Antioch at the Dawn of the Sixties
As the overnight train from New York pulled into Springfield, Ohio, in September 1959, a highly energized, white-bearded, short, and wiry fellow who introduced himself as Mac gathered our contingent, now addressed as “Antiochians.” The next thing I knew, we found ourselves unceremoniously deposited in the back of a creaking flatbed truck that proceeded to race down a two-lane highway at breakneck pace as we occasionally caught furtive glimpses of the rolling green farmland surrounding us.
Caught up by the chaotic excitement of my new life as an incoming Antioch student, I felt liberated from the cocooned existence of the Long Island suburbs I had left behind. No one was going to baby us around this place, I thought!
Once past the two traffic lights of Yellow Springs, Mac screeched around a corner to the tree-shaded campus, where he abruptly released his bleary-eyed payload and muttered instructions about finding housing assignments.
“‘There is no substitute for thought’ a sign on [Mickey McCleary's] seminar room wall reminded us daily”
The author, David Horowitz, in 1962.
Although most of the college buildings appeared to be red brick vestiges of Antioch’s mid-nineteenth century origins, the modern two-story dorm that would be my residence was a bright and airy edifice with all-glass walls. Frank Maurer ’64, my roommate in Chatterjee Hall, was a strapping, good-natured biology major from Cincinnati. He told me his father had attended the college and roomed with a fellow named Horowitz. No, that wasn’t my dad, I answered politely. I could hear my father chortling in light of his own eighth-grade education and thirty-seven arduous years in the New York work force.
Of my fall quarter classes, the uncontested favorite was Mickey McCleary’s Introduction to Political Behavior. McCleary was a plain-talking, working-class World War II veteran who wore Hawaiian shirts in all weather, always sported a cup of black coffee he referred to as “mud,” and turned out to be the most devoted softball catcher I ever encountered. An advocate of the era’s prominent “consensus” school of political science, McCleary assigned us a textbook by the distinguished scholar, V. O. Key, which preached that societal stability depended upon a plurality of “socio-economic elites” competing for influence within a non-ideological, interest-group framework. Although this approach lacked the political idealism many of us shared as the 1950s closed, McCleary’s charm and emphasis on critical reflection and intellectual discipline captured his students’ complete loyalty. “There is no substitute for thought,” a sign on his seminar room wall reminded us daily.
Weekend nights often found me joining dorm mates such as Ade Bennett ’64 and Chris Lutz ’65 at Xenia Avenue’s Trail Tavern, or at the legendary Com’s, both mandated by Ohio law to serve 3.2 percent beer to patrons between eighteen and twenty-one. The Trail jukebox ranged from Mose Allison, whose sparse country phrasings and staccato jazz piano were considered the ultimate in late-‘50s hip, to Miles Davis, whose understated trumpet epitomized the “cool” jazz sounds of the period. The jukebox at Com’s – an inauspicious fried chicken joint and black tavern on the west side of town – offered early “soul” hits by Ray Charles, Lloyd Price, the Coasters, and other pioneers to accompany the ample portions served by co-proprietor “Goldie” (named for her fillings). Our introduction to Com’s had come through Ben Apfelbaum ’64. A huge but sensitive fellow with a biting wit, talent for sociability, and developed political consciousness, Ben was one of the leaders of the College NAACP and an informal liaison between Antioch students and activists in the local black community.
A student quartet performs on the patio at Corry Hall, now Spalt.
Within weeks of the start of fall quarter, half the first-year class had to apply for positions in the co-op work program. Compromising between my interests in psychology and social studies, I accepted an “editing” position with the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. At forty dollars a week, four Antiochians were to prepare or “code” consumer sentiment questionnaires for processing by IBM computers. The job would prove to be the only 9-5 position I ever held. Although long hours of processing economic data were quite tedious, the experience taught me how small a number of American families had personal savings and how many carried huge debts. The Center also provided my first entry into politics.
Many of our co-workers at Survey Research were the wives of University of Michigan faculty who seldom had independent professional careers in this period. One day during break, I made a caustic comment about President Eisenhower. “Why don’t you help us do some organizing for the Democrats?” the wife of a prominent political scientist challenged. At a loss to decline without losing face, I accepted the challenge. The following Saturday, I found myself riding around rural Ypsilanti County with a reticent old farmer who sported thigh-high rubber boots to combat the mid-winter mud. As a canvasser, I was to encourage people to take Democratic literature and ask their opinion concerning the contenders for the 1960 presidential nomination. At one dilapidated farmhouse, a bedraggled young mother with several dirty children in tow answered the door. When I asked if she supported Senator John Kennedy, who was then seeking to become the first Roman Catholic president in U.S. history, she looked me right in the eye and responded with a gentle demurral: “Oh, no – we’re Baptists you know.”
