On Monday, February 17, 1969 the building was severely damaged by a fire. Although investigators blamed the blaze on an uninsulated steam pipe, there were strong suspicions of arson. According to Ward Elliott, Claremont McKenna Professor of Government and the school’s unofficial historian, in his Notes on CMC’s History, “the fire itself took place six days after a black militant from Pomona, demanding the endorsement of ethnic quotas and black studies courses, had asked the CMC faculty, ‘Do you want this campus burned down this summer or next summer?’”
This threat was just the tip of the iceberg of that year’s infamous radical student activism. Most of the stir was created by the “1969 Radicals,” as they have come to be called, a small group of black students who were pushing for radical change. They insisted that blacks account for 10 percent of students and faculty members and that 10 percent of the budget go toward funding the creation of a black studies center. When their demands were ignored by CMC’s administration, two bombings and 10 arsons, including the Story House fire, occurred over a 10-week period. Eventually, in an extremely controversial decision, CMC’s Office of Admissions admitted a freshman class of 1970 that was 10% black.
Claremont’s legacy of racial activism extends beyond 1969. As recently as 2004 four students, two from Harvey Mudd, one from Scripps, and one from CMC, burnt an eleven-foot tall cross on CMC’s campus during winter break. Several days later the students turned themselves in to their respective deans claiming they had not meant to “harm or offend anyone.”
A group of Pomona students, outraged by the administration’s lack of response, formed the student group SLAM: Student Liberation Action Movement. In addition to calling for the creation of “Queer Studies” and “Native American Studies” departments, the radical group accused the Claremont community of “white privilege” and demanded that the offending students be expelled.
Later, on the evening of March 9th of the same year, Psychology Professor Kerri Dunn returned to her old Honda Civic after a free speech rally to find that it had been vandalized with a variety of racial slurs, including a swastika, according to a 2004 article in the St. Petersburg Times entitled “An Education in Hate.”
SLAM mobilized to alert the student body of the heinous offense and the student community was outraged. Over 2,000 students gathered to protest the hate crime. Dunn herself was present at the rally where she made a passionate speech addressing the “larger issues of civil rights and of men, women, people of color, and people of sexual orientations.” A $10,000 reward was posted for the name of the person responsible for the crime, and the administration went so far as to cancel classes the following day, which didn’t even happen on September 11th.
One week later the police announced that after intensive investigation they had concluded that Professor Dunn had vandalized her own car out of a desire to call attention to issues of hate speech. Then-director of the Claremont Institute, Ken Masugi, described Dunn’s deceptive actions as a “Reichstag Fire” and compared the resulting student activism to that of 1969. Dunn, who later served prison time for the hoax, set the fire and Claremont’s students, faculty, and administration were blinded by the smoke.