Extracurricular Activities – Political and Social Justice Groups
Colleges and universities have had a large influence on the political and social climate of the United States. At each institution, multiple groups provide forums for debate about the important issues of the day. Whether participating in the Greensboro sit-ins or the large-scale University of California at Berkeley protests of the Vietnam War, young student activists have been on the forefront of political change (Handman). Davidson College is no exception to this trend. Davidson has historically been a relatively conservative institution and in some years, the students have been more conservative than their faculty. In the mid-20th century presidential elections students preferred Eisenhower, Nixon, Goldwater and Ford.
In the 1970s, a more liberal student body began to emerge out of the New Left movement, noticeable in the growing anti-Vietnam War sentiments that larger and larger groups of students began to embrace (Blodgett 199). Students, facilitated by public interest groups, which worked from a more non-partisan angle, began to speak out more frequently on environmental and consumer-based issues. At the turn of the 21st century, liberal student activism had become an even larger part of life on campus. With the rising conflict in the Middle East, students and faculty began to speak out against the war in Iraq. This belief was afforded by groups like Just Peace, providing a safe space for peaceful discussion. Although Davidson has not been a historically activist campus, it has been involved in political movements and has been a part of nationally evolving social trends.
Davidson has historically been a conservative institution, greatly influenced by North Carolinian politics. Before there were partisan clubs on campus, Davidson had the Conservative Club, started in the spring of 1962 (1963 Quips and Cranks). In 1965, Davidson gained both a Young Democrats and Young Republicans Club (Wildcat Handbook). Throughout its history on campus, the Young Republicans Club has evolved. Somewhere between 1979-1984, as mentioned by Quips and Cranks during that time, the club changed its name to the College Republicans.
As a chapter of the larger national organization of the Young Republicans, the Davidson chapter mirrored much of the nation and state’s ideology during the 1960s. The purpose of the club as stated in the 1994 revision for submission for a charter renewal is as follows:
“To make known and promote the principles of the Republican Party among the students at Davidson College”
To recruit Davidson College students as members of the Davidson College Republicans and as members of the Republican Party.
To aid in the election of Republican candidates at all levels of government
To develop political skills and leadership abilities among students as preparation for future service by them to the Republican party and the community.”
The club sponsored speakers and published material regarding national and state positions taken by the party as well as printed the New Southerner, a State College Council publication. Members had other opportunities for direct engagement in politics, sending their Campaign Committee to work with the Davidson Town Republican Committee for the 1966 elections and attending the annual Convention of the North Carolina Federation of Young Republicans, as well as sending delegates to the College Council Conventions (“Come alive in ’65”). The club also reached out to the campus community through publications.
The Wildcat Republican
The Wildcat Republican was published monthly from 1965 to 1967. Its goal was to provide “articles reflecting all phases of Republican thought and Young Republican activities, which [could] be appreciated from all Republicans.” (News Notes)
Many of the topics covered in these editions dealt with the fight against Communism. In the October 1965 publication, the Young Republicans Club’s President, Harry McMullan ’68, gave his opinions on the Sharron Statement, the foundational principles for a young conservative group started in 1960 called the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). McMullan included his own revised version in this edition of the Wildcat Republican, where he stated that the government’s job was to protect freedom, whether it is “preservation of internal order, provision of national defense, or administration of justice.” In keeping with the national sentiment and the YAF, he also mentioned that “the single greatest threat to [these] liberties” was seen to be Communism.
Conservative causes were covered in each issue. In the November 1965 edition, for example, issues regarding the Right to Work Law were covered. The law stated that everyone reserved the right to join any organization he should chose and that the threat of job loss in order to force him to join a labor organization was forbidden. This edition also stated that ninety percent of the Freshman class supported this law.
Throughout its brief existence, the Wildcat Republican covered elections and provided a forum for republican thought. As an extension of Davidson’s branch of the National Young Republicans Club, the Wildcat Republican provided a window into students’ conservative perspectives in the 1960s.
In 2002, another Young Republicans Club publication was released, this time titled Nota Bene. In the first issue, the editors gave the purpose as:
“Late in Arriving on Campus, Nota Bene (Latin for “note well”) aims to provide an outlet for conservative points of view. It is meant as a medium that will stimulate controversy and discussion of issues and events on the campus, local, national, and international levels. It is hoped that Nota Bene can become an adequate source of opinion that is an alternative to the prolific liberal perspectives that dominate the College community.”
