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The Class of 1953 attended Harvard at a time when the U.S. was fighting in the Korean War and Senator Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., was targeting Harvard as a hotbed of communism.
But members of the class say the political brouhaha they most vividly remember was a comic strip character’s campaign for president—which set off a riot in the Cambridge streets and led to the arrests of 28 Harvard students.
On May 15 of their junior year, the Harvard campus prepared to welcome Walt Kelly, the creator of the popular comic strip “Pogo,” which was set in a world populated by animal characters but incorporated some political themes.
It was a national election year in 1952, and Pogo the possum, the strip’s central character, was contemplating a run for president. Harvard students planned to greet Pogo’s creator in full force, staging a “Pogo for President” rally in Harvard Square, complete with buttons and posters made by School of Design students.
Cambridge Police Chief Patrick J. Ready told students ahead of time they could hold the event, but warned them that police officers would be in the area “should it get out of hand,” The Crimson reported.
His words would prove prophetic, as the crowd on the evening of May 15 far exceeded the numbers the police had expected.
As many as 1,600 people thronged the streets of Harvard Square to watch Kelly drive through. Traffic stopped along Mass. Ave., and a group of students pulled a trolley car off its wires, according to police reports in The Crimson. By the night’s end, 28 Harvard students had been arrested.
The students and many of the witnesses at the scene told The Crimson the police had been guilty of “outrageous mishandling” of the situation. In signed statements, students said the police used excessive force, hit students with clubs and fists and made arrests without offering reasons.
Fifty years later William English ’53 still remembers arriving after most of the students had cleared out and being shoved into a police car simply for correcting a police officer who thought he’d been an active participant in the rally.
Kelly, for his part, made it through the Square in his convertible and continued on to the New Lecture Hall, where he delivered his scheduled talk, attended by more than 1,000 students.
His speech went off without a hitch, except for several interruptions by students holding pogo-stick races in the aisles.
In the days following the arrests, public opinion rested squarely on the side of the arrested students. Eight House presidents passed a resolution against the “unjustified brutality and unjustified arrests,” and the Voluntary Defenders at Harvard Law School offered free counsel for the accused students. Kelly himself offered to post bail for them.
Five of the 28 arrested students were Crimson editors and The Crimson played a prominent role, offering to pass witness accounts on to the students’ lawyers.
The 28 arrested students pleaded not guilty at their May 18 arraignment in East Cambridge District Court. Two of the students asked for immediate trials and were each sentenced to a day in the House of Corrections, which they appealed. Another student, Paul Rugo ’55, had a separate hearing for charges of assault and battery brought against him by police officer William Storey.
By May 27, however, all 28 of the undergraduates had reached a deal with the Cambridge police. At the suggestion of the prosecutor in the case, the students were given a warning from the judge and their cases were placed on file.
University officials did not take any action against the students.
“It was all rather amusing,” English says. “The whole thing was played up as something big and then it just sort of all fell apart, and the court just sort of ignored the whole thing and let it go.”
The event has become a fond memory for members of the Class of 1953, who adopted Pogo as their mascot. The comic strip character has stuck with them as a symbol of their undergraduate years.
But now, when the once-youthful possum appears on the 50th reunion letterhead, he sports bifocals and a golf club—just like many members of the class.
—Staff writer Jessica R. Rubin-Wills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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