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The long history of activism on campus

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A group of students, faculty, and staff from the UW, almost 7,000 in total, rallied in response to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970. The protest began on campus then spontaneously marched on the I-5 freeway. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW36752.

Standing up and speaking out are central pillars to activism, and throughout crucial moments in U.S. history, students and young people have been at the front of each march. The activist heart and history of the UW could rival that of any other college. Sweeping city, state, and even national change has had roots in the UW campus throughout the 20th century.

It would be impossible to retell the stories of every instance and period of activism at the UW in a single article. But this article aims to tell the story of some of the university’s highest-profile demonstrations and leaders of movements, while recognizing that there are important stories and perspectives missing.

Henry Suzzallo, militarism, and Seattle labor strikes circa 1919

Former UW President Henry Suzzallo, whose name the UW’s most famous library carries, began his tenure in 1915 after a career in teaching at Stanford and Columbia. Four years later, union workers citywide walked off the job, and the new-in-town university president found himself at the center of negotiations.

In his capacity as chairman of the Council of Defense, the group tasked with organizing the state’s war effort, Suzzallo worked day and night to find a solution to the strike, according to an essay from the Seattle General Strike Project.

Suzzallo’s views on labor became harsher as he was forced to deal with the strikes and radical groups on campus. At home on campus, thousands of students routinely protested the military drilling that began the same year as Suzzallo’s presidency, with the support of labor groups already at odds with Suzzallo. However, during Suzzallo’s tenure and through World War I, he was successful in keeping most students on his side.

“The University of Washington underwent a great change in attitudes about labor in a few short years under Suzzallo. The small contingent of student radicals that had been active on campus had for the most part left,” the essay reads. “The same student body that in 1915 supported an anti-militarism club lined up at the door of the Seattle Police Department in 1919 to guard the city from radicals.”

Gordon Hirabayashi and the internment of Japanese Americans circa 1943

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, American citizens and residents of Japanese descent were forced out of their homes and interned in camps, primarily in West Coast states. If you grew up in Washington state, you may have learned that the land of the Puyallup Fairgrounds was once used for this purpose. This action was deemed constitutional in the 1944 Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. United States.

This infamous case bears the name of Fred Korematsu, but another plaintiff in the case was Gordon Hirabayashi, who was a student at the UW at the time the executive order was issued. Hirabayashi is the named plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Hirabayashi v. United States, in which he sued the federal government on the grounds that curfews placed on Japanese Americans were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled against him.

Hirabayashi went on to have success for his cause as an individual, as opposed to leading protests and marches, perhaps more than any other single UW student. After the war, Hirabayashi returned to school and earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in sociology.

Hirabayashi was also a leader in the effort to right the wrong of internment, according to UW professor of political science Michael McCann, and was instrumental in the 1988 reparations legislation and apology issued by President Ronald Reagan. McCann is also the Gordon Hirabayashi Professor for the Advancement of Citizenship at the UW.

The firing and trials of communist professors circa 1949

In January 1949, as McCarthyism spread and scared the nation, the UW fired three tenured professors identified to have had an affiliation with communist groups. The three professors were put on trial that summer in front of the legislative committee in charge of investigating such allegations and were later dismissed from the university by the board of regents. This set a national precedent leading to similar dismissals across the country.

These firings, as well as the university’s refusal to host speakers or conferences with alleged communist ties (it canceled a lecture series by the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” physicist Robert Oppenheimer), led to protests by students and faculty.

The anti-McCarthy and anti-nuclear protests of the 1950s revitalized the student left before it fully awakened and transformed campus culture in the ‘60s and beyond.

The founding of the Black Student Union circa 1968


More than 3,000 people protested the Vietnam War at this Moratorium March in Seattle. Though the march was largely peaceful, some member began smashing windows and harassing police. The Daily at the time described the protest as simultaneously a party, a wake and a demonstration. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW36766.

On Jan. 6, 1968, the Black Student Union (BSU) of the UW was formed, having been renamed from the Afro-American Society founded in 1966. One founding member, Emile Pitre, then a graduate student studying chemistry, was and still is a campus leader on racial issues.

Pitre, the son of southern sharecroppers, had only attended segregated schools in all his years of schooling, from first grade through undergraduate. He said this and Seattle’s generally more accepting climate were among the factors that led him to the UW.

The BSU of 1968 was determined to make the change they saw necessary for the success of the university’s minority population. They delivered then-UW President Charles Odegaard a letter outlining five demands that would increase university access and support to Black students. But when the group felt Odegaard was “stalling,” Pitre said, they voted to have a sit-in –– which Pitre said turned into a barricaded “occupation” –– of the administration building.

