The most recent demonstration on our campus, Divest Grinnell, has prompted conversations about the history of student activism and its relationship to social justice at Grinnell. The college claims on its website that

From the beginning, our commitment to social responsibility has been a large part of our College history. Grinnell was a center for abolitionist activity before and during the Civil War. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Grinnell alumni to positions in his ‘New Deal’ administration. Today, our commitment to social justice continues with the strong philosophy of self-governance and personal responsibility, as well as programs and initiatives that encourage students to learn about the world beyond campus and to create positive social change.

Indeed, nowhere in its narrative of social justice does our institution mention the activism of its students.


The Peace Rally moves through the campus. The front of the bookstore is on the left side of the photo. Photo by Richard Stein ’72

So, it would follow that most Grinnellians can cite but a few occasions of past student activism. The student body is constantly changing, while the institution is more static, experiencing turnover at a much slower rate. This has allowed the college to act as the lone curator of institutional memory, which has granted it the power to construct and offer its narrative largely uninhibited. But there are resources and individuals on this campus to help students access our history, the history of Grinnellians and their activism. Through this column, I’ll be working with the predominant keeper of institutional memory on our campus, namely the Special Collections and Archives, to bring cases of past student activism to more public spaces. I will not, however, offer an alternative narrative. While I’ll act as somewhat of a curator, selecting what will be posted each week and the manner of its presentation, the story is yours to piece together.


“Halt Funds for Vietnam” petition at the front entrance to Herrick Chapel in 1972. Photo by Richard Stein ’72.

Below is the April 21, 1972 Grinnell College Scarlet & Black issue that documents student protests against the U.S. bombing of Haiphong during the Vietnam War. In response to the bombings, students staged a three-day hunger fast on the altar in Herrick Chapel that continued through weekday religious services, and organized a peace rally that included the signing of petitions to halt funds to the war effort. The newspaper clippings describe these events in detail. Of particular note, though, is the op-ed piece that begins in the lower left-hand corner of the front page of the newspaper and continues on page 3, which begins

Once again the students have been out-witted, out-maneuvered, and shafted. That great ally of the administration, apathy, has come through one more time to suck the life out of the student power movement at Grinnell. Our needs are being swept under the rug of bureaucracy. Of course we cannot blame anyone. The President is too busy and must rely on his advisors. These “advisors” can’t be blamed because they don’t make decisions. Since nobody who makes decisions can be held responsible maybe they should be held as irresponsible….


Students participating in the three-day anti-Vietnam War fast in Herrick Chapel in 1972. The fasted through weekday religious services held in the chapel. Photo by Roger McMulin.

The Grinnell Scarlet and Black Friday, April 21, 1972 Vol. 80 No. 28 Pages 1-3