Throughout the 1950s, Sarah Lawrence College’s progressive education model and commitment to academic freedom made it the target of a number of anti-communist smear campaigns. As early as 1949, Harold Taylor, then president of the College, began publicly defending teachers’ right to teach, regardless of their personal politics.1 Taylor was by no means a communist, but to him, restricting academic freedom was far more dangerous than allowing communists and their “sympathizers” to teach, as he argued that it would lead to the exclusion of anyone who taught anything “provocative, unorthodox, or interesting.”2
This liberal attitude towards education drew suspicion from the American Legion, and in November of 1951 the group’s magazine published an article accusing Sarah Lawrence and a number of other universities of harboring “subversive” professors.3 That same month, the Americanism Committee of the Westchester County American Legion visited the College to inquire with Taylor about three professors, whom they suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers. Shortly afterward, the commander of the Bronxville American Legion sent Taylor a letter demanding answers to 14 questions, affirming that there were no communists or sympathizers on campus.
Following the American Legion’s attacks on Sarah Lawrence, in March of 1953, several of the College’s professors were called to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security regarding their possible membership or affiliation with the Communist Party.4 While one professor, Irving Goldman, testified that he had previously been a member of the Communist Party, he insisted that he left the Party in 1942 and had since maintained no connection to it.5 Professors Paul Aron and Charles Trinkaus stated that they were not currently members of the Communist Party, but declined to answer questions regarding past membership.6 Professors Horace Gregory, Helen Merrell Lynd, Lois Barclay Murphy, and Marc Slonim all testified that they weren’t and had never been members of the Communist Party. Professors Adele Brebner and Bert Lowenberg were also subpoenaed, but were unable to attend their hearings.
Despite the widespread anti-communist sentiment of the 1950s, members of the surrounding communities continuously voiced their support for Sarah Lawrence. In February of 1952, Reverend Harold Hohly of the Christ Church in Bronxville, wrote a letter published in local newspapers condemning the Legion for using authoritarian tactics in their inquiry into SLC, comparing the their activities to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and expressing concern that if the Legion’s way of thinking would lead to the repression of anyone fighting for social justice.7 Julien Bryan, an active member of the American Legion for over 30 years, criticized his own organizations for their attempts to censor academic freedom, warning that such censorship projects could easily lead to further restrictions on individuals and organizations. 175 residents of Bronxville, Eastchester, and Yonkers signed a protest to the American Legion’s inquiry into Sarah Lawrence, insisting that if there were to be an investigation into Sarah Lawrence it should be “under the safeguard of the law and not by headlines and innuendo.”8
Throughout this period of attacks, Sarah Lawrence and its backers never defended the Communist Party, communism, or any other category of political thought left of liberal. Instead, they took an apolitical approach, speaking strictly in terms of “academic freedom.” Thus, the Sarah Lawrence community’s pushback against the American Legion and the Senate Subcommittee should not be characterized as left-wing or radical in any way. That does not mean, however, that Sarah Lawrence’s general reputation as a hub of leftist and radical politics is unfounded. This article specifically explores underreported and forgotten student-led political activity on campus.
The League for Industrial Democracy
Formed out of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS) in 1921, the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) sought to promote “a new social order based on production for use and not for profit.”9 The ISS had been primarily made up of middle class intellectuals that sought to educate college and university students on socialist ideology. This approach to socialism differentiated the group from other American left-wing groups that were more militant and centered on the working class. Like the ISS, The LID was mostly intellectually-focused and middle class, but membership was expanded beyond students. The LID also took a more activist role in politics, helping to establish the Farmer-Labor Party and providing aid to strikes across the United States. The LID’s membership peaked during the Great Depression, when around 150 chapters were established across the US. In 1934 the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) was formed and became an important force in radical student politics throughout the decade. By the 1940s however, the LID had shed its radical politics in favor of more moderate liberal beliefs.
On March 7th, 1932 an article appeared in The Campus, Sarah Lawrence’s student newspaper, calling on students to engage more with current social problems and advertising a budding campus chapter of the LID.10 On March 14th, the Sarah Lawrence LID chapter held its first official meeting.11 The chapter had an initial membership of 20 students, who reportedly held a variety of political positions.12 Though the Sarah Lawrence chapter was initially inspired by a campus visit by Norman Thomas, Socialist Party presidential candidate and head of the LID, its members did not openly call themselves socialists, unlike more radical chapters of the LID.13
On February 4th, 1935, several years after the last mention of LID activity at the College, The Campus announced the formation of a new trial group of the SLID on campus, again calling on students to engage more with current events.14 Members of the Sarah Lawrence SLID aimed to educate themselves on world issues, encourage others to educate themselves, and to maintain contacts with students outside of Sarah Lawrence.15 Again, the SLID made a point that though it was connected to the LID and the Socialist Party, not all of its members were socialists, though most of them were left-leaning. On October 14th, the SLID at Sarah Lawrence announced that it would be merging with the National Student’s League to form the American Students Union.16
Students for a Democratic Society
In 1959 the national SLID changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).17 Initially, SDS was mostly focused on the fight against racial segregation.
