Bob Feldman : Civil Rights, SDS, and Student Activism in Austin, Texas, 1954-1973

Massive march against the War in Vietnam, Austin, Texas, May 8, 1970. Image from The Rag Blog.

The hidden history of Texas

Part 13: 1954-1973/2 — Student Activism and the Anti-War Movement at the University of Texas

By Bob Feldman | The Rag Blog | April 17, 2013

[This is the second section of Part 13 of Bob Feldman’s Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

Inspired by the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement protests of groups like the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE], the Southern Christian Leadership Council [SCLC], and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], and in response to the 1965 escalation of the Pentagon’s War in Viet Nam, an increasing number of students and non-students in Austin, Texas, became involved in New Left and countercultural groups like SDS and in underground press journalism during the 1960s.

There was substantial New Left activity in other Texas cities, including Houston where underground newspaper Space City! helped pull together an active movement community, but Austin — which had always been a center for cultural and political iconoclasm — would become one of the nation’s New Left hot spots.

As Beverly Burr observed in her thesis, “History of Student Activism at the University of Texas at Austin (1960-88)”:

The Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] formed a chapter in the early spring of 1964. From 1964-7, the UT chapter of SDS began to build the local white, radical student movement. Alice Embree, one of the early participants in SDS at UT, said that when she went through registration at the beginning of the Spring 1964 semester, there was an SDS information table. She conjectured that 4 or 5 people started the group.

The early focus of the group was participating with black student activists in the sit-ins at downtown Austin restaurants… In mid-October 1965, SDS held a death march protesting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. This protest was apparently the first antiwar demonstration on the campus during the 1960s. About 70 students participated in the march and rally… SDS had attempted to get a parade permit to march on the streets during the rally but the permit had been refused by the City Council…

SDS held its first fall 1966 meeting in late October [1966]… At the same time, students organized an underground newspaper called The Rag… Most of the staffers were SDSers who created the paper not only to publicize issues of importance to the movement but also in reaction to the corporate controlled mainstream media… During the fall [of 1966] 10 SDS and Rag women… held a sit-in protesting the draft at the Selective Service in Austin. In January of 1967 several demonstrations were held against Secretary of State Dean Rusk while he was in town… Over 200 came to the second protest which succeeded in canceling Rusk’s dinner at the UT Alumni Center…

The first conflict between SDS and the University occurred later in the spring of 1967 during Flipped-Out Week… SDS had planned a week of activities including a speech by… Stokely Carmichael…, an anti-war march to the Capitol, and Gentle Thursday… The activities attracted several thousands… The week after Flipped-Out Week, SDS distributed flyers… to plan a Monday protest against Vice President Hubert Humphrey who would be speaking at the Capitol… On Monday, about 150 students protested at the Capitol against the war in Vietnam. Later that day, UT withdrew recognition of SDS as a campus organization…

UT initiated disciplinary proceedings against 6 students involved in the anti-war protest… against Hubert Humphrey… Simultaneously the UT administration… called for the arrest of George Vizard, a non-student. Vizard was arrested by Austin police… The police brutally arrested him in the Chuckwagon, a café and radical hangout in the Student Union… Over 250 outraged students and faculty members… founded the University Freedom Movement [UFM].

University Freedom Movement rally,
UT campus, 1967. Photo from
The Rag.

But despite subsequently well-attended free speech rallies and extralegal campus protests by UFM supporters during the rest of April 1967, the six anti-war students who were being disciplined by the UT administration were all placed on probation for their political activity on May 1, 1967. Yet the anti-war countercultural movement in Austin continued to gain more local popular support, and in October 1969, around 10,000 people protested in Austin against the Republican Nixon Administration’s failure to end the Pentagon’s War in Vietnam .

African-American student and non-student Movement activists also continued to organize anti-racist protests during the late 1960s in Austin. As the “History of Student Activism at the University of Texas at Austin ” thesis also noted:

In 1966, the Negro Association for Progress [NAP] was formed… During the spring of 1967, NAP… members converged on the office of… athletic director and… football coach Darrell Royal to find out why UT was not accepting or recruiting black athletes… In October [1967]… NAP held an illegal demonstration for black student rights… In the spring of 1968 NAP was replaced by the Afro-Americans for Black Liberation [AABL]…

In May [1968]… the owner of a Conoco station… attacked a black musician… Larry Jackson of Austin SNCC and Grace Cleaver, chair of AABL, called on all persons opposed to racism to picket [and to boycott the station]… Jackson requested that SDS participate in the action and the group agreed. The students held several sit-ins at the gas station. City police arrested about 50 in the demonstrations… That fall AABL won 2 academic programs in Afro-American Studies…

And in a Feb. 1, 2003, speech before the W.H. Passion Historical Society at the Southgate-Lewis House in Austin, former Austin SNCC activist Larry Jackson also recalled how a SNCC chapter came to be formed in Austin during the late 1960s:

I was born in central East Texas, a little town called Hearn… And that’s the place I first began my activities in civil rights… I first got involved in a lot of civil rights activities when I was in high school in Hearne, Texas. And I was trying to integrate the pool… I left Hearne, Texas because I was involved with so much strife there…

And in Houston I became very active in school activities at Texas Southern… And what really got me here in Austin was I had previously worked on the Martin Luther King speech day in Houston… And at the music hall, outside of the TSU people and a few whites to hear Martin Luther King speak, there was not 200 people there. And this happened in 1967… And I ended up coming here on a speaking deal with Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown. That’s how I got to Austin , Texas… And so he was speaking out there at the University of Texas. So I stayed on here because I was gonna form a SNCC chapter here in Austin…”

Austin was also a center for the fast-growing women’s liberation movement and, according to Jo Freeman in Women: A Feminist Perspective, the landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, “was the project of a small feminist group in Austin, Texas and the lawyer [Sarah Weddington] who argued Roe before the Supreme Court was one of its participants.”

[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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