Campus Republicans saw the publication as offering a corrective to the dominant liberal discourse on college campuses. To provide contrast to these new liberal sentiments, Nota Bene covered issues like birth control, foreign oil resourcing, environment, faith, and conflicts with the middle-east (Issue 1).
For example, the second issue of Nota Bene contained an article titled “Extending Dependence.” Contributing writer Max Van Amerongen ‘04 wrote that the oil we use should be domestic and that at the time our country’s dependence on foreign energy sources was creating a national threat. By taking our oil from the middle-east, he argued, we were causing an unnecessary danger to our country by increasing anti-American feelings abroad.
Nota Bene also covered environmental issues regarding oil in this same edition. With the belief that oil should be domestic, the author took a conservative stance on how this oil could be obtained. The author supported as much drilling as was necessary from the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge on the North Shore of Alaska.
As the last Young Republicans Club or College Republicans publication to date, Nota Bene was short lived. Only two editions were released over the course of two weeks in 2002. Whether the work of producing the issues proved too time-consuming or a newsletter format was not the most useful form of communication, this effort left only a brief window into student political writings. During the early years of the 21st century, the club, renamed College Republicans, has co-sponsored debates around presidential elections and while not producing newsletters, have used the opinion pages of the Davidsonian to share their concerns with the campus community.
Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)
Public Interest Groups and the New Left
In many colleges, political activism grew throughout the 1960s and 70s with the liberal movement known as the New Left. This student activism was inspired in many ways by the Civil Rights Movement and radicalized by the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Student interest slightly shifted focus later in the 1970s towards issues such as consumer protection and environmentalism (New Left). Many student organizations were passionate about the interests they represented, yet they lacked the logistical set-up to make a functional difference. American political activist Ralph Nader proposed a system of Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRGs, in his book Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing. This system of funding and organization was meant to help students assemble and act on issues that were important to them and their fellow students (Nader 326).
Davidson College PIRG
The Davidson PIRG was a local chapter of the larger, statewide North Carolina PIRG. Founded in 1973 in several colleges and universities, the organization initially had thousands of members. Davidson was one of the first colleges to join, and the organization held its first awareness meeting on September 19, 1973 (Awareness flyer).
A Davidson PIRG brochure from the 1978-79 school year describes the group in its mission statement:
“The Davidson College Public Interest Group (DC PIRG) is a non-partisan, student directed professionally assisted organization which seeks solutions to consumer, governmental, and environmental problems through research and advocacy”
The group focused on local issues important to the students and worked to collect and provide relevant information about these issues from polling or surveys. They lobbied on behalf of the students in order to fix these problems. The Davidson College PIRG distributed media to students and people around Davidson, and on larger issues collaborated with the state organization and their professional lobbyists to work with the state or federal legislature (Awareness flyer).
Working in the Public Interest
DC PIRG worked for what they believed to be the best interest of the students at the college. The group met each year to decide on the pertinent issues at the time. In 1974, for example, DC PIRG worked on price surveys of Charlotte area pharmacies, local gas stations, and local grocery stores. They performed a study of pollution from the college laundry, and held public forums and petitions on the rising costs from Duke energy (Informational Flyer). In 1978, some main issues were prison reform, recycling and a more green-friendly campus, as well as providing the Off Campus Housing Guide for Davidson students (PIRG brochure).
The Off Campus Housing Guide was one of DC PIRG’s more successful and recognized projects. It provided information on local houses and apartments available to rent for students who wanted to live off campus. This guide contained information such as the address, rent, utilities and personal comments from students who had lived there previously, providing an inside review of the housing options that students would not have received otherwise. In the 1977 edition of the guide, DC PIRG provided comprehensive information on over 50 different properties and numerous apartments.
DC PIRG was a student-run group that mainly worked to provide information and opportunities for activism to other students. Their main costs involved printing informational brochures and flyers. DC PIRG received no money from the Student Government Association, so their primary source of funding came from an optional fee that was added onto each student’s tuition bill, and in some cases small faculty donations (Letter to Faculty). This fee was originally three dollars, but in 1976-1977 DC PIRG voted to raise this to four dollars. This system of adding a small optional fee into the tuition was a common practice for PIRGs across NC and around the country.
Yet this system of early crowd funding proved to be the downfall of PIRGs in colleges. In a lawsuit involving claims that Rutgers University was making it difficult for students to obtain refunds for this PIRG fee, a U.S. Court of Appeals declared that PIRGs were not non-partisan public interest groups, but rather “a political entity devoted to the attainment of certain fixed ideological objectives” (Alms Control). This ruling made it so that PIRGs nationwide had to solicit contributions through the same process as other partisan lobbyist groups, effectively ending the activity of the PIRG on Davidson’s campus.
