The Strike Begins
On April 30, 1970, John E. Corbally, Jr. was formally inaugurated as the eighth Chancellor and President of Syracuse University in an elaborate ceremony that took place as part of the University’s centennial celebrations. That same evening, United States President Richard M. Nixon announced on national television that he had ordered an incursion of American troops into Cambodia. The following day, Nixon would comment to the press about “these bums…blowing up the campuses.” By May 1, college students across the country were developing plans for a new and larger wave of direct action and protest against government and college administrations they felt were continuing to ignore their voices and demands. Among these students were former Syracuse University Student Government president David Ifshin and a group of his peers, who at the time were attending a nationwide meeting at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut to plan the next phase of the anti-Vietnam War movement and what would become the National Student Strike. Returning to campus, Ifshin and the others found that plans for a rally on May 4 were already underway at Syracuse University. Amidst the celebrations marking the University’s 100th anniversary, the stage was set for the largest protest in its history.
May 4 Coalition
At 2:00 pm on May 4, 1970, a crowd of over 3,000 students and campus community members gathered on the Quad in front of Hendricks Chapel. The assembled crowd heard from student and faculty speakers advocating for a strike and enumerating three demands: an immediate end to American involvement in all of Southeast Asia and the unconditional withdrawal of American troops; an immediate end to the repression of the Black Panther Party and the release of Panther leader Bobby Seale; and an immediate end to University complicity with the military-industrial complex. “We, the students of Syracuse University, hereby declare ourselves on strike through finals this spring in solidarity with the national Student Strike,” a statement from Strike leadership read. The ensuing week of the Strike would be led by the Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition and coordinated by “action groups” with specific areas of responsibility.
In the middle of the May 4 rally, attendees learned that four students at Kent State University had been shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war demonstration there. The Kent State killings would heighten strike activity at Syracuse University and on campuses across the country.
Strike demands issued by the Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition, May 1970. Syracuse University Student Activities Reference Collection, University Archives.
Leadership of the Student Strike at Syracuse University was known collectively as The Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition. The Committee consisted of 25 members. Robert Tembeckjian, president of the sophomore class, was selected as the “Shutdown Spokesman.” Tembeckjian was generally considered to be a more moderate representative than David Ifshin. This list of demands and a resolution was part of a plenary meeting held at Hendricks Chapel on the evening of May 4, 1970, following the earlier mass rally on the Quad.
“The Age of Barbarius”
Immediately following the initial rally, the May 4 Coalition held a plenary meeting in Hendricks Chapel. Speakers continued to call for a general strike and began planning a march to downtown Syracuse for the following day in memory of the students killed at Kent State. As the Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition was developing broad plans for the duration of the Strike, activities on the evening of May 4 soon turned in a different direction. Strike participants scrawled graffiti on campus buildings, broke windows, and constructed barricades at campus entrances. City police and campus security deployed to monitor the developing situation but did not intervene. The following day, city newspapers covered the night’s events under headlines like “Students Run Wild at SU,” with one local paper referring to the evening’s actions as a sign of “The Age of Barbarius.”
On the evening of May 4, Strike participants broke seventy-one windows, firebombed the bookstore, painted slogans on buildings, constructed barricades, and parked cars on campus lawns. The University treasurer later estimated the total loss of gross income and property due to the Strike as $22,654 ($143,000 in today’s dollars).
The Strike Committee of the May 4 Coalition consisted of various action groups to oversee and coordinate a range of Strike activities. The maintenance and staffing of the barricades at campus entrances was coordinated by the Strike Barricade Committee.
Photograph of students occupying a barricade near Hendricks Chapel, May 1970. Syracuse University Photograph Collection, University Archives.
The Strike Continues
While approximately 7,000 Strike members marched to downtown Syracuse on the morning of May 5, “Shutdown Spokesman” Rob Tembeckjian announced the Strike Committee’s demands to local media. Chancellor Corbally also met with the press that afternoon, announcing that classes would be cancelled through the following day. Although Syracuse University would soon pursue a resolution offering class and grade alternatives to all students through the close of the semester, when asked on May 5 if the students had taken control of the University, Corbally responded that “[i]f the students aren’t attending class, the normal business of the University comes to a halt; when they are not there we are not in business.” Over the following days University administration and Strike Committee leadership attempted to negotiate demands while a wide array of Strike activities continued on campus.
Strike participants marched from campus to downtown Syracuse on the morning of May 5, 1970, led by students dressed as Spectres of Death with their faces painted white. The march was both a memorial for the students killed at Kent State University as well as a general anti-Vietnam War and anti-draft demonstration.
The Strike barricades were a frequent point of contention between grounds crews, University leadership, and the Strike Committee. On the evening of May 6, a fire unrelated to strike activities broke out at a campus construction site and students worked to clear the barricade to provide access for fire personnel. Ultimately, the barricades were left in place until the end of the semester.