Whether you were alive then or not, you know the significance the sixties, particularly the late sixties, have shaped our historical and cultural understanding. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, assassinations of MLK Jr. and RFK, the infamous Chicago Democratic convention...these are all pivotal events that happened during a time of change and general unrest, when activists began to unite around unjust policies and challenging the status quo. College campuses across the U.S., including the University of Illinois, saw an uprising of student movements responding to the events of the time.
Michael Metz was a part of this movement here at Illinois, where students came together through groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society to first demand free speech on campus, then to protest the war — beginning with burning draft cards and sit-ins and escalating to more violent tactics. Metz tells the story in extraordinary detail in his book Radicals in the Heartland: The 1960s Student Protest Movement at the University of Illinois, and as I read it my mind could not help but make comparisons to the issues we are facing today. Our nation is entangled in foreign military interventions, racism is ever-woven into the fabric of our society, the fight over free speech still rages on, and now we’ve added immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, and the climate crisis to our plates.
I had the opportunity to chat with Metz about his experiences, the process of writing the book, and his thoughts on how the movement he was a part of ties into our present situation. He’s traveling back to C-U this week for a weekend long series of panels and discussions about student activism at the University of Illinois, an event inspired by Radicals.
Smile Politely: Why did you decide to write this as non fiction rather than a memoir...as an observer rather than participant?
Michael Metz: I worked in Silicon Valley for 20 years, and when I retired I went back to school and studied history, got a Masters in European History. After studying and reading history for three and a half years, I decided to try to write some myself. I tried as best I could to maintain objectivity — there’s no such thing as pure objectivity of course — but I tried to keep my own personal perspective out of the bulk of the work. If you read the introduction and the conclusion you’ll see a lot of opinion and my own personal perspective, but for the rest of it I tried to write a straight history. Frankly, I felt like what happened in the sixties at the U of I and in the country overall deserved to be told in the most accurate way possible. When you’re writing as a memoir, things necessarily get distorted.
SP: Can you describe the process of pulling this book together?
Metz: Most of the work was done in about two and a half years...and the process went like this. There are essentially three places a historian, as I was taught, works from. The first is the record of the time, and that is the newspapers in this case. The Daily Illini is online, so it provided a tremendous resource...all of the day to day publications from the sixties are online and available to anybody. The Daily Illini back then was an award-winning student newspaper. We had the good fortune to have some terrific reporters at the time (Dan Balz, Roger Ebert, Roger Simon, and Bob Goldstein are a few examples). The second source was the University of Illinois Archives...they wheeled in probably 20-30 boxes of information and memorandum. You know that was back in the day before email, so everything had to have a hard copy. Then of course we’re at an age where most the participants in the student protest movement at the university are still around. I got on the phone or met in person with something like two dozen individuals who lived through it and recorded their memories and thoughts. From then, it was just a matter of putting it all together and turning it into a story.
SP: How did your background figure into your political convictions? What first brought you into the movement?
Metz: I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, an Italian-Irish working-class family. I was a Barry Goldwater fan in high school. I came over to the university and started rethinking some of the ways I’d been raised, and my Catholic household, and right about that time the free speech movement was cranking up on the campus. It was still a fringe affair, but it was enough to get people thinking. The DI would write editorials about it, people in the dorms would stay up late kibitzing about what was going on...that’s how I was introduced to campus politics. Walking across the quad and hearing Vic Burkey and Vern Fein and Phil Durrett and all the others standing up on the balustrades on the back porch of the Illini Union got you thinking. As time went on, it became more of an existential situation where the possibility of me ending up in Vietnam was not unreasonable. My father was a veteran, a supporter of the Vietnam War, kind of “my country right or wrong.” He had no sympathy for protestors against the war, and that was a difficult time. Unfortunately he passed away before we really had a chance to reconcile and get past all that.
SP: You talk about that naiveté of movement participants at the time, contrasted with the cynicism of the current time. How do you think that changes the motivation and actions of those fighting for change?
Metz: One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I thought it (the story) needed to be told. It was one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history. You had assassinations of public figures, you had a war going on where young people were being killed day in and day out, where Vietnamese people were being killed, and this was broadcast on the three television networks daily...I think the answer to your question is, there’s a level of inspiration we can take from what happened back then. It’s hard to feel inspired today given the state of politics in the world and in the United States. But the mixture we felt then of idealism, courage, naiveté, hope for a better world, the feeling that we really could change the world, could be inspirational today. A lot of times today things feel hopeless or overwhelming. How can we possibly make sense of what’s going on and how can we influence it? It's getting people to remember how bad things were then, and that we did overcome that. A lot of people feel like it (the student protest movement) kind of drifted away in the end, but I strongly disagree with that. The student protest movement rose up across the whole country...standing up and saying “this is not okay, we want to change.” These kids stopped the war. They don’t get credit for it...but it was the student protest movement that was the lead element in the movement to shut down this war. It came out of the 1950s when conformity was the norm...No one was rewarded for standing up and disagreeing about things. In fact quite the opposite...There was pressure to conform that’s hard for people to even fathom today. So the willingness to stand up to evil, and challenge the establishment, I think can provide some inspiration for students and all of us today.
SP: Do you see any movements happening today that are similar to what you experienced?
Metz: It’s different today. One of the quotes in the book was from Patricia Engelhard that said “we had no idea how strong the military industrial complex really was.” We shut down a war, but they didn’t go away and they came back strong. But, if you look closely yes you can see optimistic signs. Immediately after Trump’s election you saw the largest protest march in the history of the United States, across the entire country. There are so many lawsuits going on against this corrupt administration we have right now, there’s so much protest against all the various elements of corruption that we see right now...this battle is being fought today on so many fronts that you don’t have the focus we had with the war. But I would suggest that you have every bit as much distrust of authority, unrest among the population, and desire for change across a much larger portion of the population then we ever had in the sixties.
SP: Any advice or words of wisdom for those involved in activism now?
Metz: Let me leave you with this thought. The 1960s student protest movement came out of nowhere. The most shocking thing about it is that it happened at all. Not did it bring about a revolution, but just the fact that it happened at all when no one expected it, is the most remarkable thing. So when you think about what we’re facing today, remember what happened in the sixties...The victory was not expected. The movement was not expected. If something that unexpected could happen in the sixties, it could happen again today. Things can change.
You can find the full schedule of events for Radical Illini: Conversations on Student Activism here. All are open to the public, though you will need to RSVP for the social events. Metz will be speaking at 9 a.m. on Saturday, October 5th at Smith Memorial Hall.