Union College anti-war protest 50 years ago this week recalled; Protest remained peaceful

Four days before Kent State protest turned tragic, Union College gathering went peacefully
Anti-war demonstrators walk on Erie Boulevard towards State Street in Schenectady on May 1, 1970.
Anti-war demonstrators walk on Erie Boulevard towards State Street in Schenectady on May 1, 1970.

The Rev. Jim Murphy needed to make a point to the restless throng of Union College students surrounding him, so he decided to speak their language.

“I got bleeped by the local TV stations because I told the students they weren’t going to get peace by chanting ‘[expletive] the cops,'” said Murphy, a former Catholic priest who 50 years ago on May 1 was part of a large anti-war demonstration that began on the campus of Union College and moved to downtown Schenectady. “I think a few people, and I may have been one of them, were able to keep things moving in the right direction and not have the demonstration become too disruptive.”

Protests against the Vietnam War and in particular President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia on April 30 resulted in one of the most violent periods in U.S. domestic history. Civil unrest on college campuses throughout the country grew violent that week and on May 4 in Ohio, four days after the Union College protest, things escalated into tragedy when four Kent State students were shot and killed by members of the U.S. National Guard.

In Schenectady, fortunately, cooler heads ruled the day. No one got arrested and no one got hurt. One student was stopped by police and then released after he tried entering the Selective Service office on Wall Street through an open window, and there was an hour-long traffic jam when the marchers sat down in the middle of the intersection of Erie Boulevard and State Street. Also, things heated up momentarily as the students thought about entering the General Electric grounds, but Murphy argued against it and people listened.  A Schenectady native, Murphy was an associate pastor with St. Columba’s in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, and was working as the college’s Catholic chaplain at the time of the protest. David Snyder was the school’s protestant chaplain, and both men were part of the liberal, anti-war crowd in sympathy with the students.

Student demonstrators interact with a member of the public during the May 1, 1970, anti-war protest in Schenectady.
Photo provided

“Schenectady had the background of being a place with a lot of liberal people,” said Murphy, who grew up on Baker Avenue and attended Christian Brothers Academy and Ottawa University before heading to Rome, Italy for four years (1962-66) where he was ordained at St. Peter’s Basilica. “There were plenty of Quakers, Unitarians and Methodists who were opposed to the war and had been involved in a lot of the civil rights movements. After I got back from Rome I started getting involved with them and some of the students opposed to the war. By 1970 I was pretty visible, and they called me the ‘peace priest.’ But that march and demonstration was led by the students. I became a participant only when I heard that this gathering had started on campus, and it eventually moved across the street from the Union gate to St. John the Evangelist before it headed downtown.”

The anti-war activity at Union actually began Tuesday, April 28, when about 25 students protested outside the school’s ROTC office. On Thursday, April 30, a slightly larger group burned President Richard Nixon in effigy at the Psi Upsilon flagpole on campus. The next day, a Friday morning, an estimated crowd of 600 showed up to listen to Murphy and a few others offer some impromptu remarks, and then somewhere between 300 and 400 protesters began their march downtown.

The Rev. Jim Murphy speaks to Union College Students during the demonstration. 
Photo courtesy of Lester Kritzer

One of the protesters was George Bain, a freshman from Cambridge, Massachusetts and now a resident of Jamesville in western New York. Bain had already participated in one student event on April 22 when Earth Day was held for the very first time.

“We were putting out the call to protect the environment, so on the very first Earth Day we marched down Nott Terrace to the park at the top of the State Street hill,” remembered Bain. “But it was a much smaller group and very low key. I don’t think any of the TV stations were even there.”

Exactly nine days later, however, things were much different.

“It was a much warmer, sunny day, and we were all excited and angry at Nixon’s decision,” said Bain “It was a large throng of students, and we were chanting, ‘it’s Nixon’s war now,’ and ‘all we are saying is give peace a chance.’ We marched down into the Stockade to Schenectady County Community College and chanted, ‘join us,’ to little effect. Then we marched over to the GE and sat down and a debate ensued. ‘Did we want to march into the plant grounds or not?’ I can’t remember who argued for going ahead, but Jim Murphy must have argued against it. The decision was to turn around and go back up Erie Boulevard to the intersection of Erie and State and just sit down.”

