Fordham Student Activism Withstands Centuries

By Bailey Hosfelt

As the rain poured down on the Rose Hill campus, another storm was brewing inside Dean of Student Affairs Martin J. Meade’s office. Over a dozen members of the Society for Afro-American Advancement at Fordham (SAAAF) burst into Meade’s empty Keating Hall office on Dec. 4, 1968.

Once Meade came in to speak with the students donning dripping raingear, they pushed desks against his door and urged him to sign a formal statement that the university would not prevent black students who participated in campus disturbances, whether orderly or not, from receiving their federal financial aid.

After a two-and-a-half-hour discussion, Meade complied with SAAAF’s request and pledged that Fordham would take no action to thwart any student demonstrators of their aid. According to New York Times writer Maurice Carroll’s report in “Students Demand Voice at Fordham,” Meade was at no point being held by the students against his will.

Simultaneously, members of the student body gathered at the Student Center and called for university restructuring. Among their various requests were a full implementation of the Gellhorn Report, the creation of a student-faculty senate and an immediate end to racism on campus. At the time, only one percent of 6,000 undergraduate students were African American.

These two demonstrations boiled over on Dec. 9. The Fordham Ram reported in “SAAAF Demands Ignite Protest” that 100 students from SAAAF charged an administration building and demanded that the administration answer their requests by 6 p.m., three hours after the administrators’ meeting to deliberate the demands and reach a decision was scheduled to end.

When Dean of Students Rev. Robert McNamara informed the crowd that the demands would not be answered by the deadline, students erupted in chants of “six o’clock” and “let us in” while they pushed against the glass doors of the meeting room.

Campus police barricaded the door but the protestors were not discouraged and attempted to gain access to the room from a side door. Despite their numerous efforts, McNamara ordered the students to leave, and after a discussion and status update regarding the decision, demonstrators returned to the Student Center awaiting their reply.

This series of high energy protests by SAAAF that The Fordham Ram called “the most severe direct challenge to the President’s leadership to date” in the Dec. 10 editorial “Crisis Again” was addressed in President Leo McLaughlin’s official response to all members of Fordham University. McLaughlin regarded the purpose of campus protest and said that, “I believe this can be a great help to all of us as individuals and as members of a community of scholars.”

McLaughlin continued in his letter that protests and the discussions they provoke do provide a hope for growth within the university community, but he also expressed concerns that violence could destroy any development on campus.

While the majority of past protests at Fordham have remained peaceful and free of violence, there have been a few outliers. Among one of the most publicized was a seven-hour sit-in demonstration on Nov. 13, 1969 where 36 Fordham students fought campus security guards in the midst of their protest against the Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) program.

The students who led this demonstration were members of the Committee to Abolish R.O.T.C. Days before their protest which took place in an administration building, a representative from the committee told The Fordham Ram that a building seizure was the best approach to get their message out.

The protesters did just that. Students took over administrative offices, barricaded the doors and chanted “U.S. out of Vietnam, R.O.T.C. out of Fordham.”

Rev. Michael P. Walsh, President of Fordham at the time, had no choice but to call the city police after two of the 40 unarmed guards who attempted to enter the barricaded offices sustained injuries. As sirens neared campus, protestors jumped from the first-floor windows and fled the scene.

According to “Fordham Students Fight Guards As R.O.T.C. Protest Is Ended,” six students were arrested and at least six security guards were injured. One suffered a broken leg and another was witnessed with a chest wound “writhing in pain.”

Although the R.O.T.C. protest resulted in injuries and arrests, Fordham saw countless nonviolent protests where the headcount was well over 1,000, dating back to the 1930s. 1,400 students assembled in the university quadrangle (what we now know and love as Eddie’s) and protested the Spanish government’s decision to bar religious orders from education systems, something that, as a Jesuit-affiliated institution, Fordham went against. 1,500 students protested the Mexican Church War and anti-religious movement at the college’s annual retreat.

Fordham, like hundreds of other colleges in the United States during the late 1950s through ‘70s, became the perfect place for politically and socially active students to protest issues on a university, domestic or international level.

During the Civil Rights Movement, an estimated 1,000 members of both the student body and faculty came together and participated in an outdoor rally that protested the denial of voting rights for African Americans in Alabama and honored Rev. James J. Reeb who was fatally beaten in Selma.

The rally lasted one hour and was backed by numerous political and social-action groups on campus as well as members of the administration and faculty.

Rev. Philip Hurley, a member of the Fordham faculty, had spent time in Selma during the previous week and shared how deeply moved he was by their fight for civil rights with the Fordham community.

Chairman of Fordham’s political-philosophy department Rev. James Finlay spoke at the protest and said, “for too long we have been silent, and our silence has been interpreted as approval of oppression and the unjust invoking of law to oppress.”

From sit-ins to outdoor protests, Fordham students have found many ways to raise their voices. While some turned violent, the majority resulted in positive outcomes such as Fordham founding the university’s African and African American Studies department — among one of the first in the nation — and the paper, a place where students who felt silenced could share their points of view.

Although Fordham has not seen a protest with numbers quite like that of the protest about Selma in 1965 or stormed an administration building to the degree that SAAAF did in 1969, student activism and protests have certainly continued at Fordham.

There is more red tape in 2017, seeing as the university requires all on-campus protests to be announced and officially approved by the Dean of Students prior to their occurrence.

While this may be frustrating for students who want their right to assemble to be upheld in a more spontaneous manner, Fordham’s frequently asked questions about demonstrations found on the university website cites safety and foresight as its main motivations for the rule.

Nevertheless, the current Demonstration Policy has not prevented members of the Fordham community from engaging in protests and speak outs. In the past year alone, numerous non-violent protests have occurred.

Faculty members stood in silent protest outside of a February Continous University Strategic Planning (CUSP) meeting to protest relations between administration and faculty.

Students gathered on the Lincoln Center campus to display their dissatisfaction with Dean of Students Keith Eldredge’s decision to veto United Student Government’s decision to approve Students for Justice in Palestine as a club at Fordham.

The theology department hosted “Say Their Names,” an event to bring awareness to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, and marched through campus following a prayer service in September.

Adjuncts delivered a petition to Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, on the steps of Dealy and members of Students for Sex and Gender Equality and Safety Coalition (SAGES) protested Respect for Life’s “Memorial of the Innocents” for a second year.

While current Fordham students are not a part of the generation who rallied against international affairs like the Vietnam War, protests regarding university administration as well as socio-political issues facing the community and country do not show signs of dying down.

There is one comment

  1. reynacerous

    While I have no doubt that the magnitude of student protests have declined since the ’60s and ’70s, what do you mean “current Fordham students are not a part of the generation who rallied against international affairs” considering the persistent activism of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine?

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