In the years leading up to the 2nd Iraq war (2003-2011), many people supported the incoming war while others tried desperately to prevent it. At Davidson, many students, like most of North Carolina and the rest of the country, were swept up in war propaganda, shown in their avid support of the war in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. North Carolina was a conservative, pro-military state, encouraging blind support for the impending war. But not everybody in the state, or on Davidson’s campus, felt the same way.
Biology Professor Malcolm Campbell ‘84, opposed the war from the start and in 2002 set out to create a safe space for students, faculty, and staff to discuss their opinions about the upcoming war and the state of the nation. Campbell, along with Ruth Pittard, Assistant Dean of Community Service, did not set out to create a club, but rather a “gathering” to “design ways to open a peace-based discussion for the campus” (Campbell, Organizational).
Just Peace (previously known as “Peace-Teach In,” “Peace Group,” and “Peace Dialogues”) critiqued President George W. Bush’s military action against Iraq. The organization also pushed the boundaries of college organizations. It was an equal place for students, faculty, and staff, including the College president at the time, Robert Vagt, to have an open discussion about peace on campus.
The group met weekly for discussions about current events and “peaceful solutions to problems” (Campbell, Peace). While they began by opposing the start of the war, Just Peace kicked into full gear when war was declared on March 20, 2003, turning away from angry protests and towards peaceful activism in civil rights, race relations, and other causes.
What they Did
Over time, membership grew, maintaining a core of about 20 members, and the group’s weekly meetings became centered on documentaries or guest speakers, as seen in email correspondence between Campbell and the group. Just Peace became an official school group in February of 2004, when they created their own website and later Facebook page. The “Just Peacers” encouraged students to participate in various marches and protests, both in North Carolina and in Washington, D.C. As Just Peace became a larger campus presence, they started collaborating with other college groups, such as the Young Democrats and College Republicans. They hosted debates and discussions and co-sponsored dinners and more with these clubs and others. In 2007, they sponsored Eyes Wide Open, an art exhibition on the lives lost in Iraq, in the Alvarez College Union.
On its own, Just Peace screened movies and hosted discussions and often distributed flyers around campus to keep students informed and to keep difficult discussions open. In 2003, they led a Peace Club at the local Ada Jenkins Center, creating an open and educational environment for young children to learn about peaceful war alternatives through acting, song, and discussion (Ada Jenkins).
Though the group expanded to other topics, they remained focused on their founding issue, the Iraq War. They held yearly vigils around the college flagpole for the anniversary of the war, prompted discussion on campus around the lives lost on both sides of the fighting, and distributed ribbons and bracelets to commemorate war casualties.
Over the years, Just Peace hosted multiple teleconferences. The first, in 2003, was a discussion with students in Iraq about their views on the war (and the first ever teleconference between the two countries). Later that year they connected with students in Baghdad, and again in 2007. They also had a live talk with journalist Anthony Shadid in Baghdad in 2005, showing the effects of war firsthand (Anthony).
Shifting the Debate
One of Just Peace’s big projects was a 2003 publication entitled Shifting the Debate. It featured anti-war statements, poems, writings, and sketches by students and staff, and was distributed around campus and online. It was meant to keep the discussion of the war going, and to give an in-depth look into the anti-war side of the country-wide argument.
Protesting the Patriot Act
Arguably, Just Peace’s most influential act was to lead the Town of Davidson in a protest of the Patriot Act, which was widely claimed to be unconstitutional. The group met with the Chief of Police to discuss it, and, in 2003, the town formed a subcommittee to address the issues the Act presented. A few months later, the town unanimously agreed to address these concerns, and the town issued a statement saying that they were opposed to the Act, asking the U.S. government to change it (Campbell, Town).
Decline of Just Peace
Around 2007, many Americans were calling for an end to the war, so Just Peace was no longer a small minority. Turning sentiment against the war reduced the urgency to meet, and many members ceased going to discussions. Professor Campbell, the driving force behind the group, stopped attending, but new student leaders kept it going. In 2008, emails were only sent about once a week to remind members of meetings, rather than the almost daily email discussions that the group once had. A few smaller projects were still done, but the group slowly fizzled out, paving the way for various other political and social justice groups at Davidson.
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Authors: Caroline Macauley, Lucy Prothero and Ethan Steinbacher.
Cite as: Macauley, Caroline, Lucy Prothero and Ethan Steinbacher. “Extracurricular Activities – Political and Social Justice Groups.” Davidson Encyclopedia. November 2016.