Union College students blocked the intersection of State Street and Erie Boulevard in downtown Schenectady for nearly an hour during the Vietnam War demonstration on May 1, 1970. 
Photo provided

Murphy wasn’t the only cool head that day in Schenectady. According to both Schenectady newspapers and the college newspaper, The Concordiensis, Union President Harold Martin was very much in sympathy with the marchers, and Schenectady City Manager John L. Scott and Police Chief John Murphy made sure by their passive actions that tempers didn’t reach a boil.

Robert Wells, who taught history at Union from 1969 to 2013, remembers the anti-war atmosphere running rampant throughout campus.

“I had just started teaching, I had a new baby, and I remember things were very tense and uncertain,” said Wells. “All that added to my anxieties as someone new on campus, but I remember what really impressed me about the protest was the lack of violence. I think the students knew they had a lot of support from the faculty and the college president, and that helped, and then the police did a good job.”

Schenectady police had managed a 14-week strike at the General Electric in 1969 with only a minimum amount of muscle.

“I think it helped that the police had to deal with the GE strike a year earlier,” said Wells. “This large demonstration didn’t take them suddenly by surprise. They were prepared to handle the crowd and managed to keep their hands off of the Union College kids.”

Byron Nichols was in his second year as a political science professor at Union when the demonstration took place.

“What was striking to me was how engaged and on edge the students were,” remembered Nichols, who retired in 2008. “In the third week of my very first class there, a student stood up while I was teaching and asked me, ‘do you have a moral compass?’ There was a cultural shift going on in the country at that time. None of the old constants were there.”

Nichols, who marched part of the way with the students, said Martin’s presence on campus was a big factor in the lack of violence that day.

“He had a very deft way with the students, the faculty and the press,” said Nichols. “They knew he was listening to them, and he did openly sympathize with them. He looked and talked like a college president. He was a tall Harvard guy and would go on television talking about how important it was what the students were doing.”

Between its president and its two chaplains, Union College had a lot going its way that day 50 years ago.

“With those two moral forces, one Protestant and one Catholic, the students learned it was alright to be opposed to the war and to speak out against it,” Nichols said. “As long as there was no destruction or threat to people, protesting something was fine.”

In a 2009 article about the protest for the Union College web site, Bain remembered that “we marched to GE and sat down, very orderly, at the entrance. I remember no desire to force my way past any guards and storm into the GE grounds. We were demonstrating against what was called the second-largest U.S. Defense Department contractor of the time.” 

These days, however, the thing he remembers the most 50 years later, is listening on the radio to reports about what happened in Kent, Ohio a few days later.

“My clearest recollection of emotion was the following Monday afternoon, when the news about Kent State reached us,” said Bain, “and the realization that we had avoided the possibility of something similar happening in Schenectady by not occupying the GE grounds.”

Because of the peaceful nature of the students on display at Union and downtown Schenectady that day, most everyone considered the May 1 demonstration a huge success.

“Nixon used to say that he was never impressed with the anti-war movement, and how all the demonstrations never influenced him at all,” said Murphy, who retired as a priest in 1984 to get married. He and his wife Faye Tischler now live in Scotia.

“But I think all the protests did matter,” added Murphy. “Peaceful demonstrations brought out the fact that our involvement in Vietnam was wrong, and that it was OK to be opposed to the war and not just go along with things as they were.”

One of the founders of the area group, Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War, Murphy went on to start up several other non-profit groups in Schenectady and eventually won an elected seat in the county legislature. About the only negative consequence resulting from the protest of May 1, 1970, may have been the result of his profane language while using a bullhorn to speak to the students. The manner of his remarks that day was frowned upon by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

“I had an ego back then and sometimes I tried to attack people,” remembered Murphy. “Nowadays I would try using my sense of humor. I think it caused some concern in my family and my parish, but the college never pushed back against me, and the Albany Diocese was also pretty good with all my activity. I got called in once and Bishop Maginn silenced me but I never paid attention to it, and neither did he. He was a very good man. I liked him, but I made him mad that day.”

The Gazette’s account of the march and demonstration had the protesters arriving at GE at 10:30 that morning, and by 1:15 p.m. the group had left Erie and State and headed back to campus. Later that night – it was parents’ weekend – there was a smaller rally in front of Schaffer Library, and the following morning another “peaceful sit-in” outside the ROTC office. While Martin had showed his support and made classes on Friday optional, the administration declined to take an official position on the demonstration, instead offering a short one sentence response for the media, “This is a matter of individual conscience.”

Union College protesters turn the corner at Nott Terrace and State Street in Schenectady on their way from campus to the General Electric company during the May 1, 1970 Vietnam War demonstration. 
Photo provided

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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