On the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student strike, a new documentary film, "Agents of Change," looks back at this defining moment in U.S. history where civil rights, black power and anti-war movements converged to explore the pivotal role that black student activists played in reforming the American university system.
KQED News spoke with filmmakers Frank Dawson and Abby Ginzberg.
KQED: The 50th anniversary is a nice round number. But looking back at the San Francisco State student strike feels particularly relevant today. Why is it important to look back at these events now?
Frank Dawson: We are at a critical time in our nation’s history. How we respond is clearly a defining moment. Students have power, but that power is meaningless unless it is exercised in a thoughtful, inclusive, selfless manner. Looking back, there are countless examples from the civil rights and Black Power movements in which students on college campuses across the country risked their educations, future employment and lives for causes they fiercely believed in. Their stories have barely been told, and knowing more about these stories is empowering to students today. Students can effect change, and during the past year as we have shared our film on numerous campuses, Abby and I have seen firsthand how important these historic stories can be.
Abby Ginzberg: It is important to reflect on the little-known history that gave rise to the creation of black and ethnic studies programs across the country in the late 1960s because many of these programs have come under attack or are being weakened through the withdrawal of funding. The most poignant example occurred at S.F. State in 2016 when the College of Ethnic Studies was facing cuts that would have resulted in the loss of two faculty positions. What was most inspiring is there was an outcry from the student body, across all disciplines and not solely from ethnic studies majors, that demonstrated how important this program was to everyone.
The protests were successful and the cuts were not implemented. It was obvious to me at the time that the importance of the program had burrowed deep into the DNA of the university.
The S.F. State events of 1968-69 are just part of your film. You also tell the story of protests on the Cornell University campus, where you both were. Give us a brief overview of what unfolded at Cornell and how those events were tied to the S.F. State protests.
Dawson: James Perkins came to Cornell as president in the early 1960s and was appalled by the minuscule number of black students at the Ithaca campus. To remedy that low enrollment, he established the Committee On Special Educational Projects (COSEP), with a responsibility to identify and enroll Negro and other ethnically underrepresented students whose secondary school performance and entrance exam scores indicated the potential for success at Cornell.
By 1968, that population of students included an increasing number of students from densely populated urban areas who had experienced or witnessed urban rebellion in their decaying inner-city streets and were committed to insuring that their own education would benefit their communities. Black students at Cornell increased their demands to include the establishment of a Black Studies Program, which mirrored what was happening at S.F. State and more than 1,000 college campuses across the nation.
What was it like being on campus in the middle of what turned out to be such historic times? Did it have any lasting impacts on your lives or careers?
Ginzberg: At the time, it was not obvious we were part of a historical movement. It was just a turbulent time in America and we knew we needed to raise our voices. I was part of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) when I was a student at Cornell and was involved in the anti-war movement, as well as part of the support group for the black students before, during and after the building takeover. My commitment to fighting for justice came into focus during my time at Cornell and has influenced me throughout the rest of my life. First as a lawyer in San Francisco and then as a documentary filmmaker for the past 30-plus years, my work has been devoted to issues of race and social justice. I have tried to tell stories about unsung heroes such as federal judge Thelton Henderson, the first African-American lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department; Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino appointed to the California Supreme Court, and South African anti-apartheid activist and Constitutional Court judge, Albie Sachs. These films have all aired on KQED.
The title of the film, “Agents of Change,” captures the idea of citizens becoming politically and civically engaged. Do you see any similarities between the turbulent times of the '60s and contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter, Resistance, Women’s March, etc?
Ginzberg: We are seeing renewed activism at this moment and we all have the potential to be "agents of change." It is heartening to see so many young people in the streets, speaking out against anti-black, anti-women and anti-immigrant sentiments. Each generation has to find their own way of making themselves heard, and today we are seeing a resurgence of activism that is heartwarming to the those of us who have remained fighters for social change since we were in our early 20s. We hope the film will inspire people to see themselves as agents of change.
What is the biggest lesson that can be learned from the campus civil rights protests 50 years later?
Ginzberg: The main lesson, I believe, is to not take any of these successes for granted and to understand that each generation may have to fight for these gains all over again. Black and ethnic studies programs are now taken for granted by many students on campuses around the country. Learning that they were forged in struggle by students, not only at S.F. State and Cornell but at over 1,000 campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is critical to efforts to preserve them.
Another part of the S.F. State legacy is that in spite of the intervening 50 years, racism is still present on college campuses. Inclusion is still a distant goal, and many campuses are experiencing some of the same issues that led to the protests at S,F. State and Cornell. So in a word, we still have a long way to go.