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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.”
“We were constantly producing all these things that were trying to create the illusion that there was this groundswell of support,” Pressman said.
EPIC’s petition to end segregation at Woolworth’s lunch counters similarly caught the public eye, thanks to the signatures of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harvard faculty members such as Arthur M. Schlesinger and Oscar Handlin.
In fact, even a handful of administrators were sympathizers. Anthony “Tony” W. Robbins ’62, one of the models for the Life Magazine photoshoot, said he remembered meeting with Dean of the College John U. Monro ’34 about the legal implications of the pickets.
“After being read the riot act by the Dean, I asked in the most mild and friendly way what he would do,” Robbins said. “He said without missing a beat, ‘I’d go ahead and run the protest.’”
EPIC also provided “a kind of basic training” for those interested in social justice, according to Pressman. Many of the most active EPIC members were involved in later Civil Rights-era events—including the 1964 Freedom Summer—and other movements such as anti-Vietnam War protests. And the legacy of this early student movement, both at Harvard and around the country, provided a framework for the heyday of student engagement.
“This was part of the ice breaking,” Bardacke said. “The ice broke in South Carolina and the ice broke in Nashville. There were a few little cracks at Harvard, too.”
—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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