The Activist Class

Moved by Extraordinary Times, the Class of 1968 Has Fought Injustice From Commencement Onward

On a rainy Commencement Day 25 years ago, there wasn't much cause for celebration for Rachel Radio Lieberman '68. She was about to graduate from Radcliffe, but she was more preoccupied with organizing a special kind of protest.

The spring of 1968 had been a trying time for the country, and a busy time for social activism. The anti-war and civil rights movements had bit their stride, but the country had lost two of its most promising leaders.

In April, during Harvard's spring break. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. And in Los Angeles, just seven days before Lieberman graduated from Radcliffe, Robert F. Kennedy '48 was shot dead by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

Lieberman felt her class needed to make a statement, and it did on a day so rainy that then-Radcliffe President Mary L. Bunting interrupted the ceremony to ask the graduating seniors if they wanted to move the services indoors. (By a show of hands, they decided to stay outside.)

On June 12, 1968, 292 women--more than three-quarters of them wearing white armbands over their black robes--received their degrees from Harvard. Each white armband was bisected by a black mourning band for King and Kennedy.


That was not all Lieberman, a class marshall had planned. She read a statement, which had been approved overwhelmingly or the rest of her class, expressing support for male classmates who refused to serve in the military.

"Everybody except the Rockefellers stood up and cheered after the address," Lieberman recalls.

A tradition of social activism, born of the turbulent times of the 1960s, has shaped the lives of some, if not all, of the members of the Class of 1968.

"I would be overstating myself to say I was an activist," says Edward Larson '68, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. "But I was very much affected by movements."

"I got involved with taking care of people," says Lawson. "It was during that period of time that I got involved with pediatrics."

For some Harvard students, activism was already in their blood before they first entered the Yard.

In the 1950s, for example, Lieberman passed out leaflets for Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson Jr. '52.

"I think college was an expansion of it," says Lieberman, who now works for the Commission on Aging for the city of Boston. "The '60s were very intense, people were optimistic. The war sidetracked ideals."

Arlene R. Popkin '68, senior trial counsel for the Legal And Society of Westchester Country, N.Y., says she was active in the civil rights movements before coming to college. And once at Harvard, she also protested the war, which she blames in large part on President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"Vietnam was a creature of Johnson's ego in a lot of people's views," Popkin says.

Popkin says she joined the Young Democrats Club with the intention of turning what was then the largest organization on campus into a tool of the anti-war movement. Their main goal was to dump Johnson, and she helped send more than 400 students from Harvard and Radcliffe to work during the primaries.