Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Impact Symposium & The March Against Repression

Chicago 7 Attorney William Kunstler

When controversial anti-war attorney William Kunstler was invited speak on campus as a part of the annual Impact Symposium in the spring of our freshman year (1970), all hell broke loose.

At that time, Kunstler was clearly one of the most controversial figures in a deeply divided America. He had just finished defending the Chicago 7, a group of radical leaders involved in the protests and demonstrations surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

As a result of that trial, all but one of the defendants was convicted on charges of crossing state lines to incite a riot (convictions later thrown out on appeal).

The Chicago 7 trial had been a sensational one, with the defendants creating a new commotion or scene in the courtroom almost every day. The fact that Vanderbilt would invite the Chicago 7 attorney to speak on campus was just too much for Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington. He denounced the University and Chancellor Alexander Heard day after day in the weeks leading up to the event.

The city's afternoon newspaper, THE NASHVILLE BANNER, also picked up the criticism, with a lot of it coming from BANNER Publisher, Jimmy Stahlman, who was a Vanderbilt graduate and a longtime member of the VU Board of Trust.

In those days, the Impact Symposium was one of the big events on campus every year. Beginning as a student-led effort in 1964, the program had brought such speakers as Robert F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and others to campus. Vanderbilt had also previously gotten into controversy when Black Power leader Stokley Carmichael spoken to VU students in the late '60s.

But each time, Chancellor Heard was resolute, and he spoke out strongly to defend the right and the role of the University to be a place for an open discussion and debate of the issues and of ideas, even controversial ones.

And so it was a rather tension-charged atmosphere when Kunstler arrived to speak in Memorial Gym. The other speaker sharing the podium that evening was noted conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick (later famous for his weekly Point-Counterpoint debates with Nicholas Van Hoffman and then Shanna Alexander on the 60 MINUTES television show, which was also so well satirized by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE with Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin).

As a radio reporter from WRVU, I remember getting the opportunity to cover the Kunstler speech at IMPACT. It was quite exciting as I remember it, with both men giving excellent and thought-provoking speeches. Other than that, the evening passed without much incident, thankfully.

I also remember when Kunstler came back to Vanderbilt to speak in Underwood Auditorium a few years later in the mid-1970s. As a new reporter at Channel 5, I was assigned to cover his appearance.

I can't remember the topic of his speech. But what did make news that evening, was that while he speaking, someone came from the wings off stage and hit Kunstler with a pie on top of his head (pieing someone was a popular, if brief-lived, prank on many college campuses during that period).

Because we were covering the speech with our new electronic cameras, Channel 5 was able to capture video of the pieing as it happened (the other stations, shooting on film, did not). That kind of video today would be all over YouTube and everywhere. For me, after it was shown on the 10 PM News that night, it went off into obscurity, although it was featured in a promotional video the station produced to tout the advantages of its electronic news gathering capabilities.

In retrospect, I can't help wondering if Governor Ellington and Publisher Stahlman (both already dead and gone by that time) weren't somewhere chuckling about it all.

Jerry Rubin of the Chicago 7

One of Kunstler's Chicago 7 clients, Jerry Rubin was also in Nashville that same weekend of the IMPACT symposium. Rubin was truly a student radical, as you can see from this YouTube video featuring an interview he did with a very youthful looking, Phil Donahue back in April, 1970. The video is entitled "Yippies for Nixon" and to say the least Rubin was quite a tough interview, even for someone as skilled as Donahue....

True to form, when he arrived in Nashville, Rubin, the founder of the Yippies, led a protest demonstration and march from Centennial Park to the State Capitol downtown. It was called "The March Against Repression."

Steve Womack and I covered the march for WRVU (I think Jack Walton was with us, as well). And yes, we sold some comments from Rubin's typically fiery speech to ABC Radio News in New York. Hey, we never missed a chance to make a buck, although I think we donated most of the money to the station to help buy equipment and supplies.

What I do clearly remember is how, like Phil Donahue, I dressed rather inappropriately for that march. I had to come to Centennial Park straight from Mass that morning, so I arrived in a suit and tie! I can only imagine how all the marchers there must have thought I was some kind of cop or a narc.

And I can only imagine what the narcs and police surveillance people must have thought. I am also sure somewhere in all the secret photos they took of all of us who were there that day, my picture will show I was the only one who wore a coat and tie that day.

1 comment:

Barry Bozeman said...

Nice to see this information since I attended the event from Knoxville. You might find this of interest