A historical look at NC State’s protests and rallies reveals how the national context of student activism has influenced student attitudes and the issues NC State students feel strongly enough to rally or protest.
On May 4, 1970, the day before the election of Cathy Sterling, NC State’s first female student body president, four students protesting at Kent State were shot by police. This sparked protests at universities nationwide, NC State included.
“I tell ya, the spring of 1970 must have been a wild time to be on campus,” said Todd Kosmerick, NCSU Libraries’ archivist.
In an interview conducted by NCSU Libraries Sterling said that she ran in the race for student body president — as a write-in candidate — on a whim.
After being elected, she led what was called a Peace Retreat a week later, part of students’ reaction to the Kent State shootings and the escalation of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. The retreat was held in the Brickyard, and was an attempt to educate students about the U.S. involvement in the war.
According to Kosmerick, the protests against the war continued after summer break that year, but there wasn’t as much energy to the activism.
“The semester ends, everyone leaves for the summer and it all fizzled out,” Kosmerick said. “When everyone comes back together in the fall, there’s not this spontaneity about it anymore.”
Kosmerick says that many of the issues before and after the 1970 protests were primarily focused on campus matters rather than national, political issues.
“A lot of protests over time seem to be about things particular to campus, like the name change,” Kosmerick said.
The proposed name change in 1962 would have changed NC State’s name from University from North Carolina State College to the University of North Carolina at Raleigh. This was a part of the campus’ integration with the UNC school system. Students protested the change, and eventually a compromise was reached on the official name.
Kosmerick says many protests on campus have also been over tuition and fees increases. These protests date back to as early as 1939, when tuition was to be raised from $85 to $125 for North Carolina residents, and from $180 to $225 for out-of-state students. The student body gathered in Thompson Gymnasium to protest the increase.
After the war protests of the 1970s, the subject of student activism shifted from the war to other matters, including race. In 1987, Student Government organized a march to protest apartheid and NC State’s financial involvement in South Africa, a theme of many protests across the nation calling for “divestment” in financial holdings that benefited apartheid.
In 1992, as students at NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill appealed to their university administrations for the establishment of cultural centers at each institution, the Technician ran a controversial opinion column criticizing the Black Awareness Council at UNC-CH. Led by Tony Williamson, students responded by establishing the Nubian Message, which published its first issue on Nov. 30, 1992.
Retired Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Tom Stafford worked at the university in various positions from 1971 until his retirement in 2012. Stafford says that one act of student protest that sticks out in his memory was the reaction to racist messages being spray painted in the free expression tunnel after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. One of the messages, spray painted by four students, contained a racial slur and alluded to assassinating the president.
“When the campus saw that, and when the black students on the campus saw that, can you imagine what happened?” Stafford said. “The reaction was unbelievable.”
Stafford found out about the spray painted message early in the morning on Nov. 5, 2008, at which point he directed facilities to paint over the messages. The Secret Service would later be a part of the investigation into whether the anonymous threat was credible.
According to Stafford, the most common issues about which students have historically protested include race, sexual orientation and gender. He named last year’s die-in in Talley as a notable example. The die-in coincided with nationwide protests of recent police shootings of two black men, Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Brian Peters, who taught a class on the history of NC State and is now an academic adviser in the Poole College of Management, says that subjects of protests that have historically gotten less attention are becoming more prominent on campus because of the greater awareness students have on the issues.
“Definitely because of the rise of awareness of racial tensions in the country, because of social media and whatnot, some of the concerns I feel have been silenced or marginalized in the past are more public,” Peters said.
Peters also thinks the most recent election cycle has brought on a greater attitude of activism, bringing more direct student responses to matters such as police shootings.
“I think this past presidential cycle was so negative, it also brought on a lot of different activism from extreme sides because people are very set in different camps and there wasn’t much dialogue between the two,” Peters said.
Peters says that an important part of student activism to consider is what its end goal is, and adds that progress can look different on different matters. He points to the example of recent town halls held by university administrators on the issue of race.
“I could see from a student perspective how that’s not progress, but if you watch those, you see how each office in all these different units are trying to respond and think about things in new ways,” Peters said. “That’s progress, it’s just slow.”
Peters also says that seeing students standing up for marginalized groups on campus is good to see as an educator because it can teach students lessons in civic engagement.
“Going through that process means they’re way more likely to be engaged as citizens moving forward,” Peters said. “Thinking about the larger societal issues, I think that bodes well.”