Students in the South staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and students in the North held demonstrations in solidarity. In June of 1962, at a convention in Port Huron, Michigan, SDS adopted a manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement.18 The Port Huron Statement established a cohesive political program for SDS, placing the organization firmly within the emerging ‘New Left’.
Split into five sections, the manifesto begins by explaining a generational awakening to prevailing social and political inconsistencies and inequalities, and that despite the need for change, the United States “rests in national stalemate … its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than ‘of, by, and for the people.’”19 The second section lays out SDS’s vision of an ideal society. According to SDS, society should be organized around a combination of people’s personal freedom and capacity for independence, while recognizing the need for interconnectedness. The manifesto proposes a political order of participatory democracy, where political engagement becomes a means of bringing people into community and finding personal meaning.
The proposed economic order includes fulfilling work and democratic participation in and regulation of the means of production. The third section focuses on students, lamenting that academia tends to apathetically reaffirm the status quo. The fourth section looks at American society as a whole, emphasizing how alienated people are from the forces that govern their own lives. The final section proposes universities as a center for a “New Left.” According to the manifesto, the New Left should value intellectualism, be distributed across the country in a variety of social roles, be made up of young people, include both liberals and socialists, “start controversy” in order to reverse national apathy, and work to make complex issues tangible and understandable to ordinary people. By this point, SDS had split with the LID following political disagreements surrounding SDS’s rejection of anti-communism and promotion of participatory democracy.20
By the mid-1960s, SDS had shifted its focus to opposing the Vietnam War, and had become increasingly radical and sympathetic to Marxism-Leninism.21 In the late 1960s the group became increasingly factionalized, and by 1969 SDS was functionally dissolved. Despite SDS’s ultimate failure to sustain itself, the group managed to grow from less than 1,000 members in 1962 to up to 100,000 in 1969, and became a fixture in mid-20th century left-wing politics.
The Sarah Lawrence SDS first came to prominence in January 1965 when the College’s chapter rallied fellow students to support striking hospital workers on their picket line outside of Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville.22 On January 13th Members of the Local 1199, Retail Drug and Hospital Employees Union, accompanied by 30 hospital workers presented The Executive Director of Lawrence Hospital with an ultimatum to recognize Local 1199 as a collective bargaining agent for the Hospital’s employees.23 If the Hospital did not recognize them within 48 hours, Local 1199 promised to call for a strike. The next day, Justice George M. Fanelli of the New York State Supreme Court issued a restraining order against the Union, forbidding them from interrupting the Hospital’s operations, striking, or picketing. Since Lawrence Hospital was a non-profit outside the limits of New York City, New York State law stipulated that they did not have to recognize workers’ collective bargaining rights.24 Despite all of this, on January 16th 40 workers held the first picket outside of the hospital.25 By January 18th, 80 workers had joined the picket line, and by February 6th, the number was up to 500.26
In addition to their demand that Local 1199 be recognized, workers hoped to win higher wages and better working conditions.27 A majority of the striking workers were Black and Brown, and reported experiencing daily mistreatment and disrespect at work. A Local 1199 spokesperson even compared their working conditions to involuntary servitude, and alleged that wages and benefits were so unsatisfactory that workers had to resort to charity.
