To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Prof. Fellman recalls campus electricity during Vietnam era

Professor Gordon Fellman (SOC/PAX), better known as Gordie, is synonymous with activism on campus. For decades, he has urged students to take part in protests and campaigns and question normative structures.

A graduate of Antioch College and Harvard University, Fellman joined the Brandeis sociology department in 1964, just as the anti-Vietnam War movement was picking up. Just after signing on to teach at Brandeis, he first encountered Brandeis activism at an anti-Vietnam War march from Cambridge to the Waters on Arsenal. Seeing some Brandeis faculty marching along, he was impressed and excited to begin his new job. Prior to arriving at Brandeis, Fellman was a participant in the anti-Vietnam War movement but never a leader. He claims that he only began paying full attention to it in 1964 when the movement at Brandeis gained traction.

In 1965, the government began to draft students based on their grade point average. To challenge this and protest the draft, Fellman organized with other faculty members to inflate the grades of male students and keep them at Brandeis. “I was one of the major figures in the evening meetings to protest that,” Fellman explained. An account of the faculty’s scheme can be found in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” a book that explores the life of Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis sociology professor, written by Mitch Albom ’79. According to Fellman, at the time, the sociology department’s radicalism was outdone only by the math department’s, as hard as that may be to believe nowadays.

The most iconic moment of the era was the national student strike. In May of 1970, people descended on New Haven to protest what they thought was going to be the unfair trial of Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party. While there, some Brandeis faculty and students called a meeting in the Yale Chapel to discuss a possible strike against the war and other injustices.

“They were flabbergasted that hundreds of people came. Within hours they designed this whole thing,” Fellman said. The group drafted three demands, as documented in the Brandeis archives: that the government must release political prisoners, such as Black Panthers, that the government must immediately end the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia and that “universities end their complicity with the U.S. war machine” by cutting ties with the ROTC and Department of Defense-related research. To accomplish these ends, they called for a national student strike, which swept the country within days. Most notably, Brandeis acted as the headquarters.

“When the national strike happened, the faculty had this big meeting and decided to end the semester 10 days early, giving the students the choice to either finish work in courses or be graded on the work they did until then, understanding that a lot of students were going to spend full time organizing against the war,” Fellman explained. He expanded on the energy of the campus during those weeks. “You would just walk on campus and see people caught up in anti-war work. It was a sense of movement, something big, something important. In those days, it felt like the university was in the center of things. It wasn’t before, it wasn’t after that.”

During the strike, Fellman helped students with logistics, such as raising money for the enormous phone bill that they ran up as they called schools all over the nation to coordinate efforts, and also held a more activist role. He led teach-ins, which he described as distinct from contemporary ones.

“The original idea of a teach-in was that it would go on for six or eight or 10 hours … They went on for hours and hours and many people spoke. It was a major electric feeling in the air of community and urgency,” he reminisced. As the summer approached, students wanted to remain on campus to further their anti-war efforts, so Fellman acted as their faculty sponsor, pushing aside his initial summer plans and helping petition the administration to keep a residence hall open for the students.

More than 45 years later, Fellman reflected on this period in his life. “It does remain an extraordinarily exciting time in my life. It was just electric. There were things going on. People were experimenting with their political activism. It was meaningful, and it helped me see my role at Brandeis as kind of an informal activism counselor over the years. It’s fun. I like that. Part of what I do with my teaching is urge people to connect what they’re studying with their own lives and society.” He attributes Brandeis’ reputation of social justice to this era, including the student occupation of Ford Hall in 1969 that ultimately established the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Since the Vietnam War, Fellman has remained active on campus, participating in such movements as university divestment from Apartheid-era South Africa and climate change marches. Despite all of this, activism is far from the golden days of the 1960s and 1970s on campus. “It’s much tamer now. It’s not that Brandeis has changed so much but that society has changed. There’s nothing major going on in your generation… There’s nothing going on in larger society,” he lamented.

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