Rethinking Protest: Charles A. Murray's Campus Visit

Campus organizers debate disruption, protest, and free speech.
By Sarah Wu

As attendees quietly shuffled into the lecture hall where conservative political scientist Charles A. Murray ’65 was preparing to speak, the impassioned cries of 50 protesters overtook the silence: “Black, brown, Asian, white, Harvard unite for human rights!”

On September 6, the Open Campus Initiative, a student organization that seeks to “test” the limits of free speech on Harvard’s campus, invited Murray to discuss his work and contemporary American politics. Murray is best known for his controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which presents variance in intelligence between classes. His work has drawn backlash for attributing variance in intelligence, in part, to racial and ethnic differences.

For many students, Murray’s presence on campus was unacceptable. But just how to express that disapproval was a point of debate for protesters. Ultimately, the Open Campus event inspired a number of protest strategies.

Unlike the protesters who became violent during Murray’s visit to Middlebury College in March, members of the Undergraduate Council’s Black Caucus and Harvard Black Students Association decided to organize a nonviolent rally outside Murray’s lecture, followed by a faculty discussion panel in the Northwest Labs called “Speak Out Against White Supremacy.”

Police officers on bicycles separated the people in line for Murray’s lecture from the protesters. Participants in the counter-event, who said they did not intend to divert attendees from Murray’s lecture, nonetheless made their position clear: Ezekiel P. Benshirim ’19 held an explanatory sign to debunk Murray’s intelligence theories, while Sofia C. Shapiro ’19 held a cardboard sign reading, “DISCUSS REVOLUTION, NOT EUGENICS!”

The student organizers of the protest said they were careful to avoid accusations of intolerance. Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19, one of the organizers, said the rally and panel enabled students to hold “a disruptive but peaceful event that led to a really stimulating, intellectual discussion.”

A faculty panel discussion next door focused on Murray’s presence on campus, rather than on the stated topic of his lecture. Sociology and African & African American Studies Professor Michèle Lamont, WGS Director of Undergraduate Studies and Lecturer Caroline Light, and History and African & African American Studies Professor Walter Johnson offered opening remarks before fielding questions from the student organizers and audience members.

“This performance art of white instigation and impunity—it will probably make Charles Murray hundreds of thousands of dollars this year. And it will give the campus penny loafers who invited him something to brag about to their parents,” Johnson said.

Hakeem O. I. Angulu ’20, another student organizer, hoped the event would help reframe the concept of free speech “to include speech against hate speech” and “to take it back from people who are provocateurs.”

Angulu said he appreciated how faculty dismissed Murray’s scholarship. “We don’t think these ideas are okay or worth engaging with, because they’ve already been denounced so many times, Angulu said. “So let’s talk about that and move forward.”

While the student organizers, along with many audience members, were pleased with the rally and panel discussion, some people called for other protest strategies.

For Anselm Kizza-Besigge ’21, success would have been preventing Murray from speaking. “It’s my intention to spend the next four years here in solidarity with the people who want to reclaim this space—I mean, claim it at once—for people who are marginalized here. And I think the most effective way to have done that today is to reclaim the space that’s being given to a scientific racist and not allow him to speak.”

The goal of the protest was not to suppress the right to free speech. Instead, the panel offered a different mode of engagement—one that many participants thought to be a success.

“This was very much about the facts and how we can access them,” Kristina N. Neal ’19 said. Leaving the lecture hall after the event, she said she felt “invigorated and ready to fight.”