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Striking Students Take Oath at Campus Recreation Hall

Strike at Wayne State
Wayne State University
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tags: activism

type: Photograph

As part of a nationwide protest on American college campuses, hundreds of students at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, Michigan, walked out of their classrooms on April 22, 1936.1 This photograph, published in the Detroit Free Press, depicts a group of these students joining a demonstration at the "Old Main" recreation hall on campus to voice their opposition to the rise of fascism and advocate against US involvement in any war abroad. 

Organized with help from the American Student Union (ASU), a nationwide association of socialists and communists founded in 1935, the strike was timed to mark the date of the United States' entrance into World War I in April 1917.2 Similar events around the country—which reportedly drew hundreds of thousands of student participants—featured speakers emphasizing "increasing nationalism and hatred" and warned "against the approaching menace of fascism."3

Many students participating in the Wayne strike expressed strong support for pacificism. A group called the Wayne University Peace Strike Committee, which had helped launch the April 22 events on campus, announced their intent to use the occasion to collect student signatures for the so-called Oxford Oath. The Oath—a resolution passed by students at Oxford University in 1933 declaring their vow to refuse participation in any new world war—was taken up by many American college students in 1935 and 1936. The Committee's effort to commit Wayne students to the Oath immediately met with resistance from the Detroit Board of Education. Superintendent Frank Cody ordered that reciting the Oath was forbidden on school property.4

As this photo documents, students defied Cody's orders while gathered in Wayne's "Old Main" building.5 The image captures on the platform at left a student named Loula Martin, a first-year student at Wayne who was involved in the University Student Union. Standing atop a desk, Martin appears to address the crowd with passionate determination. The Free Press reported of the gathering, "As Miss Martin read the [Oxford Oath], phrase by phrase, the students repeated the words after her."6

In their support for the Oxford Oath, the Wayne State protestors reflected young American students' wariness of another world war—a conflict that would likely require them to risk their lives. At the same time, in their rejection of fascism, the demonstrators signaled strong support for democracy and equality. Three years later, when the German invasion of Poland began World War II, the tension between these convictions would for many American students put a commitment to the Oath into question. With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war in 1941, some would enlist to fight overseas and renounce the Oath entirely.

For more on strike, see another item in this collection, "Strike Against War!"

The ASU disbanded during the 1939–1940 academic year, after the German-Soviet Pact left its members clashing about the place of communism in the movement. For more on left-wing politics in the US before World War II, see Robert Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). For further reading on student activism during this period more generally, see Philip G. Altbach and Patti Peterson, "Before Berkeley: Historical Perspectives on American Student Activism" in the Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 395, no. 1 (May 1971): 1–14.

Colleges and Universities in New York City saw the greatest number of participants, but strikes took place across the country at institutions across the country, including Texas Christian University, Purdue University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Five hundred American universities were reported to have participated in the event. See "Half Million Demonstrate; Few Disorders Reported," Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1936, 1. 

"Students Take Anti-War Oath and Defy Cody," Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1936, 1. An estimated 60,000 students are reported to have taken the Oxford Oath in 1935. For more information, see Martin Ceadal, "The 'King and Country' Debate, 1933: Student Politics, Pacifism and the Dictators," The Historical Journal, vol. 22, no. 2 (June, 1979): 397–422.

"Students Take Anti-War Oath and Defy Cody," announced a headline in the Detroit Free Press the following day, noting that about 800 students participated in the day's event. Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1936, 1.

 

Despite the conflict between local officials and student organizers, the protest at Wayne was more peaceful than some that took place as part of the same nationwide event.  The Associated Press reported that the University of Kansas saw a "free-for-all fight break out when a tear gas bomb was set off" in the middle of a protest and Lawrence University in Wisconsin reported clashes between students and local police. "Half Million Demonstrate; Few Disorders Reported," Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1936, 1.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Wayne State University
External Website Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Date Created
April 22, 1936
Photographer / Creator
Detroit News
Location
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Still Image Type Photograph
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