We lost our innocence that day in the beginning of my freshman year. My biology professor interrupted his lecture to tell us that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and then dismissed the class. Not a word was said as we walked out of the room in shock. So began my Cal Poly experience in what was to become the socially turbulent times now known as the ’60s.
The national discussion on the Vietnam War, fueled by protests on college campuses across the country, found a receptive home at Cal Poly as well. Late night dorm room discussions at times grew fierce on the subject of resisting the draft and national politics.
Psychedelic drugs, flower power, a campus lecture by Timothy Leary the Harvard LSD guru, love ins, peaceful protests against civil injustice, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X, the rebirth of the women’s liberation movement – these events all had major impacts on campus life.
Music carried the social revolution message. Among the campus concerts I vividly recall was the Jefferson Airplane, complete with the powerful visual imagery of a psychedelic light show, and an incredibly long yet incomplete concert by The Doors.
While interviewing the Jefferson Airplane during a break, I was amazed to find their guitarist was so stoned yet could still perform – the odor of pot hung heavily in the air. Talk about “…feed your head.” Jim Morrison and The Doors lit our collective fire with a very long first set followed by what they intended as an intermission. The enthusiastic Poly audience thought the concert was over and left, to the astonishment of the Doors when they returned to the stage to find an empty auditorium.
There was a counter to this cultural change – Cal Poly was a fairly conservative campus comprised of engineers, “aggies,” and many others who looked with concern upon the growing change to the social structure. Although I tried to present a balance of news in the Mustang Daily, there was no getting around perceived slights to either side of the campus debate on the changes happening around us.
Organizations coalesced around social change, such as the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Students Union, while Latino students rallied around Cesar Chavez. Many others sought to have their impact on the fabric of American life.
I received anonymous physical from disgruntled campus conservatives, as well as a threat from the liberal side to bomb my office. In retrospect, I suppose that meant we did a fairly good job of providing newsworthy coverage of Cal Poly.
It’s said that if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. You may not have been at Cal Poly in the ’60s, but the changes wrought then, there and across the country by my collegiate compadres can still be felt to this day. I’m proud to have been a part of it all.
Peace, love and freedom . . . and don’t forget to wear flowers in your hair if you’re going to San Francisco.