Erling Eng, professor of psychology, 1949-1961
The experience provided my first contact with American politics at ground level. Meanwhile, my Antioch roommate and fellow coder, Eric Knowles ’64, and I sought to construct a bohemian social life. In search of housing, the two of us had stumbled upon a run-down building scheduled for demolition near the university athletic arena. Delighted that we could rent a barely furnished upstairs room at nominal cost and walk to a nearby meals cooperative, we decorated the space with free travel posters and installed my new portable record player. By now, Joan Baez was the rage among folk music fans who contrasted her pristine renditions of ancient British and southern American ballads with the commercialism of white pop culture. Accordingly, Eric and I spent most evenings pursuing interests in folk music and young women. We soon learned of a house where a mixed-race couple hosted hootenannies almost every night. The place was jammed with wispy beatnik college girls decked out in the black skirts, turtlenecks, fishnet stockings, and the white tennis shoes favored by Joan Baez. My awkward efforts to befriend one of these beauties came to little avail.
Back on campus that spring, I enrolled in The Social Psychology of Utopian Communities led by the legendary Erling Eng, a Buddha-like figure who could sit silently and cross-legged before a class for thirty-minutes while waiting for students to volunteer what they wanted to know. Beyond that, I recall discussion sections in which the teaching assistant and two or three others engaged in opaque disputations on Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship. I was more at home in the world of politics. Having spent fall quarter on the copyediting crew of the Antioch Record, I had earned the right to be a reporter. My first story involved a talk by David McReynolds, a Socialist Party and War Resisters League leader on tour for the Student Peace Union, a new group recently established on mid-western campuses. McReynolds conveyed the heart of the progressive faith that society could devote itself to human needs instead of mere material ones. Appealing to the self-esteem of his audience, he insisted that youth could play an important role in affecting policy in a dynamic civilization open to change. Because the older generation could not grapple with issues like the escalating arms race, he warned, it was wrong “for students to think that someone else will solve their problems.”
“The sentiments of the civil rights crusade seemed so self-evident, the dignity of its participants so inspiring, that it was impossible to pretend we were ‘objective’ reporters.”
Students march in front of the Federal Office
Building in Cincinnati. (photo: C.J. Pressma/Antiochiana)
As attracted as I was to the Student Peace Union’s call for unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament, I was not entirely comfortable in committing myself to political struggle. The answer was a pragmatic compromise – I would attend peace marches as a journalist. Consequently, I joined forty Antiochians and 110 others on a thirteen-mile “Walk for Peace” from nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to the Dayton Public Library. “While sparkling brass bands, vivacious drum majorettes, uniformed military, and mighty tanks could easily be found on the Memorial Day streets of our country,” began my piece, the holiday brought “a parade of a more solemn nature to nearby Dayton.” I reiterated how “numerous signs and posters were carried; mothers wheeled infants in carriages while the older children walked hand in hand with parents; and students with guitars led the group in songs of brotherhood and peace.” When the marchers encountered a military bus adorned with an “Air Power is Peace Power” sign, I reported that those inside the vehicle “seemed more curious than anything else.”
My story noted that demonstrators had culminated a brief prayer meeting at the gates of Wright-Patterson by singing “We Shall Overcome,” which I described as “the hymn which is quickly becoming the theme song of social protest in America.” I had ample grounds for making this assertion. Several weeks earlier, Record assistant editor Vic Moll ’60 had approached me in the C-Shop, the College coffee hangout, and said that if I could find a camera I could accompany him and two others on a trip to Nashville, where he was to compile a report on the sit-in movement. Since February 1960, more than seven hundred black students from Fisk University, American Baptist Theological Seminary, and Tennessee A & I had been arrested for refusing to leave segregated lunch counters until they were served. Trained in nonviolence by Rev. James Lawson, a Nashville civil rights leader, theology students such as John Lewis and James Bevel joined Fisk activists, including Diane Nash, in creating a grassroots movement for social change. Within three months, a “selective buying campaign” organized by the African American clergy had deprived the downtown shopping district of more than a half-million dollars in revenue.
I never did find a camera. Yet when Vic said there still was room in his VW bug, it did not take long to decide to abandon my studies. Once in Nashville, Vic and I stayed at the home of Dave Crippens ’64, a black classmate, whose father taught at a historically black college. The next morning, our team paid a visit to Alexander Looby, the black lawyer who had taken on the legal defense of the arrested students and had his house dynamited in response. When we left his office, the VW had disappeared from its parking space in front of the building and we flagged down a passing motorcycle cop, who circled around us before coming to a stop. “Y’all most likely been towed,” he said, mentioning the name of a garage where the car might be found. When we asked where that might be, he responded with an uncontainable grin, “oh, that’s way over in n–r-town,” the first time I had heard the term uttered by an adult. We politely thanked the officer for the information and made the long trek across town to reclaim our wheels.
