San Francisco State College Student Strike

“On strike! Shut it down!” From November 1968 to March 1969, those words rang out daily on the campus of San Francisco State College.  Like clockwork, between noon and 3 p.m., striking students would gather at the Speaker’s Platform on campus for a rally, then turn in a mass and march on the Administration Building, intent upon confrontation with President Smith or Hayakawa. The strike at San Francisco State College lasted five months, longer than any other academic student strike in American higher education history, and, miraculously, was less violent than any that were to come. Why did this strike happen in San Francisco, a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, known for its tolerance? Why did it happen at San Francisco State College, an innovative, liberal, four-year institution that was comparatively unknown?
San Francisco has been called “the city that knows how,” an apt description of its progressive, stimulating atmosphere. From a frontier town on San Francisco Bay in 1849, the city has grown to a financial and cultural center, noted for its business acumen as well as its patronage of music and art. Visitors come from all over the world to experience its magical excitement. Through the years, the city has grown in size, population, and maturity, but has never lost its tolerance for new ideas.
At the turn of the century the city was still feeling its youth, with cobbled streets, fancy tan dies, lavish mansions, and elegant hotels and restaurants. During this era of sophistication the decision was made to open a normal school in San Francisco, and in 1899 San Francisco State Normal School was born. (An earlier normal school, the first in the state, had been established in the city in 1862, but had been transferred to San Jose in 1870.) The first president of the new school was Dr. Frederic Burk, a noted educator whose specialty was individual instruction. Dr. Burk had no qualms about putting new educational ideas and theories into practice, often taking on the traditionalists on the State Board of Education while promulgating his innovations.
As the city grew, so did the college. At first, the teachers were mainly women, and for twenty years or so there was a majority of women in its student body. San Francisco State Normal School supplied most of the teachers for the San Francisco Public Schools, as well as for school districts all over the state. In the early 1920’s, more and more men began to enroll. In 1921, the college changed its name to San Francisco State Teachers College; by 1935 it was called San Francisco State College. Along with the other California state colleges, it became a liberal arts school.
During the 1930’s the San Francisco State College campus was typical of other college campuses across the country. Although the depression hit San Francisco hard, as it had other American cities, there were dances and football games, and a superficial sense of innocence and cheerfulness. San Francisco, long a supporter of the rights of the working person, underwent a bitter, angry city workers’ strike in 1934, but could still try to express that sense of tolerance for which it was known. Beneath the surface, however, San Francisco State College students were politically aware. In the late 1930’s a group of students held an antiwar protest, a precursor of events to come. In the 1940’s San Francisco State personnel and students did their patriotic duty and went off to war, some not to return. In the 1950’s, San Francisco was caught up in the McCarthy hysteria, as was the rest of the country. Seven faculty members and two non faculty members were terminated for refusing to sigh the loyalty oath. By 1960, when protesters against the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco were washed down the steps of City Hall, San Francisco had become a gathering place for those who wished to test established and outmoded traditions and see change in American society.
The 1960’s can be called the age of idealism in the history of American youth. There have been other periods of youthful idealism in American history, but never were there so many young people with the time, money, and energy to express their opinions as in the 1960’s. The civil rights movement was underway in the South. Minority groups, especially blacks, were beginning to make strong, visible stands for their rights. To the west, rumblings of war were beginning to develop — Vietnam. Students were concerned not only about their own rights and whether they would be drafted, but about the suffering people of Vietnam, who were being bombed and napalmed by American military might. They could not accept an American government that continued to bomb and strafe hamlets and villages in spite of protests at home. Students began to look at their own position in American society and wonder whether what they were learning in institutions of higher education had any relevancy to their lives, immediate or future. In 1966, the most idealistic youths in the country appeared in San Francisco — the hippies.
They were convinced that love, sharing, and caring would solve the problems of the world: love and a flower would make it right. The idealism of San Francisco in 1965-1966 spilled over onto the campus of San Francisco State College. As a beginning librarian, I felt the electricity, the excitement, the sense of creativity and hope. Dr. John Summerskill, a youthful and liberal educator, had just been appointed president, and our college was going to go far in solving the problems besetting man and woman kind. San Francisco State College’s Experimental College was one of the first in the country, a forerunner of many similar institutions across the land.
In May, 1967, some students went to Dr. Summerskill to protest the college’s practice of revealing students’ academic standing to the Selective Service Office. The academic bureaucracy was not at that time aware of how to handle questions and protests, although our neighbor across the Bay, the University of California at Berkeley, should have taught us some lessons. The students of earlier decades may have had quarrels with academic nit-picking or poor administrative judgment, but they did not feel they had the power to make their desires felt or perhaps did not care enough to carry a protest very far. Many students of the 1960’s, however, came from comfortable middle-class families that had stressed the value of education, and they were convinced enough of the importance of their ideas to demand answers.
They were willing to take the time and effort to assert their beliefs. Furthermore, many minority groups were beginning to criticize higher education institutions for ignoring their special interests. Consequently, minority students were eager to demand consideration also.