Passion, purpose with a dose of naivete in MU protests

Sunday, May 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:34 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 4, 2014
Betty Wilson sits on the steps of Jesse Hall, in front of the area where as many as 3,000 people demonstrated against the war in Vietnam on Francis Quadrangle at MU on May 11, 1970. Wilson was pre-law during the time of the demonstrations, and brought her two oldest children to the campus to protest the war. "We were naive enough back then to think that being open and presenting ourselves at these demonstrations would make a difference," Wilson said.

With the passion of youth and the decry of the Vietnam War, Columbia resident Betty Wilson felt she could change the world through activism.

Wilson was studying pre-law at MU when National Guardsmen killed and wounded student demonstrators at Kent State on May 4, 1970. She was 38, raising five young children, and recalls bringing her older children — who were 10 and 11 at the time — to join a demonstration May 11, 1970, on Francis Quadrangle.

Demonstrations and sit-ins against the war in Vietnam culminated on that day with the largest gathering to date when about 3,000 protesters stretched from Jesse Hall  through the MU Columns.

“We felt very earnest about it,” Wilson said. “We were naive enough back then to think that being open and presenting ourselves at these demonstrations would make a difference."

Wilson, 82, remembers tensions and passions running rampant and the incredible amount of people gathering outside Jesse Hall.

“It was a time of heightened awareness of the democratic process, and it lead to conversations at every sphere of our lives about what was right and what was wrong,” Wilson said.

Wilson and her husband, former Columbia Mayor Clyde Wilson, attended numerous demonstrations and protests throughout the late 1960s into the 1970s. She thought of the experience as a way to teach a lesson to her younger children.

“It was important that they understood why we did these things,” Wilson said. “You need to exercise democracy peacefully, and violence is no part of protesting. As kids, sometimes, that's hard to understand."

Something about going to the protests left Wilson looking forward. The following year, she and many of her friends thought they should try to change the world another way.

She felt that something more in the system had to happen to make a difference.

“I went to law school — again naively thinking going to law school would be a way of changing the world — but as I grew older and became more realistic about the profession, I realized that there was never going to be an automatic way of changing the world,” she said.

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Ellis Smith May 4, 2014 | 8:41 a.m.

Historians of that period have noted the overall unrest at college campuses, but have also noted that generically there were TWO exceptions:

1-The nation's federal and state four-year military academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard*, and state supported military academies such as Virginia Military Institute and South Carolina's The Citadel).

2-The nation's public and private technological institutes, of which we have an example in Missouri within University of Missouri System. These campuses were surprisingly quiet, accross the entire United States, to the point of truly standing out.

It hardly seems necessary to explain why military style campuses behaved as they did, but can our historical experts explain why technological ones also did so?

* There IS a Coast Guard Academy (New London, CT), and academically it may be the best of the lot.

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