Everyday Extremism, Part I

A three-part history of radical clashes in Claremont’s past

This is the first in a three-part series on Claremont students’ historical radical group activity.

As the rest of the nation echoed with cries of conflict over issues as wide-reaching as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Sexual Revolution, so did the Claremont Colleges. The heated sociopolitical climate of the 1960s and ‘70s brought out the true, variant character of our campuses, especially during the 1969–1970 academic year.

According to Ward Elliott, Claremont McKenna Professor of Government and the school’s unofficial historian, CMC (then Claremont Men’s College) was “the most conservative of the campuses, with the least militant students and the least permissive faculty and administration.” The other colleges – namely Pitzer, Pomona, and Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) – “had most of the militants and the most pro-militant student bodies, faculties, and campus judiciaries.”

The Claremont Colleges were “no exception to the antiwar activity going on at colleges across the country,” Elliott says. For example, in the late 1960s a Claremont Graduate School (CGS)-based “Committee on the Reconstruction and Reconciliation in Vietnam” attracted national media attention when it demanded that the Claremont Consortium adopt The University of Hanoi as a sister school in Vietnam. In a more direct confrontation, Pitzer Sociology Professor Inge Bell, along with a group of student followers, proposed that CMC’s Military Science Department be renamed the “Department of Mass Murder.”

As Elliott’s Notes on CMC’s History explains, “many of these views were expressed as ‘non-negotiable demands’ backed up by threats of violence.” CMC’s ROTC program, in which most students were involved, proved an inviting target for student radical groups. The tension between Pomona’s generally left-leaning students and administration and CMC’s generally right-leaning students and administration peaked during a series of anti-ROTC demonstrations in 1969.

During one particularly memorable demonstration, Cadet Executive Officer Clayburn Peters, CMC ‘69, greeted 500 protesters who had been trying desperately to interrupt ROTC drills. “I would like to welcome you all to the Claremont ROTC Leadership Laboratory,” he announced. “In today’s class we would like to discuss with you the role of coercion in campus politics.” Surprised and defeated, the protesters left within ten minutes.

The intercampus political conflict eventually reached its height when student militants “liberated” CMC’s ROTC unit, “camping out, ripping telephones out of the wall, turning desks upside down, and scrawling obscenities on the wall,” according to Elliott. Nine Pomona students identified among the “liberators” were tried before the Pomona Community Council on Dec. 3, 1969 in Pomona’s packed Olney Dining Hall. CGS student Mansour Farhang, later the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N., defended them.

According to Elliott’s detailed description of the trial, “the defendants marched in lockstep, gave the revolutionary-power clenched-fist salute, and barked ‘not guilty’ in unison as each was charged by two of Pomona’s Deans.” After a defense that consisted of testimony from three Chaplains and a broadcast describing the My Lai Massacre, the “Pomona Nine” got off with essentially a slap on the wrist.

These often-violent incidents demonstrated a fundamental weakness of the Claremont University Consortium. “Like the United States under the Articles of Confederation,” Elliott explains, the Consortium “had no central executive, legislature, or judiciary” to agree on a common set of policies and principles for disciplining student offenders.

A unified Claremont executive, legislature, or judiciary still does not exist. To this day, Pitzer and Pomona students cannot receive credit for military science courses taken at CMC; while they may technically accept ROTC scholarships, they cannot receive checks from the military written directly to their schools. This policy did not originate from nowhere. It is a product of the Claremont Colleges’ tumultuous history of political radicalism, which the Port Side will continue to cover next semester.

Sara Birkenthal is a senior at CMC majoring in International Relations and Middle East Studies.

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