The battles were among students, but particularly between students and administrators. The University of Minnesota was divided over issues, which included racism, antisemitism, opposition to war, and student rights. They mirrored national issues.
University of Minnesota presidents, deans, and other administrators routinely surveilled students and faculty for their political beliefs and activities. They attacked progressive student activism in order to create a campus in the narrow and distorted image of an “America First” nation. Some provided information to Republican politicians about student activists to aid their quest to demonstrate that Communists had “infiltrated” the University, in order to affect the outcome of state elections. They sought to influence many things, from what the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, published, to the distribution of political materials by students, to the appointment of members of the Board of Regents who oversaw the University.
Racism and antisemitism were part and parcel of campus life. University administrators, with a few important exceptions, were architects of the racially segregated, publicly-financed housing on campus, and approved off-campus housing where Jews were also not welcome.
Minnesota Daily, “Extra!” End of Drills
This exclusive “extra edition” was written by Arnold Eric Sevareid in June of 1934, when the Minnesota Daily was normally out of print. Published and hurriedly circulated among the remaining students on campus, Sevareid‘s “EXTRA!” reported the Regents’ surprise decision to end compulsory military drill at the University of Minnesota, following extensive activism on the part of students. It would be the second land grant institution to do so.
Declaration of Rights of Youth, Poster
The full text of the American Youth Congress’ “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth” is available here.
On July 4, 1936, members of the American Youth Congress announced their “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth.” Noting the threat of war, they asserted the need for “full educational opportunities, steady employment at adequate wages, and security in time of need, civil rights, religious freedom, and peace.” The inclusion of an African American and a white woman student underlined their commitment to diversity.
Keep America American, Chase Flier
The Ray P Chase Institute offered information about people and groups Chase deemed subversives, Communists, and dangerous. This 1937 circular sought to create a “Voluntary Committee” to carry out this work. He used the language of “facts” in all of his work to carry out political campaigns to smear the people he disagreed with. Ray Chase claimed the work was “non-political,” despite its highly partisan approach. He drew on the right-wing’s language to “Keep America American,” and made clear that those who were foreign born, Jews, or whose ideas disagreed with his were not “American.”
This cover page of the Gopher Communist was found in the Ray P. Chase files related to the University of Minnesota. It dates from the 1930s. The articles listed on the cover are typical of the concerns of the American Left of this period.
University life offered the opportunity to engage global, national, and state politics, both in the classroom and on the campus, where the most important issues of the day mattered deeply.
The campus struggles were embedded in the politics of the State of Minnesota, which elected three governors, members of congress, senators, and local politicians from the Farmer-Labor Party, one of the nation’s most effective third parties. All campus conflicts were embedded in larger state-wide politics, and many administrators supported efforts to defeat Farmer-Laborites.
University life offered the opportunity to engage global, national, and state politics, both in the classroom and on the campus, where the most important issues of the day mattered deeply. Students were willing to fight for the ideas and principles that would shape the rest of their lives.
Despite the ongoing efforts by administrators to suppress student activism and maintain racially segregated student housing, student activists were remarkably successful at creating change. They succeeded because of the alliances they forged across political, religious, and racial lines. Coalitions extended beyond the campus and included local African American and Jewish communities as well as the Farmer-Labor party, the progressive political party that controlled most of the major statewide positions from 1930–1938. Together, they began the ongoing struggle for an inclusive University committed to political freedom.