The racialized aspect of the strike attracted the attention and support of local and national civil rights leaders and organizations. Ossie Davis, actor, writer, and activist was elected chairman of a Mount Vernon citizens committee in support of the striking workers.28 Wyatt Tee Walker, former assistant to Martin Luther King Jr. became co-chairman. Various Westchester County branches of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also voiced their support.29 The Citizens Committee on the Bronxville Hospital Strike reported receiving a supportive telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. himself.30 The Elephants of Westchester, a group of Black Republican district leaders also passed a resolution in support of the striking workers. On February 7th A. Phillip Randolph of the Negro-American Labor Council and leader of the 1963 March on Washington, Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, James Farmer, national director of CORE, Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League, and Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, sent a telegram to Governor Rockefeller of New York urging him to support the strike and extend legislation protecting collective bargaining rights.31
Because the strike and the picket were technically illegal, confrontation with police forces was perhaps inevitable. By January 26th, 22 striking workers had been arrested on charges ranging from disorderly conduct and malicious mischief to assault.32 On March 6th, 122 police officers from Eastchester, Tuckahoe, and Bronxville descended upon a sit-in staged by striking workers and union supporters outside the entrance of Lawrence Hospital.33 When participants in the sit-in linked arms and refused to move, police began striking them with riot clubs and dragging them into police vans. For many, this incident of police responding violently to civil disobedience staged by Black and Brown workers was reminiscent of the recent struggle for civil rights in the South, with one participant yelling “this is not Mississippi” as he was hauled into a van, and Whitney Young comparing the instance to police brutality in Alabama.34
Throughout the strike, Sarah Lawrence’s SDS encouraged students to join the pickets in solidarity with workers.35 In a February 1st letter to the campus newspaper, The Emanon, leaders of the campus SDS Toni Helsterin and Susan Parmacek called on students to join them on the picket line every afternoon, stating that the strike was “an issue of civil liberties and human rights,” and that because their position as students made them “freer, more idealistic, and more intellectually involved in issues of historic importance,” it made sense that they should be “agents of social change.” A letter between campus administrators from February 10th indicates that while the College itself took a neutral stance on the strike, students had been on the picket line since January 22nd.36 On March 8th, Sarah Lawrence SDS issued “an open letter to Bronxville,” protesting the hospital’s failure to negotiate with its employees and the police brutality at the March 6th sit-in.37 The letter also demanded that the striking workers be reinstated without punishment, and that the New York State legislature pass a bill protecting the collective bargaining rights of non-profit hospital workers. The Sarah Lawrence SDS also supported the strike materially, raising $180 to support striking workers.38 Following the March 6th outbreak of police violence, Sarah Lawrence SDS organized a march from the College’s campus to the Bronxville Village Hall in support of the strike.39 180 students and 17 faculty members participated.
Though the striking workers ultimately failed to successfully unionize, their struggle was not entirely fruitless.40 In February of 1965 State Senator Max Berking of Rye introduced a bill to extend collective bargaining rights to workers at non-profit hospitals in the entire state.41 Though Bronxville was outside of his district, Berking cited the strike and requests from Black residents of his district as motivation for the bill. On March 29th, the bill was passed in the Senate, and by June it had become law.42 Local 1199 still lists the strike as the catalyst for this legislation on their website.43
Like other chapters of SDS in the country, in the mid-1960s the Sarah Lawrence chapter shifted their focus to anti-war activism. On March 12th, 1966 Sarah Lawrence’s SDS joined forces with Westchester Veterans for Peace, Westchester Women for Peace, Northern Westchester SANE, Women’s International League for Peace and Civil Rights, Methodist Federation for Social Action, as well as other chapters of SDS in Yonkers and New Rochelle to form an anti-war coalition called the Westchester Coordinating Committee for Peace (WCCP).44 The group’s stated intention was to make already existing peace efforts more effective. In May, WCCP organized a teach-in at Sarah Lawrence examining the United States’ role in the Vietnam War and its relationship with American foreign policy in general.45
In November of 1966 Sarah Lawrence SDS pivoted away from their focus on the Vietnam War, and hosted a “Radical Education Project” on the discontents of “American corporate liberalism,” which they described as:
“the ideology that legitimates the status quo in America, that America is a pluralist paradise where the workers are content, that our relations with the underdeveloped world are not imperialist but benevolent, that welfare capitalism has ended exploitation, alienation, and a host of other evils associated with all previous systems.”46
This project consisted of workshops discussing the current characteristics of American corporate liberalism, as well as alternatives to it.
