; but he did refute his father's claims about his wife, telling the press that:

    I first joined the Communist party as an undergraduate at the University because I found by actual experience in student activities that the Communists were consistent and uncompromising fighters for the interests of the students and against reaction within and without the university. [61]

  25. The other major public dispute between activist and parent also involved a California student. This time, however, it was a female undergraduate at UCLA and her rightwing father. The father in this case was H. Bedford Jones, a writer, and his daughter Nancy. Here, as in the May case, the father added sexual overtones to the story of his child's radicalization. But Mr. Jones was even less subtle in this regard than Professor May had been. Jones' 1935 Liberty magazine article on his daughter's radicalization appeared under the lurid title "Will the Communists Get Our Girls in College?" The article told the story of three coeds who had been led to subversive activities by a wily "young Red [who] seduces girls." Nancy Bedford Jones, an SLID activist, publicly repudiated these and other charges made by her father. In her article, "My father Is a Liar!," which she published in the student press, Nancy revealed that the three coeds discussed by her father in his Liberty article were in reality a fictionalized version of her own experience. She charged that her father had completely distorted the story of her radicalization in order to slander and discredit the student movement. [62]

  26. The May and Jones disputes attracted considerable press attention. This attention came, however, because public, hostile clashes between activists and parents were so rare. Through the entire decade of student activism, from 1931 to 1941, the May and Jones cases stand out as the only examples of conservative parents mounting public attacks on their activist children. The similar dynamic of these two conflicts is also significant because in both cases it was the parent rather than the student who had initiated the public conflict—again suggesting that student activists were neither seething with generational rage nor anxious to go on the attack against their parents. In fact, part of the reason Nancy Bedford Jones became so outraged by her father's veiled public attack on her political activism was because in the past her relationship with him had been so positive. "I had," Nancy wrote, "always loved my father as a pal and I was heartsick when I learned of this. I didn't believe a father could do this to a daughter and even more to the movement in which her ideals are bound." [63]

  27. It is possible that the fiery type of conflicts that student activists like May and Jones had with their parents in public may have gone on more frequently in private. Parents would, after all, be far more likely to air such differences at the breakfast table than in the national media—where their children's reputations would be jeopardized. But judging by the autobiographical data, even private conflicts over student activism between parents and children were unusual and generally much less heated than in the May and Jones disputes. Irving Howe, for instance, recalled that though his parents disapproved of his Trotskyist politics, they "objected more to my late hours, a result of wandering the streets with cronies after meetings." A Vassar student reported a similar conflict with her parents, after extensive campaigning for Norman Thomas led her to neglect her studies. Finding her liberal mother more upset by her falling grades than by her politics, she observed that "my mother's chief objection to Norman Thomas is not on account of his views but because he was the principal cause of my flunking that history course. I was too busy making American history to study it." [64]


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