Section: Features

Kenyon history told through tales of activism

Kenyon history told through tales of activism

In 1860, former President of the College Charles Pettit McIlvaine wrote a letter to U.S. President James Buchanan. In it, he requested a national day of fasting and prayer for citizens of all denominations to assist in their well-being. Since then, Kenyon has participated to varying degrees in various forms of activism, from conferences to protests, from the Vietnam War to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nearly a century later, in 1968, Kenyon took interest in civil disobedience, a method of protesting which seeks to elicit socio-political change through nonviolent means. In May of that year, the College had its first Public Affairs Conference, an event that discussed mass media and modern democracy. The event involved twenty-nine participants, among them militant civil rights leaders, three congressmen and two journalists. Student participation was extended to leaders of specific organizations on campus.

“Kenyon has always been big on discussion,” said College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73. He emphasized the value the school has placed historically on analytical conversation rather than immediate and direct action.

In 1966, youth activist Terry Robbins ’68 dropped out of Kenyon shortly after establishing the school’s chapter of the Ohio Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national organization to reform U.S. political, economic and social — particularly racial — institutions. Over the next four years, he engaged in increasingly militant anti-war protests. He eventually left SDS to help form the Weathermen, often deemed a terrorist organization, which sought to “bring the war home” through deliberate acts to destroy politically significant buildings in cities such as New York and Washington D.C. He died in the bombing of a New York townhouse along with two other members in 1970.

When looking back on Kenyon’s protest history, what stands out most to Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff is its lack of activism. He arrived in the fall of 1971, only a few months after the Kent State University shooting in May. He remembers the College priding itself on the fact that it had not participated in strikes or suspended classes. “They were congratulating themselves for not being very radical,” Rutkoff said. He attributes the lack of activism on campus to a very conservative political science department and its influence over its students’ motivation to mobilize in a time of anti-war and civil rights protests.

Stamp, who was a student at Kenyon during the shooting at Kent State University, remembers Kenyon’s decision to remain open with pride and recalled a community-wide assembly in Rosse Hall during which attendees had the opportunity to reflect on the incident.

Stamp said that by protesting on campus, Kenyon students were “preaching to the choir.” He said that many were involved in activist causes but did the bulk of their work off campus. Southern students participated in the civil rights movement when they went home each summer, a trend he said was typical of colleges at the time.

Stamp was involved in the Mount Vernon Mobilization Committee, or “Mobe,” as were many students at the time. The group went door-to-door to discuss the Vietnam War with Mount Vernon residents. Stamp recalls that this experience changed his perception of Knox County residents who lived outside of Gambier, as well as their perception of him, and ultimately became a determining factor in his decision to move back to Knox County and work at Kenyon in 1984.

For Rutkoff, the most distinctive form of student activism since he began teaching at Kenyon is the school’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter protests in November 2015. A hundred-and-some students plus administrators, including President Sean Decatur, participated in a sit-in in the Peirce Dining Hall Atrium.

Jules Desroches ’18 took part in the protest and a connected march through Middle Path. “There were definitely points within it where I felt a sense of ‘we’ in not a way that was exclusively racial,” he said.

Before the sit-in another protest made a mark on Kenyon’s campus. The first installation of Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine’s (KSJP) wall, a symbolic representation of the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, according to the Apr. 17, 2014 edition of the Collegian. The wall has been reinstalled on campus every spring since.

Some students have also become more involved in activism encompassing the environment and Indigenous communities. Matt Meyers ’17 was president of Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) during the 2016-2017 school year. He helped form DivestKenyon, a group that seeks to encourage the College to divest from fossil fuel companies and prevent future investment in private prisons. “Being a student at an institution such as Kenyon, your voice matters so much … in changing the mission or the vision of the College,” Meyers said. “It’s important for students to realize the power they hold.”

Meyers participated in a significant number of protests during his four years at Kenyon. Last spring, he worked with Ruby Koch-Fienberg ’17 and Zak Young ’17 to produce a performance art project on the seal in the front entrance of Peirce. The three students, who were all seniors at the time, covered themselves in crude oil, donned masks and linked arms to protest the silence surrounding investment in the fossil fuel industry and private prisons as well as stand in solidarity with other schools seeking to divest.

“By having us there right as people walked into Peirce, it forced students to have a conversation with their friends about divestment and what they think of it,” Meyers said.

This reporter is the social media coordinator for Kenyon’s Environmental Campus Organization (ECO) and has participated in protests with DivestKenyon.

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