"It Was Like A Weed:" Carl Oglesby on The 1960s Student Movement
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“It Was Like A Weed:” Carl Oglesby on The 1960s Student Movement

Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed in 1962 to address issues of poverty, as well as feelings of helplessness, alienation, and indifference in African-American and working class communities. The group, which focused initially on community organizing, quickly became a leader of the anti-war movement when President Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam in 1965. A graduate student in 1965 at the University of Michigan, Carl Oglesby worked as a writer for a defense contractor. He was horrified at what he began to learn about Vietnam, and when SDS members found him he quickly joined the group. Oglesby quit his job, spoke at the first teach-in against the Vietnam War at Michigan, and was elected president of SDS in 1965. He then spent years traveling around the country speaking against the war.

Listen to Audio:

OGLESBY: ERAP (SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project) was symbolically valuable in doing campus organizing, and that’s all it was good for. Symbolically it was great because it gave SDS a dimension, a sense of presence in the real world that it could never have had if it was seen as operating exclusively in a campus context. It projected our image beyond the campus, past campus sand lot politics to the real world of poverty, racism, police brutality. And the deep part of that is true too. If we didn’t organize five community people, we nevertheless put maybe 500 kids through a very advanced course in sociology today, as it is on the streets. There was no substitute for that. And in that respect it was not such an abysmal failure, and ERAP was one of the successes. But ERAP was a success for middle class college kids who were struggling to understand their world and to broaden their experience, to reach out beyond the parochial limits of their class experience and see what other people had to live. One of the objections to getting involved in an anti-war movement was that the war was going to go away and then where would you be? Everybody just assumed that because the war looked so unreasonable to us that it would look unreasonable to the guys who wanted to fight it.

You were not striking a blow against the war by organizing the welfare mother in Detroit. You only thought you were. If you really wanted to strike a blow against the war, you would be working on the campuses, because it was the campuses that were generating the enormous heat, the enormous pressure, the enormous growth, and really shaping the political. There was a student movement and it was growing. You didn’t spend a nickel on it and it grew. It was like a weed.

EYNON: What made you think that the students, that the campus is the place to be organizing?

OGLESBY: The teach-in. It was the actual experience of the teach-in, which was like a transfigured night. Up until the teach-in I was going to go to Boston and be a community organizer like the rest of the power elite in SDS. And then the teach-in came. And to see the way kids turned on and lit up and glowed with the hunger for knowledge was a transforming experience. It brought out all the teacher in me, for maybe the first time. For the first time in my life I felt like I had something to teach that people wanted to learn and the interaction between teacher, learner and then you became the learner and they became the teacher — that is just the most gratifying intellectual experience there is for me. The interchange is actually taking place. There’s some real thinking some real reception, some real understanding. And the sense of the presence of that spirit, in the teach-in, was so strong that it ended any thought I had of going into poverty stuff. So that’s what happened. As a result of the teach-in thing I said, “I’m not going to Boston, I’m going to spend my time organizing around the war.”

Source: Interviewed by Bret Eynon 12/12/84
Courtesy of Columbia University Oral History Collection