Marshall Sahlins and the birth of the teach-in

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The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins died last week. In his extensive fieldwork (especially in indigenous Pacific Island communities), his pathbreaking scholarship, and a long teaching career at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, he profoundly impacted the fields of ethnography and cultural anthropology. (New York Times)

As remembered by Dr. Joseph Masco, chair of Anthropology at Chicago: “His enduring interest was to show how cultural difference works in history and how history shapes culture, and to argue for the fundamental value and rigor of indigenous modes of thought.” (The University of Chicago)

We also remember Sahlins for his political activism, and especially for his creativity in expanding the toolbox of nonviolence methods through the invention of the “teach-in” – a radical revisioning of the relationship of teachers and students out of the classroom, and a dynamic form of engaged dialogue on urgent political issues, that deserves renewal on a massive scale today.

How did the first teach-in come about?

In February 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive, sustained bombing campaign targeting North Vietnam. For Sahlins, as for thousands of other liberal academics, this dramatic escalation of U.S. military aggression in the War in Vietnam was experienced as betrayal. After all, these same liberals had campaigned for Johnson in the presidential election against Barry Goldwater; Johnson was seen as the peace candidate compared to Goldwater, a hawk who had called for a tougher position on Vietnam.

Along with Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement had recently galvanized the U.C. campus and the nation, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor was a leading center of the nascent anti-war student movement. Soon after the bombing began, about 30 anti-war Michigan faculty called for a 1-day campus strike on March 24 to protest the war, a call condemned by Michigan Governor George Romney and the University’s President Harlan Hatcher. The Michigan State Senate introduced a resolution calling the faculty strike plan “un-American” and “illegal;” the final version, passed by the Senate, and called the strike “ill-advised” and “a clear violation of their duties,” and called for disciplinary action against the faculty organizers and participants. (New York Times)

At the planning meeting following the Senate condemnation, Professor Sahlins proposed a solution: “I’ve got it. They say we’re neglecting our responsibilities as teachers. Let’s show them how responsible we feel. Instead of teaching out, we’ll teach in – all night.” (JSTOR)

As many of the Michigan faculty had been involved in supporting the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the idea of the “teach-in” echoed the nonviolent 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro North Carolina, Nashville Tennessee, and hundreds of other cities in neighboring states protesting racial segregation at lunch-counters, businesses and universities throughout the Jim Crow South.

According to the faculty statement calling for the teach-in: “We are worried about the War in Vietnam. We think its moral, political and military consequences are very grave, and that we must examine them and find new alternatives before irreparable actions occur. This war we are waging is being maintained and expanded without our consent.” Organized by faculty in collaboration with student activists (including those organized as members of Students for a Democratic Society), the Michigan teach-in on March 24-25, 1965, involved 200 faculty and many hundreds of students in discussion about the origins, causes, deceptions and human rights violations of the Vietnam War. According to the New York Times, the teach-in activities during the night of March 24 were interrupted by bomb threats three times; in each case, police escorted participants outside into the cold night until the rooms could be checked and re-checked for explosives. Meanwhile, Michigan students in the Young Republicans organization picketed the event, protesting “anti-American policy.” (New York Times) The teach-in concluded with a rally the next morning of 600 people outside the steps of the UM library.

The Michigan teach-in lit a fuse. It was followed by a national teach-in at universities across the country less than two months later, on May 15. The use of the teach-in as a nonviolent participatory method to educate, inform and galvanize opposition to the war spread from Ann Arbor to university communities throughout the country over the coming months as the anti-war movement escalated.

In a February 2009 essay in Anthropology Today reflecting on this experience, Sahlins wrote; “In raising anti-war consciousness in the nation as a whole, far beyond the academic community, the teach-ins were an historic turning point in the politics of the Vietnam War…” (JSTOR)

The peace movement against the War in Vietnam grew dramatically over the coming months. In 1967, nearly 100,000 gathered in Washington D.C. to protest the war, and many thousands brought the protest directly to the Pentagon. Earlier that year, Martin Luther King added his moral authority to the anti-war movement, joining street protests in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and condemning U.S. involvement in Vietnam as “a blasphemy against all America stands for.”

On Dec. 31, 1967, the Department of Defense announced that 864,000 tons of American bombs had been dropped on North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder, far more than the U.S. had dropped in the Pacific theater during World War II (503,000 tons). U.S. government estimates that approximately 30,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed in these bombing raids.

In October 1969, eighteen months after Dr. King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King led over a quarter of a million people on the Moratorium Against the War march in Washington D.C.; in total, the 1969 Moratorium mobilized more than a million nonviolent protestors in gatherings and marches across the country.

In sum, throughout the fifteen-year war in Vietnam, and its expansion to Cambodia and Laos, somewhere between 3 to 5 million Indochinese, and 58,000 Americans, were killed.

The legacy of the teach-in has expanded far beyond the Vietnam era. Teach-ins have been held to address environmental harm, climate change, voters rights, economic inequality, police violence in Black communities, and gun violence generally over the subsequent years. The teach-in remains a powerful resource in the nonviolent toolbox of methods and approaches to mobilize social change today.

One of the most effective and creative practitioners of civil resistance, anarchist theory in recent decades was the activist and public intellectual David Graeber, whose death in September 2020 was a major loss to nonviolent direct action movements in the U.S. and globally. Graeber brought his training in cultural anthropology to grassroots action as an immensely creative driving force behind the Occupy movement and many environmental justice campaigns, carrying forward the legacy of his dissertation advisor at the University of Chicago, Marshall Sahlin.

Responsibility to carry forward this legacy of creative nonviolence against mass violation of human rights has been passed on to us.

As Dr. Clarence B. Jones asks, echoing Rabbi Hillel, If not us, who? If not now, when?

Gladys Perez