Stepping into a 'claustrophobic' war protest at MU

Sunday, May 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Sharon Pike holds a peace sign clock, which she purchased around the time of the MU protest of the Vietnam War on May 11, 1970. Pike said she didn't actually want to participate in the protests but walked out of a lecture hall on Francis Quadrangle to find more than 3,000 people demonstrating and was unable to leave because of how crowded the area had become with protesters.

COLUMBIA — Sharon Pike had returned to MU in 1968 to finish her bachelor's and master's degrees after taking a break to start a family. By 1970, her daughter was in kindergarten and she was a full-time student.

As a member of an activist church, she would send letters to politicians protesting the Vietnam War after her experiences at MU demonstrations.

Pike, now a research specialist for the Interdisciplinary Plant Group at MU, recognized that her efforts were part of a larger movement sweeping the country — a time where a heightened awareness of the democratic process brought people together in masses. Something, she said, was unique to that time. 

"I really enjoyed the camaraderie with these like-minded people," Pike said. "I came from a small town — 5,000 people — and I had no idea that these sort of people were around until that time in my life. That experience opened my eyes to a lot of things."

When Pike stepped out of MU's Hill Hall on May 11, 1970, she found herself in the midst of the largest anti-war demonstration to date, with more than 3,000 people urging the university to make a statement in opposition to the Vietnam War.

She remembers being trapped at the west side of Jesse Hall in a narrow passage full of people.

"The crowd was so big, you really felt crushed. It was claustrophobic, and it looked like it was going to get out of hand,” Pike said.

There had been shootings at other protests — namely Kent State and Jackson State — and Pike remembers thinking "it could happen here too — it just felt scary."

She navigated through the crowd to her car and drove to a phone where she placed a call to the home of MU sociology professor Bill Wickersham, one of the MU faculty members whose pay was suspended for canceling classes that day to accommodate the student demonstrations. Then Pike went to a place where she felt safe: her church.

“I called, not because I knew him, but because I had heard about him and thought he could help,” Pike said. “Where I called from, I don't know. I found out he was arrested, drove to my church on West Boulevard South, and I went to see my minister and asked, 'What can I do?'

"He didn't have an answer for me."

The passions of the day were easy to get caught up in, Pike said. As the memories of 44 years ago fade, Pike said she still keeps her favorite possessions of the day near: her peace tags, fashioned after dog tags, with a blue dove and red peace symbol and her “Peace-time Lolli-clock” by Westclox. 

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