On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Americans turned on the TV news and were stunned to see Alabama police in Selma, brutalizing peaceful black marchers who were demanding the right to vote. Coincidentally, KGO had scheduled a showing later that night of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” an Academy Award winning film which featured old newsreel footage of Nazi police behaving much like their colleagues in Alabama. Bloody Sunday shattered many illusions about the myth of American exceptionalism as our Disney-fied image of democracy and equality disappeared in the tear gas and bullwhips of Selma. This wasn’t new, but television made it real for the people who weren’t there.
Within days of the attack in Alabama, 10,000 people marched down Market Street in San Francisco in solidarity with the Selma marchers. I was a monitor on that march, and I was also a graduate student at USF.
In stark contrast to the emergent student activism for justice at Berkeley and San Francisco State, USF stood firm as a fortress of conformism, with its compulsory ROTC, political theory classes mired in Aquinas, and international relations courses soaked in Cold War paranoia. The chief enforcer of the values of this ancien regime was the Dean of Students, the Rev. John Lo Schiavo.
Not long after we marched on Market Street, a small group of us attempted to open a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on campus. SNCC students did the major organizing for voter registration in the South, so we thought it was a more appropriate student political organization than the stale Young Republican and Young Democrat clubs. We even offered the administration something more palatable for them, “Friends of SNCC.”
Our request was denied by Rev. Lo Schiavo, ever a dedicated servant to and staunch defender of the established order. And now—fifty years after Selma–there’s a Lo Schiavo Center for Science and Innovation on campus. As a friend of mine noted, “It seems like institutions are always naming buildings after people on the wrong side of history.”
Rev. Lo Schiavo was just one of many reasons for the tepid response of USF students to the moral crises of that critical decade a half century ago.