After a nearly two-year-long period of dormancy for the Sarah Lawrence SDS, in March of 1968 a group of students announced the formation of a new SDS chapter on campus.47 The newly formed chapter stated that it would focus on campus issues like student’s rights, employee working conditions, and how funding sources influence college policy, as well as issues within neighboring communities. One of the new chapter’s first courses of action was to gather signatures for a telegram that would be sent to US Attorney General Ramsey Clark protesting the imprisonment of H. Rap Brown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.48 In April the Sarah Lawrence SDS participated in an on-campus symposium, titled “Positive Uses of Anger: How to Make Protest Useful,” focused on channeling anger into effective protest.49 In late May, Sarah Lawrence SDS presented campus administrators with a list of demands and held a rally for more due process in decisions affecting students, and the implementation of a student election decision to have students on all campus committees.50
Throughout the 1968-1969 school year, Sarah Lawrence SDS remained active. On September 25th Paul Rockwell of the Columbia chapter of SDS spoke on campus alongside Carmen Chow, leader of the Sarah Lawrence chapter.51 Though his visit was met with mixed reactions, it did spark a renewed interest in political action among students. In January of 1969, Carmen Chow explicitly stated that the Sarah Lawrence SDS would be embracing a Marxist framework, moving the organization in an increasingly radical direction.52 She elaborated that while the working class would be principally important in any successful revolutionary movement, students would also play an important role through their analysis of “the direction of our society empirically, economically, politically, and socially,” the reform of academia to promote progress instead of fueling the military industrial complex, and the creation of a student movement that would be part of a larger international movement for collective liberation and self-determination. On March 5th, members of Sarah Lawrence SDS participated in an on-campus sit-in protesting a tuition increase.53 Sarah Lawrence SDS finished off the school year by hosting a conference on “Women’s Oppression and its relation to capitalism” in early May.54 In October of 1969 the Sarah Lawrence SDS dissolved itself and formed the Radical Student Union.55
This article was researched and written by Laurel Collins, CLIP intern at Yonkers Riverfront Library, a rising sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College.
1 Audie Odell, “Civil Rights Subject Of All-College Meeting: Taylor, Lynd, Wild, Assert Political Affiliations Should Not Be Basis For Judging Ability Of Teachers,” The Campus (Sarah Lawrence College, NY), Feb. 9, 1949.
2 Audie Odell, “Taylor Debates On Academic Freedom: Argues Against Dismissal of 3 Communist Teachers on Political Grounds In Town Hall of the Air,” The Campus, Mar. 9, 1949.
3 “Sarah Lawrence Defies ‘Red’ Blast: Principle of Mental Freedom Would Keep Any Communist Off Faculty, Officials Say,” The New York Times, Jan. 23, 1952.
4 “Sarah Lawrence Under Fire: The Attacks on Academic Freedom During the McCarthy Era,” Sarah Lawrence College, accessed Jun. 26, 2023, https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/archives/exhibits/mccarthyism/.
5 “Jenner Group Calls on SLC; Teachers Testify At Hearings,” The Campus, Apr. 13, 1953.
6 “Sarah Lawrence Under Fire: The Attacks on Academic Freedom During the McCarthy Era.”
7 “Hohly, Bryan Show Community Support For College Stand On Academic Freedom,” The Campus, Feb. 6, 1952.
8 “Sarah Lawrence Upheld By Citizens: Leaders in Many Fields Join Bronxville Defense of College on Legion Red Charge,” The New York Times, Feb. 7, 1952.
9 Robert B. Westbrook, Review: The League for Industrial Democracy: A Documentary History, International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 20 (1981): 73–78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27671382..
10 “Is Isolation Intelligent?” The Campus, Mar. 7, 1932.
11 “Calendar for Week of March 14-18,” The Campus, Mar. 14, 1932.
12 “Organized At S.L.C,” The Campus, May 16, 1932.
13 “First Meeting Of New Liberal Club Held November 9th,” The Campus, Nov. 14, 1932.
14 “What Of It,” The Campus, Feb. 4, 1935.
15 “L.I.D. For S.L.C.,” The Campus, Mar. 11, 1935.
16 “L.I.D. News,” The Campus, Oct. 14, 1935.
17 Aryeh Neier, Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights (New York: Public Affairs, 2003), xx-xxi, https://archive.org/details/takingliberties00arye/page/n25/mode/2up?view=theater.
18 “Students for a Democratic Society (SDS),” Public Broadcasting Service, accessed Jul. 19, 2023, https://www.pbs.org/opb/thesixties/topics/politics/newsmakers_1.html.
19 Tom Hayden and Students for a Democratic Society, “Port Huron Statement,” via Sixties Project, Jun. 15, 1962, http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SDS_Port_Huron.html.
20 Aryeh Neier.
21 Todd Gitlin, “What Was the Protest Group Students for a Democratic Society? Five Questions Answered, Smithsonian Magazine, May 4, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-was-protest-group-students-democratic-society-five-questions- answered-180963138/.
