Magazine Feature

Students examine Woodstock West and 1968 revolts at DU

1968 protest

DU students wouldn’t budge for police during the student protests in 1968. In fact, 39 students were expelled for their part in the demonstrations. Photo courtesy of DU archives.

The history of America during the late-1960s and early-1970s generally concentrates on the coasts, particularly when discussing student protests of the era.

But in their theses, senior history majors Eileen Green and Ben Allman are examining the form student radicalism took at DU.

Green calls 1968 “a watershed year in world history.” The world witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, anti-communist uprisings in Prague, the Chicago Democratic National Convention riots, and student protests in Berlin and Paris. 

Green’s thesis reveals what unfolded between “the establishment” and DU students in 1968. Here, students staged a sit-in in the registrar’s office after disagreements with the administration over electing a graduate student to the All-Undergraduate Student Association Senate. Once mobilized, members of the national Students for a Democratic Society got involved in an attempt to radicalize the campus. 

Then-Chancellor Maurice Mitchell threatened arrest, and on April 30, when 39 students remained obstinate, he called in the police and expelled them.

History lecturer Jodie Kreider says the event drew national attention as the students’ case went to the U.S. district court and then the U.S. appellate court, with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the students. 

Mitchell also drew attention for his response. Green found hundreds of letters in the Penrose Library archives, mostly from supporters lauding him for a deft response. 

Mitchell went on to be nominated to the national Board of Education by President Johnson, Kreider adds. 

In the wake of these protests, Green says the administration created the Student Affairs Committee, where administrators, members of the board of trustees and student leaders met regularly to improve communication and understanding. The committee continues to meet regularly today. 

Green also points out that the student protest in 1968 paved the way for Woodstock West in 1970, the focus of Allman’s thesis.

Woodstock West was a direct reaction to the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio, where four students were killed and nine injured by the Ohio National Guard. According to From the Rockies the World, a history of DU written by late University historian and Professor Emeritus Allen Breck, DU students began protesting the shootings May 6. 

By May 8, on the lawn that is now Penrose Library, 1,500 students constructed a commune, living in tents and shanties for five days. They quit attending class and handed the administration a list of demands. Allman says their demands included courses related to Southeast Asia, creating a space designated for students, banning the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps from campus, and, on a national level, the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. 

“[The protest] wasn’t just on a national scale, there were local issues people were resisting,” Allman says. 

Breck writes that police tore down the construction on May 11. Students rebuilt, only to have Woodstock West destroyed again on May 13 by the Colorado National Guard. This final demolition ended the movement, and Chancellor Mitchell refused to meet any of the students’ demands. 

“From Mitchell’s perspective,” Allman says, “the students were just being radical and he didn’t take them seriously.” He adds that to the students, “If you have to make somebody the villain, I guess [Mitchell] would be it.” 

Unlike in 1968, Mitchell did not expel the participating students. Instead, he used the space where they gathered to construct Penrose Library there in 1972. DU still lacks a traditional student union building. 

Kreider says Allman and Green’s projects show today’s students what kind of issues students 30 years ago were dealing with.

“Like in the ’60s, we are living in a powerful historical period,” Green says. “I think it is important to look at the past for meaning, patterns and outcomes to make sense and process present events.”

The two history students will present their theses this spring.

This article originally appeared in The Source, March 2007.

Comments are closed.