Within about four hours, Pitre explained, their demands had been met. He identified two factors that helped the BSU find success that day — rather than finding themselves beaten or arrested by the 70 helmeted police who waited outside the building. 

First, the BSU occupied the building while Odegaard was meeting with faculty to discuss their demands.

Second, as Pitre has learned in the time since then, Charles Odegaard may have always been more responsive to the demands than they realized and was already working on the issues.

“He didn’t share that with us at the time,” Pitre said.

The occupation of the administration building has become a famous episode in the UW’s history. It led the university to create one of the first Offices of Minority Affairs in the country (“and Diversity” was later added to the name of the OMA&D). Pitre has spent much of his career with the OMA&D and has had a front-row seat to the UW’s evolution on racial issues.

“From my vantage point, I think we’ve achieved quite a bit but we still have a ways to go,” Pitre said.

Anti–Vietnam War demonstrations circa 1970

At no point in U.S. history has the activist spirit of students been greater and voiced louder than in antiVietnam War demonstrations. Students at the UW and across the country protested, marched, and went on strike in opposition to the draft, the expansion of the war into Cambodia, and the subsequent massacre of four students at Kent State University in Ohio who were shot by National Guard troops while protesting the invasion.

Twice, in May 1970, protests that began on the UW campus took to I-5 by foot, shutting down north- and southbound traffic. The first such protest, May 5, began with a rally on the HUB Lawn, where students voted on a list of demands for President Odegaard. The demands included a pledge to never call National Guard troops to the UW campus and to terminate all ROTC programs, among other demands, which Odegaard did not adhere to.

After hearing their demands would not be met, several thousand students marched west from campus to I-5. The following day, students again put their action to a vote, voting for another peaceful march over militant action. They marched to Capitol Hill from the Montlake Bridge, where the crowd grew with other students before continuing downtown and eventually onto the freeway again.

These actions were supported by the then-ASUW president, Rick Silverman, and The Daily in the forms of editorials urging students not to attend class and entire issues dedicated to coverage of protests.

Silme Domingo and Filipino student activists circa 1974

Among the groups at the UW with the longest history of activism is the university’s Filipino-American population. Many from the first generation of Filipino-Americans that came to the United States after 1910 went on to enroll at the UW and used the connections they made on campus to participate in, found, and lead unions in the region, according to professor Michael McCann.

The next generation continued this work, McCann said. One UW student, Silme Domingo, was a successful student leader on campus and would go on to lead reform efforts of the cannery workers’ union. Domingo and the union he founded fought the brutal working conditions and racist management of the industry.

Domingo and his union reform partner, Gene Viernes, were assassinated in 1981 as a part of a plot that was later revealed to have connections to the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The UW has memorialized this episode of its history by creating the Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes scholarship, administered through the UW’s Center for Labor Studies.

Graduate student organizing and strikes circa 2001 and 2018

Students on campus in spring 2018 might remember barrelling toward –– but eventually avoiding –– a strike among the UW Academic Student Employees (ASEs) and a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about its effect on finals and grades. Students who attended the UW in the spring of 2001 may remember the same.

In 2001, the union that represented teaching assistants and other employees now known as ASEs did go onstrike on the final day of the quarter. The goal of the strike then was to secure exclusive bargaining rights of ASEs for the union. The strike lasted until the start of summer quarter, but even after it ended, ASEs did not make up for the work they missed during their strike.

The ASE strike-that-never-was of 2018 came to be as contract negotiations dragged on and ASEs continued to bargain for wage increases, fee waivers, and expansions for health insurance and child care subsidies. The group did not get all, or even many, of its demands from the university, but did receive a wage increase that averted the strike before the end of the quarter.

Of the campus protests that had materialized in change and affected students most directly, the ASE rallies and potential strikes of 2018 overshadow other protests at the UW in prior years. Other contemporary protests, though, have significant historical parallels and may represent a revived activist spirit among young people.

“There are some similarities to the massive protests that students very recently have been a part of,” history professor James Gregory said. He named the Women’s March, the many immigrant rights protests in response to actions by the Trump administration, and Black Lives Matter as examples; but these are just some of the many ways UW students continue to be involved and lead the conversation in their community and across the country.

Reach writer Devon McBride at Twitter: @DevonM98

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(1) comment


Considering the work done on campus after the death of George Floyd/Breonna Taylor it is surprising not to see BSUs work listed here again for 2020. A glaring and dissapointing omission.

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