It All Began in '68

Commencement Protests

When anti-apartheid protesters--including at least three state legislators--gather today in front of Holyoke Center to protest Harvard's investments in corporations doing business in South Africa, it won't be anything new.

Ever since at least 1968, Harvard's Commencement has been a popular forum for activists.

That year, four months after the Tet Offensive shocked the nation into realizing what formidable foes the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were, Harvard and Radcliffe students at their separate graduation exercises protested U.S. involvement in the war.

In the years since then, activists have halted one Commencement for 20 minutes in protest of Harvard real estate practices, carried balloons with slogans denouncing Harvard's treatment of employees, and used masking tape to spell "Divest Now" on top of their mortarboards.

In the first years of Commencement protests. Harvard seniors turned to non-Harvard Cantabrigians to help them in directing Commencement protests.


I'll Take That, Please

In 1970, Saundra M. Graham, who is now a state representative, led about 20 Cambridge residents and seniors onto the Commencement stage during a speech by University Marshal William Anderson. The community activist pulled the microphone out of Anderson's hand and told the audience why Harvard should set aside its property near Peabody Terrace for low-income housing.

The next year--the second joint Radcliffe-Harvard ceremony, about 200 Radcliffe seniors wore red and white banners sporting female gender symbols over their gowns. Coming out of a class with a male-female ratio of four to one, the graduates called for Harvard to balance the number of men and women accepted.

In protests of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the late '60s and early '70s, and in protests through 1976 about discrimination in tenure and admissions, wearing armbands over flowing Commencement gowns proved a popular tactic among activists.

The first divestment armbands--like those expected to be worn today--came in 1977.

In the 1960s, Harvard officials often treated the protests as a threat, and often negotiated in an attempt to pre-empt the protests. But today, Harvard is more tolerant. President Bok set the tone for toleration when in 1977 he said political protests at graduations fell "within (the protester's) rights to exercise their opinions."