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Woman Storms, Takes Over Ceremony

By Jeffrey N. Gell

It wasn't exactly a love-in when 20 angry Cambridge residents stormed the stage of Tercentenary Theater during Commencement exercises on June 11, 1970.

Led by a 28 year-old local political activist, Saundra Graham, members of the Riverside Planning Group took control of the microphones and delayed the graduation ceremonies for more than 15 minutes.

Graham's group was protesting Harvard's construction of Mather House and the Peabody Terrace apartment complex in Cambridge's Riverside neighborhood, a historically Black part of town. As part of the development process, Harvard evicted many long-time Riverside residents.

"We will not be pushed out of our homes," Graham told the Commencement audience. "We asked to meet with the Corporation, and they even refused to discuss it."

Recently, several participants in the rally and witnesses to it reflected on Graham's display against Harvard.

Velmer M. Brooks, a Riverside resident who helped Graham plan the demonstration, says residents were being `outpriced' and displaced by Harvard.

"The purpose of the rally was to save the neighborhoods for the neighborhood people," Brooks says. "Big dollars were being offered for old homes."

For more than a month, Graham's group had been trying to get in touch with Harvard officials to air their complaints, Graham says.

"Somebody had to tell Harvard to stop it because they were evicting people," Graham recalls. "We said `stop it' in the most dramatic way we could find."

The day before Commencement, more than 350 Riverside residents marched up Massachusetts Avenue from Central Square to Harvard Yard. More than 100 members of the group spent the night of June 10 outside Matthews Hall waiting for recognition from University officials.

On Commencement morning, Graham and the other protesters joined a group of graduating seniors and marched into the Tercentenary Theater, sitting toward the front.

At some point that morning, Graham says she decided to storm the stage and deliver her now-famous speech.

According to The Crimson, University officials--including George F. Bennett '33, treasurer of the University, and Albert L. Nickerson '33, a member of the Harvard Corporation, the University's highest governing board--escorted Graham off the stage and met with her privately to hear her demands.

"They would never have otherwise talked to us--the snobs," Graham says.

As a result of Graham's protest, the University and the Riverside Planning Group agreed that Harvard would not extend its land holdings past Putnam Avenue, effectively protecting much of the Riverside neighborhood.

"It made Harvard alert to the issues of the Riverside neighborhood," says state Rep. Alvin E. Thompson (D-Cambridge). "They started to change the neighborhood."

Mixed Reactions

People in attendance at the 1970 Commencement exercises say they had mixed reactions to Graham's actions.

James J. Foster, a 1970 Harvard Law School graduate who spoke that morning, says he was not surprised that a demonstration was staged.

"Because the Commencement is a focus of attention, there was an expectation that some groups might use the opportunity to get some attention," he says.

Foster says that before Commencement, some students were hoping for a disruption of some sort to enliven the day.

"A lot of people were fearful and hopeful that something would happen to spice things up for the parents," he recalls.

Steven J. Kelman '70, who delivered the undergraduate English oration, says Graham's antics did not bother him but frightened his parents.

"My parents were terrified during the entire event that there would be a physical attack on me," says Kelman, Weatherhead professor of public management at the Kennedy School of Government.

Cambridge's then-mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, who was sitting on the stage as Graham stormed on, says he considers the rally little more than a publicity stunt.

"I knew well that Saundra Graham was going to be getting publicity out of it," Vellucci says. "She made the papers; she made the cameras; she made the T.V."

As the mayor, Vellucci says he acted as a liaison between the University and the Riverside activists.

"Some of the officers of Harvard University were kind of concerned about it, and they were complaining to me," Vellucci says. "I told them not to build an office buildings [in Riverside]."

Former city councillor Walter J. Sullivan says Graham's antics did little to improve the image of the city of Cambridge, which at the time was home to many radicals.

"I was upset because it was a tough thing to do with people coming from all over the country," Sullivan says. "It didn't help the city any, that's for certain."

Mildred L. Parris, an 80-year-old Riverside resident and the wife one of the individuals who stormed the stage, says she was angered at Graham's rally.

"I'm not an activist," she says. "I didn't think it was right to upset the graduation.

A Birthplace?

Many individuals credit Graham's role in the demonstration as the starting point of a successful political career.

"She was really an outspoken person for the downtrodden," Sullivan says.

Little more than one year after the demonstration, Graham was elected to the Cambridge City Council, where she served until her retirement in 1989. In 1986, she was elected as a state representative, and she served in the State House until she was defeated by Rep. Thompson in 1988.

"That [Commencement day] event carried her right into the city council," Vellucci says.

But Graham credits her political success with her ability to mobilize coalitions, not with her protesting skills.

"I won because at the time the students at Harvard were very political," she says. "I ran my campaign to organize those students and also my community, who was disenfranchised. We organized, and I won."

Since her retirement from politics, Graham has worked to develop low-income housing in New Jersey and as the chief executive officer of a residential drug abuse rehabilitation program.

Graham remains active in Riverside neighborhood politics, says Geneva T. Malenfant, president of the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA).

"I consider her one of us," Malenfant says, referring to the progressive activists who make up the CCA.

Graham says she has no regrets about storming the stage in 1970. She says she would do it again without hesitation.

"When you back people up against a wall, even a rat jumps," she says. "It's called survival."

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