On May 6, 1970, Chip Casteel was walking through the atrium of Jesse Hall when he noticed several members of the U.S. National Guard kneeling on the tile floor, aiming their loaded rifles at the building’s main doorway.
Casteel, vice president of the Missouri Student Association at the time, was on his way out of a meeting with then-Chancellor John Schwada, where the two had been trying to figure out how to de-escalate the tension on the other side of that doorway.
Out on Francis Quadrangle, at least 2,000 students were gathered to protest the May 4 murder of four students at Kent State University, and, more generally, U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Several speakers had worked the crowd into a near frenzy, and some were beginning to toss around the idea of breaking down Jesse Hall’s doors and seizing the building for the cause.
“If the crowd had tried to take the building, they would have been shot,” Casteel said.
On Saturday, Casteel and other former student leaders from that era gathered at Reynolds Alumni Center for a reunion luncheon. It has been nearly 50 years since Vietnam War protests on the MU campus rattled administrators and tested students’ resolve.
For many Americans, the January 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of North Vietnamese attacks across South Vietnam, dispelled the notion that the war could be won easily and without significant loss of life. This realization was a boon to the American anti-war movement, which gained momentum in 1968 and 1969, as the brutality of war was broadcast into American homes via TV news reports.
Anti-war sentiment on college campuses reached a boiling point on May 4, 1970, after four students were shot and killed by the U.S. National Guard at Kent State in Ohio. The “Stop the War” protest on the MU campus took place two days later.
Casteel said the on-campus protests helped pave the way for a greater level of student participation in university governance at MU.
“We would never have gotten thousands of people to gather on the quadrangle for our student government initiatives,” Casteel said. “The Vietnam War protests injected an energy and dynamism into the relationship between students and administrators. They forced university leadership to heed the voice of the student body, and, in time, give us a seat at the table.”
During the 1970s, student government leaders were successful in accomplishing several of their goals, the results of which are still felt on campus today.
Over a five-year period, Lowry Mall was built as part of a push for a more pedestrian-friendly campus. University administrators recognized the school’s first LGBT student organization. A significant push was made to include student voices in high-level decision-making processes; student representatives now have a place on the UM Board of Curators.
Mark Pope and Randy Maness, two alumni who were student leaders during the Vietnam War era, worked together to organize the reunion.
Maness said the core of the group met annually between the mid-1970s and late-1980s for a reunion party but hadn’t done enough to stay in touch since then. He said he was happy to see the group of about 25 come together again to celebrate their accomplishments as student leaders during a politically and socially fraught era.
“We’ve come a long way, and I think that a lot of the accomplishments we had in that time have lasted,” Maness said. “We’re real proud of that.”