Student protest group drew local and national attention
Only days after the first students staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., Harvard graduate student Michael L. Walzer was there to cover the events for Dissent magazine. And just days after that, Walzer was back in Cambridge, organizing students at Harvard and around the Boston area to stage similar protests.
By the end of the month, the informal gatherings materialized into the Lunch Counter Integration Committee at Harvard; across campuses, the movement came to be known as the Emergency Public Integration Committee. Both were led by Walzer and fellow graduate student Harvey Pressman, and their mission was to organize local picketing efforts.
While the actions of the Harvard picketers could not create the same impact as their Southern counterparts—members recalled the group as a small and mostly ignored presence on the Harvard campus—EPIC’s campaign paved the way for the growth of student activism throughout the decade.
While the Greensboro students faced hostile customers and police during their protests at Woolworth’s lunch counters, Harvard EPIC members were met by “emphatic disinterest” from the patrons of the Brattle Square Woolworth’s and other Harvard students, according to Judith K. Eger ’62.
Although EPIC gained traction with small groups of students at schools including Harvard, MIT, and Brandeis and made ties with local branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality, the “conformist ethic” of the 1950s had not yet given way to the decade of activism that followed, according to Franklin J. Bardacke ’63, who was involved in the protests as a freshman.
“Harvard students, other University students, were so uninterested in questions of justice in those days. The personal ambition was so all-absorbing,” Eger said. “Only after the ’60s people knew they were supposed to care.”
The College administration, when it chose to acknowledge the protests, was similarly resistant, according to Pressman.
“The administrators were almost totally 100 percent tight-asshole people in those days,” Pressman said.
Bardacke remembers being called in to meet with Dean of the Faculty McGeorge Bundy to discuss his involvement in the protests and warn him of the “Trotskyist” influence in EPIC.
“Bundy couldn’t scare me with ‘This is going to hurt your career, Frank,’” Bardacke said.
“THE SECOND SHOT”
While EPIC did not gain wide support on the Harvard campus, members were able to draw local attention to their cause.
“Companies such as Woolworth’s are very concerned about their reputation,” said Alan P. Gartner, who was a graduate student in 1960. “To have people, including Harvard students, calling attention to their bad behavior is significant.”
The group gained national attention as well with a full-page spread in Life Magazine. Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer who snapped the iconic picture of a couple kissing on V-J Day, held a photo shoot of four Harvard students—two white, two black—dressed in Minuteman costumes at the locations of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. Pressman called it “the second shot heard ’round the world.”