22 Note, Jan. 22, 1965, Student Protest and Activism Collection, Sarah Lawrence College Archives, Bronxville, NY; Toni Helsterin and Susan Parmacek, Letter, The Emanon (Sarah Lawrence College, NY), Feb. 1, 1965.
23 Anne Willis, “Hospital’s Position,” Herald Statesman (Yonkers, NY), Feb. 1, 1965. https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/677944512.
24 “Legislature To Get Hospital Union Bill,” Herald Statesman, Feb. 11, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/677947979.
25 Audrey J. Brown, “40 Picket Lawrence Hospital,” Herald Statesman, Jan. 16, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678007940.
26 “Pickets Stay But Hospital Life Goes On,” Herald Statesman, Jan 18, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678008448; Dave Hartley, “500 Pickets Step Up Pressure On Bronxville,” Herald Statesman, Feb. 8, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/677946723.
27 Bill Richards, “The Union Position,” Herald Statesman, Feb. 1, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/677944512.
28 Joel Schwartz, “50 Back Union In Bronxville Hospital Strike,” Herald Statesman, Jan. 25, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678014079.
29 Dave Hartley, “242 Keep Vigil At Scene,” Daily Times (Mamaroneck, NY), Feb. 1, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/734294789.
30 Hilda Carelton, “Lawrence Hospital Rejects Board’s Offer To Mediate,” Herald Statesman, Jan. 27, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678015356.
31 “Leaders Ask Rockefeller To Step In,” Herald Statesman, Feb. 8, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/677946723.
32 Audrey J. Brown, “5 Pickets Get Delay In Court,” Herald Statesman, Jan. 26, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678015014.
33 Bill Richards, “25 Seized: Sit-Ins Cry ‘Brutality’,” Daily Times, Mar. 8, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/734385667.
34 Whitney M. Young Jr., “To Be Equal: Bronxville Likened to Alabama’s Spirit,” Daily Times, Mar. 18, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/734387805.
35 Toni Helsterin and Susan Parmacek, Letter, The Emanon , Feb. 1, 1965.
36 Letter to Paul Ward from Steve Austin, Feb. 10, 1965, Student Protest and Activism Collection, Sarah Lawrence College Archives.
37 “An open letter to Bronxville,” Mar. 8, 1965, Student Protest and Activism Collection, Sarah Lawrence College Archives.
38 “Lawrence Girls Aid Bronxville Hospital Union,” Daily Item (Port Chester, NY), Mar. 8, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/714951154.
39 College File Backs Strike in Bronxville, Daily Item, Mar. 10, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/714951618.
40 Toni Helstein, Susan Parmacek and Margaret Leinsdorf, “Bronxville Strike,” The Emanon, Mar. 7, 1966.
41 “Berking Asks Union Rights In Hospitals,” Herald Statesman, Feb. 8, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/677946723.
42 Emmet N. O’Brien, “Senate Votes For Hospital Labor Talks,” Daily Item, Mar. 30, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/714953594; “What The Hospital Says About The ‘65 Strike,” Herald Statesman, Jun. 16, 1965, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678031146.
43 “A Brief History of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East,” 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, accessed Jul. 24, 2023, https://www.1199seiu.org/history.
44 Ed Kritzler, “Peace Groups Unite Under One Flag,” Herald Statesman, Mar. 14, 1966, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678177015.
45 “Students Set-Up Viet Teach-In,” Herald Statesman, May 5, 1966, https://yplonsite.newspapers.com/image/678064009.
46 “REP to Examine American Society,” The Emanon, Nov. 8, 1966.
47 “Toward Radical Change: New SDS Chapter States Goals,” The Emanon, Mar. 7, 1968.
48 “Telegrams To Ramsey Clark Offer Defense to Rap Brown,” The Emanon, Mar. 13, 1968.
49 Jean Shapiro, “Second Symposium To Synthesize Aspects of Social Protest,” The Emanon, Mar. 13, 1968.
50 “Demands For Due Process Spark Student Meetings,” The Emanon, May 22, 1968.
51 Harvey Kaltsas, “Reisinger psychodrama: SDS program sparks moral concern,” The Emanon, Oct. 9, 1968.
52 Carmen Chow, “Member clarifies article written on SDS position,” The Emanon, Jan. 29, 1969.
53 James R. Peterson and Peter Solet, “Sarah Lawrence Students’ Sit-In Protests Tuition,” Review Press-Reporter (Bronxville, NY), Mar. 6, 1969.
54 SDS to hold conference on women's rights, The Emanon, May 1, 1969.
55 “Radical Student Union,” The Emanon, Oct. 15, 1969.