Wilson Students Take a Stand: A Glance at Wilson during the Vietnam War

Ellida Parker

Throughout its history, Wilson has been a microcosm of DC and the United States as a whole. In the late sixties, this was true as it is today. Civil rights issues and racial tensions that plagued the country were palpable inside Wilson’s halls, and activism against the raging Vietnam war seen on college campuses became increasingly visible at Wilson. In the spring of 1970, at the height of bubbling frustration towards the war, students planned a strike not unlike the walkout many modern-day students recall from last fall. The 1970 strike ended in confusion and chaos, but that week marked one of the first times that Wilson students took a collective stand against the government, a practice that has become common in the years since.

A Changing School

Before the late 1960s, Wilson was a majority white school, despite formal integration over a decade earlier. This changed in 1968, when the Supreme Court case Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County required that school districts adopt plans to eliminate racially-identifiable schools. The school boundaries, which had previously encompassed neighborhoods that were primarily white, were adjusted to include neighborhoods that were primarily Black as well.

The year after this decision—the same year that riots following the death of Martin Luther King shook the city—Wilson was a rapidly changing institution. Many white parents removed their kids from the school in the wake of the integration campaign, and before long, around half of Wilson’s population was made up of Black students. Wilson came closer to resembling the diverse, liberal high school that today’s students are familiar with.

“Generally, there was this feeling of optimism that we were leading the way, that we would show that integration works, and the rest of the country would follow us,” said Joe Shapiro, a Wilson alum who attended the school during this time of change. “But there was this undercurrent of tensions between white students and Black students. There were divisions,” he said. Shapiro described a similar social structure to the one prevalent at Wilson today: there were clear boundaries dividing the clubs and groups within the school, separating students by race.

Another point of contention was the growing police presence in Wilson’s halls following an increase in crime at Wilson, and their apparent targeting of Black students in the building. In November 1969, the Black Student Union (BSU) charged that “police had openly harassed many Black students, not only on the school grounds but also on the streets,” according to a Beacon article published that month. The BSU demanded that police be removed from the school grounds, and that all arrests be made public over the loudspeaker to ensure transparency regarding police treatment.

Later that year, these conflicts had not visibly improved. In February, a group of 43 Black students walked out of a school assembly to call attention to the injustices Black students were facing inside the school, including police discrimination. After the assembly, about 400 students gathered in the auditorium for a discussion with the principal, where Black students and faculty voiced complaints about white teachers’ treatment of Black students. “There are white teachers here who have been unable to accept the new status quo. Black teachers are expected to relate to white students, and they do it. White teachers can’t seem to adjust themselves to Black students,” said one of the teachers at the meeting.

“When we entered the Vietnam demonstrations years, we were already experiencing a lot of turmoil, not only because we were kids trying to get through becoming adults, but because we were experiencing in this microcosm all of the turmoil that the country was experiencing,” said Barbara Kelly, who attended Wilson from 1969 to 1971.

Against this backdrop of internal upheaval, Wilson students began to vocalize opposition to the polarizing Vietnam War and became increasingly involved in the anti-war movement.

Discontent grows

Widespread disillusionment with the Vietnam war was growing in the late sixties. In 1967, there was no end in sight to a conflict that had been raging for over a decade. Casualties increased every day, taxpayer money was funding a war that had no clear benefit, and the government’s’ secrecy over American conduct in Vietnam spawned public distrust of authority. For male Wilson students, the possibility of being drafted for service after graduation loomed ahead.

“There was the immediate personal interest in what was going on with the war, and then there was the bigger interest of ‘why is our country in this war?’” said Jack Koczela, a former student who graduated in the class of 1971.

Wilson students have long been attuned to the political and social climate of the US—perhaps this is nearly unavoidable when you live in the nation’s capital. National news, as Koczela put it, “is very often our local news.” DC was a hub of massive demonstrations during the Vietnam war: hundreds descended upon the city for events like the 1967 March on Washington, which took place in response to President Johnson’s efforts to expand the war, or the November 1969 “March Against Death.” It was common for protesters from out of town to stay at the homes of Wilson students, and Wilson students often went down to the mall to demonstrate, according to several alums.

“There was a whole feeling around anti-war protests and the civil rights movement, and everyone was a part of it, whether they wanted to be part of it or not, just because of where we live,” said Kelly.

The feeling Kelly describes is evident in The Beacon editions from that year, which I flipped through with Wilson Librarian Pamela Gardner a few weeks ago. “This is what I call the vault,” she had said, as she unlocked an unobtrusive cabinet to the side of the computer lab. Inside were shelves and shelves of yearbooks and Beacons dating back to the school’s beginning in the 1930s.

