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“Let’s Have a Meeting:” Cathy Wilkerson on SDS Organizing

Student organizers from groups such as Students for Democratic Society (SDS) traveled to college campuses around the country to build student opposition to the Vietnam War. Cathy Wilkerson, who worked in the SDS national office and edited the SDS paper, New Left Notes, described how SDS organizers used campus politics to build the movement. By getting students involved in conflicts over university governance, defense research taking place at their universities, or local civil rights issues, SDS engaged thousands of students who had not previously thought of themselves as political. The ability of SDS organizers to make the issues real to students by getting them to take risks and be confrontational on these local issues was, to Wilkerson, the key to SDS’s organizing success. [The material in brackets was added to the transcript shortly after the recorded interview.]

Listen to Audio:

GRELE: How did you go about organizing chapters?

WILKERSON: You would take your little box of literature, and this is how I did it, everybody had their own style. You would go and you would stand in front of the library or the most congregated place, and you would start distributing the literature, and you would pick an fight [argument] with someone, and you would start to yell. And a crowd would collect. Then this enormous debate would happen and then little groups would split off, and everybody would be arguing, and you would have this tremendous thing [a lot of activity.] Afterwards these people would come up and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” or “I’ve been looking for someone to talk to about this,” or “Do you have . . .” So you would get a crowd of sometimes two or three hundred people or less and out of that you might get fifteen people who are really interested. And you’d say, “Let’s have a meeting.” And you were off and running. It was not hard to do. [It was not hard to be successful back then. But we knew how to do it. We were really great at it and so just about any SDS organizer could go on a campus and organize a chapter within two months.]

I think that was the heart of why SDS was able to organize this was its [moral] confrontationalness, and the fact that it made students take risks and it made it be real. If you went and tipped over the tables at the draft recruiters who came to campus you could get in trouble. You wouldn’t lose the roof over your head. You weren’t risking anything to what a black civil rights worker was risking in the South, but you were risking something and you had to deal with that. As long as it was intellectual, and it was chapter meetings, talking about blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s not real [limited.] And the reason why SDS was so successful was that it was confrontational. And the organizers took risks, more risks and that made people trust them. Whatever risks we took we knew, I mean, every student in the United States knew that civil rights workers in the South were taking bigger risks, and the Vietnamese. You saw it on TV every day. So any little bitty risk you took around getting thrown out of college, you could never be allowed to think it was such a big deal, because you would turn on the TV and you would see napalm or you would see some black organizer strung up [attacked] in the South. So that kept everything in perspective, and it made the risk that the student movement was taking not seem scary to people.

Then usually you would research that campus, find out what Federal money they were getting for research, and find out if there was a defense project on campus, which there usually was if it was a university of any size. Then that would be their local target that they would organize against. Maybe their engineering department was researching lasers, or their social science department was researching how to subvert the Lao people, or you could find something back then on almost every campus that was involved with the war effort. Or there would be a local struggle around civil rights that you would try to pull people into or something like that. And then there was draft resistance. There were people who wanted to organize, get involved with draft resistance.

Source: Interviewed by Ron Grele 2/17/85
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection