Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, members of the Western Carolina community gathered in the August heat to hear King’s words broadcast at the Alumni Tower and the sound of bells in answer to his plea to “let freedom ring.” That night, WCU screened “King – From Montgomery to Memphis,” a 1970 Academy Award-nominated documentary that Jack Sholder, director of WCU’s film and television production program, worked on decades before coming to the university. “Racism and Jim Crow (laws) were so entrenched that it seemed like you could never do anything about it, but King did,” said Sholder. “He was a riveting speaker, and I was impressed by his courage – to march with a group on streets lined with people who wanted to kill him. I never quite got over watching that.”
The Sixties – a decade of political upheaval, scientific accomplishments, extensions of pop culture and artistic expression and new synergy in feminism and civil rights – are coming alive this academic year at WCU through the 2013-14 campuswide interdisciplinary learning theme, “The 1960s: Take It All In.” Related university events, such as the King speech and film, and a smattering of class projects are intended to encourage discussion, reflection and research to increase awareness of the historical, social and cultural impact of the 1960s.
“The seeds of the movements and advancements of the 1960s have provided the outcomes we reap today, but many of the movements of the 1960s are still relevant because the work begun is not complete,” said Marilyn Chamberlin, associate professor of sociology and director of women’s studies. So far, film series have showcased productions such as the horror flick “Night of the Living Dead” and documentaries such as “From the Earth to the Moon.” A panel discussion has centered on war, and upcoming discussions will explore voting rights, energy and abortion. Spring events, which are open to the public, will include an educational WCU Magical Mystery Tour on Thursday, Jan. 30, in which attendees will walk through an interactive retrospective that chronologically showcases social, political, technological, scientific, musical and artistic feats of humanity achieved in or connected to the 1960s. On Sunday, Feb. 9, a Beatles tribute band will perform in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which made history for attracting a then-record TV audience of 73 million people. Then on Thursday, March 6, Gloria Steinem, a writer, editor, feminist and activist, will speak at the Bardo Arts Center. In addition, a spring Wheestock festival is being planned.
David Evanoff, assistant professor of chemistry and physics, said he is struck by the 1960s as a decade of scientific and technological advancements. For the first time, people enjoyed space travel, orbited Earth and walked on the moon.
“We invented the laser and utilized integrated circuits in computers,” said Evanoff, whose students are exploring the historical context of instruments that were developed or commercialized during the 1960s. “We discovered that protons and neutrons weren’t elementary particles, and we deciphered the way in which our DNA stores genetic information. Like the social change initiated in the ’60s, the scientific achievements of that decade are truly an integral part of our daily lives today. As a scientist, I am awed by the multitude of scientific and technological achievements. As simply a citizen of this country, I think this decade provides a valuable lesson in the power of activism – the idea that one voice can make a difference and, in fact, initiate dramatic change. My hope is that our interdisciplinary theme helps reinvigorate our desire to ask the questions that need asking and to engage in the active citizenship needed to find solutions.”
During tumultuous times in the ’60s and the political and military tensions of the Cold War, Western Carolina offered some refuge, said Steve Williams ’72. Although Williams and fellow classmates among the earliest groups of black students to enroll at WCU raised issues with such practices as the playing of “Dixie” and presence of Confederate flag at events, underrepresentation in student media and the lack of integration in roommate assignments, they did not fear the kind of violence that took place at other universities. “We felt very safe at Western,” said Williams, who played football for the Catamounts and then for the NFL. “We used to say in the case of nuclear attack, we’d be the safest place in the world because of the mountains,” and, adding light-heartedly, “and because nobody knew where we were.”
Beatles music played often – seemingly all the time, said Williams – at the Townhouse, where students went for hamburgers and hotdogs. In fact, Kathy Abbott-Beam ’67 MAEd ’79 EdS ’83 said the Beatles were so popular that her younger brother became part of a Beatles band. “He dressed and cut his hair as if he were Paul McCartney, and all of them went on to become musicians,” said Abbott-Beam. Student life was more regimented. Freshmen women had dorm mothers, curfews and a set time for lights out. Without fast food restaurants, students ate what the dining hall served. “If they had bologna and tomato sandwiches, you ate it,” said Abbott-Beam.
She remembers coming back from exams to see everyone gathered around the only black-and-white TV in the residence hall watching footage of the caravan and cars after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “I just couldn’t move,” she said. “I couldn’t talk. It was like everybody stopped, and for days after that it was very solemn on campus – very quiet.”
Catamount yearbooks of the decade featured beauty sections with Miss Catamount and members of the May Court in formal dresses. The annual publication in 1963 included a picture of the dean of women reading “American Women: The Changing Image” and, over the years, showed more and more women wearing pants.
In some ways, Western Carolina was progressive for the time. Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, came to campus in 1967 to help dedicate an expansion to Hunter Library—an event Betty Allen ’68 regrets missing—and the institution became the first all-white institution in the state to admit a black student when Levern Hamlin Allen enrolled for a nine-week summer graduate course in the summer of 1957. Western Carolina also became one of the first all-white institutions in the state to offer an athletic scholarship to a black student, a move that Allen remembers some students were not happy about at first.
“That was before they knew Henry and saw him play,” said Allen, referring to basketball standout Henry Logan. “Many students at Western were like me and had not gone to integrated schools, but because of Henry and Herb Moore (another basketball player), we were learning.”
Allen and her classmates filled the bleachers at the games and soon became protective of Logan. During a game in which an opponent was particularly rough to him, Allen turned to her date to say something only to see him join a group jumping onto the court in Logan’s defense. “Half the gym was out there,” said Allen.
Although students were very active and involved on campus, the only organized protest Allen remembers centered on the Legislature’s consideration, as the institution became a university, of changing Western Carolina College’s name to the University of North Carolina at Cullowhee. “We didn’t want that,” said Allen. “We were Western.”
Like Allen, Gurney Chambers ’61, who had participated in a march in Nashville to protest racial inequality, does not remember any major protests in Cullowhee. However, Chambers, who returned to Western Carolina as an assistant professor after completing graduate studies, did find himself repeatedly challenged by students who had joined the Teacher Corps, a federal program started in 1965 to address teacher shortages, in part to become less likely to be drafted. The students had an activist nature and challenged everything from curriculum to administrators’ leadership styles. In one instance, they persuaded Chambers to allow a soldier who had recently returned from the Vietnam War to be a guest speaker and discuss the atrocities he had experienced. Before Chambers was 30 years old, he was named one of two young assistant deans in a move, he believed, to help administrators “make heads or tails of these enigmatic students who were taking over the offices of deans and presidents at institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University.” Perhaps his youth helped him succeed with students at the time, said Chambers. “This was, after all, the period when the expression ‘Trust No One Over 30’ was as popular as the Vietnam War was unpopular,” he said.
Jim Rowell ’71 said everyone was struggling then to sort right from wrong – about race relations, the Vietnam War and a new era of social responsibility. “On campus, there was some division, but it generally became evident pretty quickly what the right paths had to be,” said Rowell, retired director of public information at WCU. “Then, as young college students, it became a job of convincing and selling a new point of view to other generations. Particularly in the South, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were seeing the fabric of America as they knew it come apart. It was a time of change. Universities were flash points.”