April 8, 1970
Abbie Hoffman, a self-proclaimed “cultural revolutionary,” told a crowd of 8,000 at Allen Field House on this day in KU history that a college degree was “useless” and that universities should be transformed into training grounds for revolutionaries. “People have really got to make up their minds that they are going to destroy the University,” Hoffman told his audience. “If they accept the students’ role, they accept the role of slave. The student is a ‘nigger.’”
Hoffman’s KU appearance coincided with a student strike protesting the Kansas Board of Regents’ decision not to promote associate law professor Lawrence Velvel, and acting professor of speech and drama Frederic Litto. Velvel and Litto had been the only two faculty members not promoted at a March 21 meeting of the Board. Velvel was turned down because of a speech he gave to protestors in February outside of Green Hall regarding the “Chicago 7” trial involving Abbie Hoffman. (The “Chicago 7” were on trial for instigating the riot outside the 1968 Democratic Convention which was seen on national television.) Litto had been denied promotion because of his involvement in an “obscene play” called Kaleidoscope of the American Dream, which he had directed in Europe.
Free speech was one of the casualties of the existing order, Hoffman said, using Velvel as an example of what can happen when one exercises free speech. “The first thing a dying dinosaur empire does is to try to devour its young,” he said, “America is a dying empire and its institutions are crumbling.” The students’ role was to give the established order “the kinds of dilemmas that it can’t deal with,” instructed Hoffman. “We are living for the revolution and dying for it,” he added.
Hoffman told students to get behind leaders such as Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor who advised people to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” after discovering the mystical effects of LSD. He also praised Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panther movement, as one of the fighters for renewed political representation in the country. Regarding the Chicago 7 trial, in which Hoffman was charged with inciting to riot, he said, “They lost too much blood in the trial not to extract some from us.” The more irreverent in the crowd were pleased when Hoffman blew his nose on an American flag. However, he became indignant when a member of the Black Student Union questioned his support for the Black Panther Party. Hoffman told the questioner that he had not come to KU to be put on a guilt trip. Then, demonstrating his own limited capacity for tolerating dissent, Hoffman grabbed his jacket, and announced, “This place is a drag; I’m going to Dallas,” and promptly walked out.
Earlier in the day, Hoffman had met students at Potter Lake where student strikers were holding a “pleasure fair.” The fair followed a rally for Velvel and Litto at Strong Hall in which David Awbry, student body president, and Bill Ebert, student body president-elect called for the Regents to promote the two professors. The “pleasure fair” was to feature a rock band and a “nude-in.” The nude-in did not happen, but Hoffman’s arrival seemed to make up for it, at least as far as KU students were concerned. Hoffman may have felt differently. The laid-back atmosphere and attitude of the “strikers” led Hoffman to wonder whether the event was the “Marshmallow Strike.”
Abbie Hoffman was a native of Worcester, Massachusetts and graduate of Brandeis University. While at Brandeis he was influenced by the ideas of Herbert Marcuse and Abraham Maslow. One journalist and co-conspirator, Al Giordano, wrote that as a Jewish man, Hoffman wanted to be part of the tradition of great Jewish thinkers like Marx, Freud, and Einstein. He began his radical career as a civil rights activist in the South, registering black voters in Mississippi in 1964. As the Vietnam War heated up, he became involved in the struggle against that conflict, and in 1968 told his followers to go to Chicago for a “Festival of Life” to counteract the Democratic Party’s “Convention of Death.” It was there that Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and five others led a protest that began peacefully but turned violent when police moved in because protestors failed to observe the 11:00 p.m. curfew hour. America watched the proceedings as the Chicago Police, by order of Mayor Richard Daley, seemed to tear gas and club the protestors indiscriminately and unmercifully on national television. Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation) found the “Chicago 7” guilty of inciting to riot, a conviction overturned on appeal.
Hoffman went underground for a number of years after a drug trafficking conviction before finally turning himself in. He served a year and half in prison and was paroled to a new life “above ground” in 1982. He continued to be politically active in the 1980s, protesting the CIA’s recruitment of college students on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He struggled also against polluters in the Delaware River Valley and the Great Lakes. His 1987 book, Steal This Urine Test, told of ways to combat the “bladder cops.” Hoffman had two children from his first marriage and one from his second. He committed suicide by taking barbiturates in April of 1989.
Department of History
University of Kansas