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Fifty years ago today: National Moratorium Day March

Photo captures MSU Vietnam protest at its height

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And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam!

The antiwar riff borrowed from Country Joe and the Fish was as rowdy as the Oct. 15, 1969, National Moratorium Day March ever got, other than beeping horns from vehicles driving past the mass of humanity making its way west to the steps of the Capitol.

As the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 marchers who formed in East Lansing made their way down Michigan Avenue, a Michigan State News photographer, Bob Ivans, climbed on the back of a moving vehicle to shoot a photograph that is one of the most iconic of that era. The photograph shows, in perfect focus, the somber marchers, right hands raised flashing the peace sign while a large white cardboard peace sign floats over the crowd.

If you look closely you can see a single hand hoisting that peace sign. Most of the marchers, at least in the first 20 rows, are young men dressed for a brisk fall day. The young men have shorter hair cuts typical of what you might see today and they are looking off to their right at something unidentified in the distance.

There were young women present. I know this because I was with one, Alice, a classmate in an advertising course, who convinced me to join her for the march.

Now 50 years distant, marches seem to blend into each other, but what makes this March singular was that Acting MSU President Walker Adams, wearing his signature bow tie and chewing on a cigar, led the marchers. In his hand is a small American flag; flanking him on either side with their arms linked are supporters in suits.

To Adams’ right was State Rep. Jackie Vaughan III; right behind him to his right is Robert Green, director of the MSU Center of Urban Affairs and a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On Adams’ left is an unidentified woman and next to her is Democrat Trustee Don Stevens. Next to him is Rep. Raymond Hood from Detroit.

In the third row just behind Green is James Spaniolo, the student editor of the Michigan State News.

Other faces look familiar, possibly from student government. The only other person I can identify is Winn Rowe, who is five rows back on the far right. He’s in a sport coat wearing sunglasses and is also peering off into space. I took a business writing course from Winn.

Looking east, the photograph shows marchers as far as the eye can see.

Marches like this one occurred all across the country organized by a national group made up of former Eugene McCarthy campaigners who wanted to take the antiwar effort to the masses.  They purposely sought out local organizers from churches, high schools and community groups and eschewed the help of organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society. The idea was to have marches made up of cleancut participants who would stand in contrast to what happened the previous summer in Chicago, where police and protesters clashed violently. For most, I think this was the first march they would go on.

Once the crowd reached the Capitol, it filled the lawn to listen to another wave of speakers protesting Vietnam War. I remember state Sen. Coleman Young, MSU Trustee Blanche Martin, Rep. Vaughan, Sen. Basil Brown and MSU graduate Paul Guastello, all speaking to the orderly crowd although some protesters scaled the Austin Blair statue.

Cries of “Hell no we won’t go” would periodically erupt from the crowd. The speeches dragged on and gradually the marchers turned their back to the sun and made their way back to campus. It had been a long day for the marchers, who had gathered at 9 a.m. at the MSU Auditorium and Fairchild Theater for a teach-in and to listen to a bevy of speakers, including Adams, Dr. John Duley, U.S. Sen. Phil Hart and U.S. Rep. Don Riegle. Gov. Bill Milliken, in the audience, was introduced by President Adams to enthusiastic applause.

What I remember most about the day was when MSU Provost John Cantlon spoke against the war. His voice trembled when he revealed his son, John Jr., had been killed in Vietnam in November 1966. When he sat down the audience gave him a standing ovation. I immediately thought of a high school classmate, Gerry Collier, who exactly three years earlier to the date had been killed by enemy fire in Hau Nghia Province. Thank you, Alice, for asking me along.

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