The most exciting moments of our trip came when we met with activist ministers and students. To appreciate the importance of the local clergy, we attended a Baptist service on Sunday morning. To our complete embarrassment, the minister asked us to stand up so that the congregation could applaud “the wonderful courage of these college students from up north who came down here to support our young folk.” The sentiments of the civil rights crusade seemed so self-evident and the dignity of its participants so inspiring that it was impossible to pretend we were “objective” reporters. All pretension evaporated when we joined a group at the seminary that included John Lewis, James Bevel, and Diane Nash. With the young men in white shirts, solid ties, and conservative dark suits, and the women modestly but smartly attired, the convocation had all the atmosphere of a Sunday prayer service. The feeling intensified when Guy Carawan, a white folksinger in blue denim and shirtsleeves, drew the assembly into a circle to clasp hands as he led us in “We Shall Overcome,” the first time I had heard the profoundly moving hymn. “Deep in my heart, I do believe ...,” we sang in unison as our voices trembled. The serene solidarity of that moment would remain with me for the rest of my life.
Professor Louis Filler "could mesmerize an entire class with anecdotes that humanized historical figures."
Once our team returned to Antioch, I worked the quotes scribbled in my notebook into a supplement to Vic’s main feature. The editors introduced my piece as “the Nashville Story – the story of race clash, of violence, of victory. It is told in the words of those who were there as recorded by Record staffer Dave Horowitz.” Borrowing from the techniques of my favorite American novelist, John Dos Passos, I mixed quotations with newspaper headlines in a snappy collage meant to capture the feel of the times. I now approached the issue of civil rights social justice with unbounded passion. Indeed, several skeptical dorm mates in South Hall complained that the Nashville trip had “ruined” my intellect by turning me into a “true believer” and complete ideologue. The teaching assistant for my social psychology class may have agreed. When I used the civil rights movement as an example of the quest for “utopian communities” in my term paper, I received a desultory C+.
That fall, I shared the main floor of an old two-story house at the edge of campus with Ade Bennett ’64 and Chris Lutz ’65. Ade and Chris kept me up to date on their lectures in Twentieth Century U.S. History. Professor Louis Filler had published the definitive study of Progressive-era muckraking journalists just after receiving a B.A. from Columbia in 1939. My roommates described how Filler could mesmerize an entire class with anecdotes that humanized historical figures. “You ought to come and listen,” Chris advised in his soft New England cadence.
Attending Filler’s lectures was unlike any classroom experience I had ever encountered. About thirty seconds late, a full-figured, fifty-year-old blur of motion rushed into the hall, sheaves of papers protruding from notebooks and loose-leafs, glasses slipping from his nose, his short hair in disarray. Without missing a beat, he began, as if in the middle of a sentence. Filler brought unknown figures such as Josiah “Cigarette” Flynt to life, describing the turn-of-the-century journalist who rode the rails, dined with European royalty, and wrote about urban America’s growing crime and vice syndicates. “Crime is like water,” Filler quoted Flynt. “It seeps from the top.” He also recounted the tale of reformer Lincoln Steffens reassuring a dying political boss he would go to heaven despite his sins. Enchanted by Filler’s charm, intellect, knowledge, and theatrics, I attended his lectures regularly. The sirens of history had captured me.
By the fall of 1961, I had enrolled in Filler’s American Civilization course and begun to audit his class on American Reform, 1830-60. I would not formally abandon psychology and become a declared history major until I returned two years later from fifteen months of Antioch Education Abroad, during which I studied British history at Leeds University and undertook co-op jobs at a rural French home for delinquent boys and a volunteer work camp in northern Greece. When I asked Filler to be my advisor, he responded with unusual intensity. “If you want to live and really live – not subsist on social security or something,” he said, “you’ve got to beat the dead-heads at their own game. You’ve got to have more facts than they, be smarter than they, and do everything they do better. Then you can rebel.”
“You have a lot of potential,” he warned, “but you have many rough edges. We’re going to polish off those rough edges.”
Filler had a reputation for terrorizing ill-prepared students. By the time I graduated in June 1964, however, I had survived Filler’s strict tutelage and completed a history thesis chronicling the creative and political odyssey of John Dos Passos from 1920s anarchist to 1930s socialist to 1960s conservative. I now looked forward to entering the history graduate program at the University of Minnesota with a teaching assistantship to boot. Although I did not completely realize it at the time, the intellectual passions of my Antioch mentor had provided the perfect foundation for an extended career as a professional historian, teacher, and author.
David A. Horowitz ’64 is a professor of cultural and twentieth century U.S. history at Portland State University. His most recent published work is The People’s Voice: A Populist Cultural History of Modern America (2008). The preceding essay includes edited excerpts of the memoir Getting There: An American Cultural Odyssey, under consideration for publication.