RALLY CAPS: Forty years ago this month, in the wake of the Kent State shootings and volatile anti-Vietnam sentiment on college campuses across the country, Boston University canceled classes and called off commencement. Instead of donning caps and gowns, the class of 1970 joined with students from throughout the region for an anti-war rally outside Harvard Stadium. Officials at BU have invited members of that class to join current graduates at the this weekend’s commencement ceremonies.
Boston University’s class of 2010 celebrates its commencement this weekend, and BU has invited the class of 1970 to tag along. See, the class of ’70 — my class — never had a commencement ceremony. On May 4, 1970, four students were murdered in Ohio by trigger-happy National Guardsmen during an anti–Vietnam War demonstration at Kent State University. And 10 days later, Guardsmen killed two people in Mississippi under similar circumstances at Jackson State. Dangerous times.
In an effort to defuse the tension after the Kent State shootings, BU canceled classes, suspended remaining finals, and called off graduation ceremonies. That, and Richard Nixon’s recently announced invasion of Cambodia, was the context for the class of 1970 losing its commencement. And this is what BU wants to make up for. (That potential alumni donors of my class are retiring and likely making out their wills around now may or may not be a coincidence.)
Following Kent State, a nationwide student strike against the war and racism, in progress since May 1, gained momentum, and, on May 8, morphed into a citywide student rally. Contingents from BU, Northeastern, Boston College, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the smaller schools converged from their respective campuses in a mass march to the field outside Harvard Stadium. It was the one demonstration I ever participated in where widespread violence seemed likely. Marchers were angry and no longer afraid. The tension wrought by an expectation that things could erupt was heightened by the fact that we marched in absolute spooky silence. This was something more than a public protest. The ideological, cultural, and political revolutions we’d championed were suddenly headed for something ugly and evil and we had no choice but to keep on walking.
I remember striding past the old Commonwealth Armory and wondering if there were National Guardsmen lurking inside. I remember a group of potbellied early drinkers loitering on the sidewalk in front of an Allston bar and how they erupted in laughter at one of their own’s witticisms, only to be stared into silence by the passing parade of angry eyes. Flash points were everywhere.
But there was no violence — that day, at least. My BU diploma arrived in a cardboard mailer addressed to my parents’ house. I truly value my education, respect my school, and cherish my time at BU, but given the circumstances of May 1970, sitting in the sun for three hours on Nickerson Field for a self-congratulatory faux-Medieval ceremony wasn’t much to give up. If any of my classmates really feels cheated and craves closure because the school shut down while the country was falling apart, I have to wonder whose side they were on in the first place.