One article published in the October 1969 edition of The Beacon noted that “active opposition to the war has come to the high school,” and called on Wilson students to “look into themselves and decide whether they will be spectators or participants in the movement to end the war in Vietnam.” Another article appearing in that same edition offered a list of rights for students whose “idea of a normal Saturday afternoon was picketing in front of a public building.” Students were advised to keep their First Amendment freedoms in mind during skirmishes with the administration. “The first thing to remember is that no school administrator may infringe on the legal rights of any student within school boundaries,” the article reads.

Twice that fall, in October and November, students forewent their classes to attend day-long “moratoriums” on the Vietnam war. Arranged by the Student Council, the moratoriums aimed to educate students on the war and bring formal discussion and debate about the war to Wilson. “We wanted to be (and actually had to be) objective to get school buy-in, so we made room for speakers from the State Department and the Agency for International Development… But we also had national anti-war leaders, religious leaders, war correspondents. It was a fair discussion, but by 1970 defending the war was becoming a lost cause in D.C,” recalls Matt Finucan, who was the student body president at the time.

Finucan ran for president on the platform of student activism, and he stuck to his campaign promises throughout the 1969-1970 school year, when Vietnam war activism became a focus at Wilson.

According to a November 1969 Beacon article, “the number of students actively protesting the Vietnam war by abstaining from school enlarged significantly,” after the first moratorium. Wilson’s student body wasn’t unanimously opposed to the war, and even amongst those who were, not all were active about it. But during these few months, activism took a hold in ways it hadn’t before.

Students Take A Stand

On Friday April 30 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that the US forces had moved into Cambodia, signaling an expansion of the war. Protests immediately erupted on college campuses across the country. Four days after Nixon’s announcement, four unarmed students participating in an anti-war protest at Kent State University were killed by the Ohio National Guard, prompting college students to go on strike and shutdown classes in the weeks following.

And Wilson students, led by Finucan, wanted to act too.

“Some close Wilson friends of mine came over and told me, you said you promised you were going to promote political activism, students are being shot by the government just for demonstrating, we have to act now,” Finucan said.

Finucan put the possibility of a strike on the agenda for the Student Council’s meeting the following Tuesday morning. Students came to school early to hear Finucan’s demands for the strike, which initially included an immediate end to the war in Vietnam and American expansion into Cambodia, an end to the ‘repression that had resulted in the shooting of four students at Kent State by National Guardsmen,’ according to a Beacon article published that month. The students voted to move forward with the strike, and many left school to join protests on college campuses across DC.

“Nationally, the Kent State shootings created this sense that protesting the war in Vietnam was sort of fruitless. But I think the Wilson students got a very different message. I think we became even more dedicated to protest,” said Shapiro.

These were the days before social media could mobilize masses or spread information like wildfire: to organize a movement, you had to gather in person and plan. So on Tuesday night, over three hundred and forty teenagers piled into the Tenley library for a follow up meeting to discuss plans for the following days.

At the meeting, Black student leaders argued that those involved in Vietnam war activism were ignoring civil right issues that mattered most to Black students, such as the ongoing trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. The demands of the protest were expanded to include support for Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, and the students decided to continue the strike. The principal at the time, Maurice Jackson, told the group at the library that he was “with them” in their fight.

The next morning, students arrived at Wilson ready to walk to the Capitol. Arrangements had been set for members of Congress to meet them there. “It’s kind of wild, looking back on it, that members of Congress were willing to meet with high school students,” said Shapiro. “I think it was sort of unusual that high school students were willing to do this. We had significance. We had power,” he said.

But when the protesters arrived at Wilson, the day quickly fell to chaos. The principal’s support had dwindled overnight: he was now willing to shut down the protest, and he threatened the leaders of the protest with suspension. Police were called in as tensions escalated. The protesters sat down on the floor of the front hall and refused to move until the administration agreed to hold an impromptu assembly in which students would vote on whether or not to strike.

“We were one of the only high schools in the country that shut down. The colleges were getting attention across the country for doing this, and we were showing that high school students cared the same way,” said Shapiro.

When the administration gave in, students poured out onto the football field, where the principal warned them that anyone who left school for the strike would be given “F’s and zeros” for the classes they missed. These warnings left students with little choice but to retreat to their classrooms, having shut down the school for a morning. But a group of about 100 students marched in spite of the principals’ threats, waving a Viet Cong flag as they went.

“From what I could tell talking to other students in college the next year, it was unheard of for a high school to go on strike after Kent state.  Wilson had been exceptional in standing against what happened at Kent State and the war,” said Finucan.

“Even though we only had half of a protest and it got sort of shut down, there was still this belief that it was important to stand up and be involved,” said Shapiro. “I think we were all very optimistic that we could change the course of the war by protesting, by standing up, by saying something.”•