1970 Protest: Wilson Sit-in
During the spring semester of 1970, three faculty members were not offered renewed contracts with Madison College. Some students, including those involved in the publication of the Fixer, felt the decision had been made upon the basis of the professors’ liberal viewpoints and close relationships to the student body – not upon questions of scholarly merit. For weeks, those concerned with the decision attempted to meet with figures in the administration including President Miller, but the college’s officials consistently turned them away. The students grew increasingly frustrated with the administration’s attempts to ignore them; they felt the school ought to be held accountable to those it served. The issue escalated into a heated debate on questions of academic freedom, and tension reached its peak when the students began holding demonstrations.
The first demonstration was a minor event; Thursday, April 23, 1970, Les Hammond organized a sit-in in Blackwell Auditorium. Though mostly uneventful, the student actions made the administration nervous. The following Sunday, April 26, 1970, around forty students gathered in Keezell to sit and wait for President Miller to speak with them. He had repeatedly cancelled meetings scheduled with individual students (Guill), so those concerned decided peaceful assembly was the next step in attempting to communicate with the administration. When the building had to be locked for the evening, demonstrators moved next door to Wilson Hall – a building that remained unlocked twenty four hours a day. More students gathered outside of Wilson Hall – perhaps as many as 300 according to the Daily News Record – but still the administration failed to level with students.
The Dean of Students, Dr. Fox, made an appearance to warn students that they were in violation of rules set forth in the Student Handbook. According to the handbook, students could not hold demonstrations inside campus buildings at any time (51-52). Dr. Fox warned the students that he was going to contact the police, and those who chose to remain would be arrested for failure to follow regulations and for trespassing. Amongst those students who chose to remain was, of course, Jay Rainey. Concerning the details of the Wilson Sit-In, he recalls that the students who decided to stay and face the consequences were calm and peaceful. In fact, they even swept up the lobby of Wilson before being escorted to jail because they did not want to leave behind a mess (Turner interview).
About twenty five people were arrested that night in Wilson Hall. Many were students, but at least one faculty member was amongst them. Dr. James McClung, one of the three fired professors, went to jail that night with the other protestors. As Rainey explains, the students were not trying to hold a massive, chaotic protest. They wanted to get the attention of the administration, and this could be accomplished as easily with five jailed students as it could with fifty (Tuner interview). As Dr. Fox had threatened, police rounded up the demonstrators, loaded them in moving vans, and booked them.
All of the demonstrators were found guilty of trespassing and fined. The majority of the demonstrators accepted defeat and simply paid the money. Three of the demonstrators, though, decided to appeal the case to a higher court. Those three were Dr. McClung, Jay Rainey, and Steve Rochelle. When the trials had finally ended, the verdict was unfavorable for the three activists. Each was made to serve a short jail sentence in 1977. Considering the peaceful execution of the sit-in, these consequences seem incredibly harsh. The severity of the sentences reflects Harrisonburg’s general reaction to any sort of nonconformist, politically radical behavior. Dr. Wood explains, “the town acted as if Madison had exploded into some sort of riot” (Turner interview). Click here to listen. Given the national concern for activism and the recent violent protest happening elsewhere in the country, Madison’s demonstration made the administration – and the Harrisonburg community – very nervous. They feared more violent political unrest and so overreacted to all forms of protest.
To read excerpts of student reaction articles from the Fixer, click here.
The Daily News Record, April 28, 1970.
Madison College Student Handbooks 1965-1970, JMU Special Collections, Harrisonburg, Va.
Turner, Jeremy. “Jay Rainey Interview.” Blacksburg, Va. January 30, 1998. JMU Special Collections Oral Histories, Harrisonburg, Va.
Turner, Jeremy. “Dr. John Wood Interview.” Harrisonburg, Va. March 4, 1998. JMU Special Collections Oral Histories, Harrisonburg, Va. Mp3s created and edited by Emily Kohlhepp.