Michael V. Metz. Radicals in the Heartland: The 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. xix + 269 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08420-1.
Reviewed by Amy Tyson (DePaul University)
Published on H-Midwest (August, 2021)
Commissioned by Dustin McLochlin (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums)
While historians, journalists, and memoirists have diligently documented how the civil rights struggles and antiwar activism of the 1960s played out in the urban center of Chicago, Illinois, less attention has been paid to how those same social movements played out elsewhere in the Land of Lincoln. Filling that gap in Radicals in the Heartland, Michael V. Metz offers a window into how students, faculty, and administrators of the University of Illinois at Urbana (140 miles south of Chicago) responded to the urgent issues of this watershed decade.
Drawing on primary sources from the University of Illinois Archives at Urbana, campus and regional newspapers, and twenty-six personal interviews, Metz’s volume is a deeply researched account that compels us to appreciate how free speech, racial issues, draft resistance, and antiwar activism were fought over on the U of I’s flagship campus in Central Illinois. The “whole world” may not have been watching, but the volume makes the argument that what happened there should nonetheless be seen as important to our understanding of this decade’s unfolding.
The book is divided into four parts, with the majority of the volume focused on the latter half of the 1960s. Within those four main sections are thirty-seven chapters, which paces the book to read like a series of journalistic accounts; chapter 2, for example, is just four paragraphs in length; a chapter on women’s roles (including women’s narratives of sexual harassment and sexual violence perpetuated by men within the movement) comes in at just under ten pages. Metz does not engage with the wider historiography of the 1960s, nor does he analyze the ways in which his narrators’ recollections offer insight into how memories of student activism have been reshaped over time. But Metz does due diligence with his intended goal to chronicle in intense detail the evolution of the Midwestern student movement. The book thus succeeds best when read as a microhistory of the U of I during its most tumultuous era, one that culminated in firebombs in campus buildings and student confrontations with the National Guard. The question that logically frames Metz’s work, then, is: how was it that such conflict could find a place on this campus, of all places?
In the 1960s, Metz notes, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was 90 percent white, two-thirds male, and generally considered conservative. While it drew a healthy portion of its student body from Chicago and its suburbs, the remaining two-thirds were drawn from across the state (including its farmlands and smaller, working-class cities) and from across the Midwest at large. And while the student protest movement that emerged in the waning years of the decade would only ever represent a small minority of students at the campus, Metz shows that “it was a minority with heft … [that] helped end one [campus] presidency, mortally wounded another, and led the forces fighting to end a war” as they responded to the issues of their times (p. 5).
Free speech, Metz compellingly shows, was the first fight taken up by student activists. In 1947, Cold War fears manifested in two key state legislative actions designed to sniff out and limit communist influence over Illinois’s institutions: the Broyles Bill and the Clabaugh Act. While the former modeled itself after anticommunist crusades at the national level in its efforts to find and identify communists (especially within higher education) through a Seditious Activities Investigation Committee, the latter act zeroed in on ways to prevent access to U of I campus resources by any organizations perceived as un-American or subversive.
Resistance to Clabaugh would serve as the training ground for student activists. Metz painstakingly recounts how the Illinois student protest movement initially took shape circa 1966 when a new chapter of a W. E. B. DuBois Club applied for university recognition. With links to the Communist Party of the USA, the club brought the long arm of the Clabaugh Act into full view, reigniting fears of Reds in the heartland, as well as igniting a movement that sought to ensure the rights to freedom of speech and expression on campus. At this point, the movement evolved as one might expect, including the formation of an anti-Clabaugh Act student group, rallies, an invitation to a controversial campus speaker, and a campus sit-in. By 1968 student activists would prevail, with Clabaugh being overturned.
Metz is at his best when he sheds light on why events at Illinois played out in the ways they did in light of other regional and national contexts. For example, Metz shows how Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had pushed for college campuses across the nation to protest Dow Chemical Corporation’s campus recruitment efforts. Students at the University of Wisconsin Madison took up the call in October of 1967, with a massive protest against the napalm production company. Administrative decisions at Madison deflected management of the protest to the police, which escalated tensions and led to scores of students and several police being hospitalized. Illinois’s student activists staged their Dow sit-ins just days later. Metz skillfully draws on his sources to illustrate how the events at Madison informed the comparatively soft response from Illinois’s administration.
It should be noted that the author was a student activist at Illinois during the period of focus. Moreover, Metz worked on the staff of the Walrus, a student-run underground countercultural newspaper that emerged in the wake of the Tet Offensive, in February of 1968. Metz only speaks about his involvement in the events that unfolded and his connections to his interviewees briefly, in the book’s preface. It is not clear if the decision not to include Metz’s own take on events reflects an effort to maintain an air of objectivity, but this reviewer would have welcomed insights gleaned from the author’s firsthand experiences, which surely have as much value as the subjective accounts of his fellow narrators. On a related note, it does not appear that the author’s interviews with fellow travelers were recorded or preserved as oral histories that might be accessed by other researchers. If permissions could be obtained, I should think the University of Illinois Archives would welcome these narratives, given the rich material that was clearly mined for this detailed history.
In all, Radicals in the Heartland should be welcomed by students and scholars interested in the history of 1960s student movements as a testament to how the movement played out in the heart of the Midwest. Those interested in a microhistory of the University of Illinois’s flagship campus will find the volume indispensable.
Amy M. Tyson is Associate Professor of History at DePaul University.
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