A people’s history of UW

May 21, 2010

An event to be held later this month will celebrate the history of radicals and activism at the University of Washington, reports Erik Wallenberg.

FORTY YEARS ago, students at the University of Washington (UW) organized a student strike in response to the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State and in protest of the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia. The strike was part of a national week of student strikes at colleges and university's across the country.

After the murder of students at Kent State on May 4, a mass rally was held on the UW campus, with an impromptu march that took over Interstate 5 from UW to downtown Seattle.

By May 10, thousands of students had voted to strike. The students were successful in shutting down large portions of the campus for the entire week. The strike committee published a newsletter and lists of daily activities on campus in support of the strike.

The students took steps to create the "New University" complete with seminars on topics like "How Imperialism Works," "Women's Liberation" and "ROTC History and Current Status."

Steve Ludwig, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society on campus at the time and also the student strike, commented, "It really changes your self-concept to be part of something like that. And to realize that what you do can make a difference. I've always kept that with me."

Aaron Dixon
Aaron Dixon

Two years earlier, the groundwork for this upheaval was laid by the Black Student Union (BSU) at UW when it occupied administration buildings in a successful campaign to increase opportunities for minority students.

In an interview describing the struggle, current King County Council member Larry Gossett reflected, "We did some research and found that of the 2,400 course offerings at this big school, there was not one class that used a book written by an African American person, nor was there one class that even had an article, much less a chapter or book, that talked about the Black experience in America."

Similarly, Aaron Dixon noted that with only 35 Black students on the UW campus, they needed a Black Student Union.

After working in the BSU with Gossett, Dixon went on to found the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, the first outside of Oakland. From his involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through his 2006 Green Party Senatorial run against Maria Cantwell, Dixon has been a grassroots fighter for justice in Seattle.

What you can do

Attend "A People's History of the University of Washington" on Wednesday, May 26, at 7 p.m., at the University of Washington in Seattle, Bagley Room 131.

TO COMMEMORATE this radical history and to hear the experiences of activists from this era, a number of student groups are bringing together a panel of alumni to discuss this radical chapter in UW history.

The panel, featuringLarry Gossett, Aaron Dixon, Steve Ludwig and Dean Paton, among others, will bring this history to life for a new generation and discuss lessons for today. The event will be held on Wednesday, May 26, at 7 p.m., at the University of Washington in Seattle, Bagley Room 131.

The event is sponsored by the International Socialist Organization, College Greens, Students Organizing for LGBT Equality, the Q Center at UW, Black Student Union, and Associated Students of UW. Photo displays and documents as well as oral history's from participants in all of these struggles can also be found on the Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Projects Web site.

Today, students at the University of Washington are fighting a battle to maintain funding for financial aid, to keep classes open, and to retain the number of faculty and teaching assistant's to keep class sizes from exploding.

In this effort, students held a day of action on March 4 that drew out nearly 1,000 students, staff and faculty for a picket and march through campus and the community. More recently, the Student Worker Coalition called for a student strike on May 3 that was significantly smaller. The question of next steps is being discussed and debated all over campus.

The People's History of the University of Washington event will provide an opportunity to hear some of this important history and, hopefully, learn some lessons that can be used to go out and make some new history.

Further Reading

From the archives