Muhhammad Ali in 1969

Muhammad Ali speaking at the University of Arkansas, February 1969. From the University Relations Collections in Special Collections, University Libraries. 

1969 was a pivotal year of change at the University of Arkansas just as it was across the country. Exploring student publications from that year allows us a peek into the experience on campus, and how debates playing out on headlines nationwide happened among the students and faculty in Fayetteville. That summer fifty years ago saw the peak of the counterculture in the United States. Across the country, the civil rights movement transitioned into the Black Power struggle. June 28-29 the Stonewall riots in New York City became the first landmark in the emerging gay rights movement. Protests over the Vietnam War spread across the country, more often becoming militant as both anti and pro military sentiments flared into public conflict. Meanwhile, the Hippies had just passed the moment of their strongest cultural influence, two years after the Summer of Love and just before Woodstock, and the calamitous events of Altamont later in the year.

Through student publications and the history activities on campus evidence the cultural upheaval and social change can still be seen all these decades later. The University campus in Fayetteville experienced a remarkable year in 1969. Muhammad Ali appeared as the featured speaker during the student-run speaker series, the University of Arkansas Symposium in February. The state’s political leaders both sought ways to bar Ali, under indictment for refusing the draft, from speaking and defending the appearance as an example of the free speech the public university should serve to showcase. Dan Durning published a reflection on Ali’s visit and public outcry surrounding it on Eclectic at Best  in 2016. The Arkansas Traveler reported on the pressure to cancel the appearance and President Dan Mullins’ support of the student group who invited him to campus as the events unfolded. The newly formed African American student organization Black Americans for Democracy was one of the advocates for for inviting Ali to campus. Founded after the failure of campus student journalists to adequately report the assassination of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the year before, Black Americans for Democracy began planning celebrations of Black issues and culture through the Black Emphasis Week, as well as preparing for an alternative student publication, the BAD Times, that appeared on campus in 1971. All of the issues of BAD Times are available from the the University Libraries’ digital collections. Over the span of several pages reporting the commemoration Dr. King’s death (unlike the previous year) and the efforts to raise civil rights and Black awareness on campus during the spring of 1969, the Razorback engaged in some humorous editorializing. it also provided this thoughtful reflection on Ali’s appearance: Despite the controversy that had swelled around him, and the resolutions and counter-resolutions, Muhammad’s actual visit was very amiable. When Ali spoke none were incited to loot or burn as some of the protectors of the faith had feared. In a soft voice he advocated nonviolence and a separate nation for blacks, and gave students a clear conception of black power.

Razorback on Dr. King.

Two page spread featuring remembrance of Dr. King and growing Black awareness on campus also features some tongue-in-cheek captions.

The appearance was reported of course in student publications such as the Arkansas Traveler. The 1969 Razorback yearbook includes images of the event, along with some curious editorial framing. Later in the Spring semester of 1969 an antiwar protester climbed the cypress tree in front of the student union, now Memorial Hall. Onlookers from the largely conservative and historically pro-military student body mocked the protest, which is evident in the 1969 yearbook. The Razorbacks are now available online through partnership between the Libraries’ University Archives and the non-profit resource archive.org.

Spring 1969 tree protest

1969 Razorback yearbook spread featuring the controversy around anti-Vietnam War protester, Stephen Pollard, who staged a sit-in in the cypress tree in front of the Memorial Student Union, April 15-18.

Even still, supporters rallied around the cause. The young poets showing Ginsberg around campus took him to the union for refreshments then made sure to point out the tree where the sit-in had happened. Allen Ginsberg visited Fayetteville and other spots in northwest Arkansas May 3-5, 1969 at the invitation of John Wood, a graduate student in the creative writing program. Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky visited Fayetteville to give a reading at the University. Little record exists of Ginsberg ever having visited Arkansas before, although he had included the state in his 1956, culture-altering masterpiece, Howl: “….who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull…. Wood had corresponded with the famous poet for years, and Ginsberg wrote the introduction to Wood’s 1968 fine press collection of poems, Orbs. The brief collection was printed by Harold Sawyder at Arkansas State College (now University) where Wood was an undergraduate. Although he later felt embarrassed by his early poems, the book itself contains stunningly beautiful woodcuts. Special Collections is fortunate to have one of the 50 copies made.

Poem by John S. Wood

The poem, “The Muse of the Warmth” by John S. Wood, as published with custom woodcuts in a fine press edition by Harold Sawyder at Arkansas State University in 1968.

“There’s more news of reality than can be found in wire services,” Ginsberg said of “the glimmers of natural consciousness” he saw rising with Wood as a representative of his state at that moment in time. He was generous in his review, as Wood readily admits. When given the chance in person, the great poet suggested to the young Arkansan that he write about the place and culture he came from, that he relay the conversations of his remarkable–and shockingly ribauld–grandmother, instead of playing with European tropes and pretensions of modernist sophistication.

Ginsberg introduction for Orbs

Allen Ginsberg’s introduction for John S. Woods’ collection Orbs in 1968.

In 2011 John Wood published the journal he kept while hosting his idol in American Poetry Review as “With Allen in Arkansas: An Ozark Diary.” Wood also provided a digital version of his journal of meeting Ginsberg through a series of blog entries, including intimate pictures of Ginsberg meeting friends and fellow poets in the Fayetteville area and traveling. Along with describing delightful encounters between Allen, Orlovsky, and a variety of Arkansas characters, including Wood’s parents and grandparents, the diary recounts the charismatic poet visiting locations on campus and in Fayetteville, interacting with students and faculty, just as the campus was experiencing negotiations between students and administrators over the playing of “Dixie” at football games, anti-war protests, and the emergence of a vibrant community of poets as the creative program began to gain national attention. Ginsberg’s hosts included faculty and graduate students such as Bob Ross, Paul Lubenkov, Jim Whitehead, Leon Stokesbury, Jack Butler. One featured stop was over in Eureka Springs to visit the 65-foot Christ of the Ozarks monument, erected just a few years before by Gerald L.K. Smith, a noted promoter and anti-semitic activist,  as part of his efforts to create a conservative Christian tourist destination in the region.

Ginsberg in Eureka Springs.

Published by John Wood with his journal of hosting Allen Ginsberg in Fayetteville. Poets visiting the Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, from left to right: Sandra Wood, John Wood, Frank Stanford, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lynnice Butler, Jack Butler.

Ginsberg’s reading on campus and visit to Fayetteville didn’t warrant a headline in the Traveler. The paper did run a picture of the “nationally known poet” with a caption with the date and time of his appearance a day ahead of time. The University Libraries are currently digitizing all of the Arkansas Travelers, which anyone can access to read about what life was like for Razorbacks over more than a century. The day that Ginsberg was to speak, an article titled “Swinging ‘69 Party at Fair Grounds” ran. The Gaebale, campus-wide Greek party began with the band The Merging Traffic, opposite Ginsberg. The featured act, Steppenwolf was appearing at the Fieldhouse the next day, and the “annual carnival” all day on May 3rd after the concert. Over the objections of his hosts, Ginsberg insisted on attending. He was warmly greeted with hugs, handshakes, and lots of beer by the fraternity party goers, much to amazement of Wood and the other poets, who fully expected hostility, especially in the wake of Ginsberg outing himself as homosexual in a recent issue of Playboy.

Ginsberg picture in Traveler

Allen Ginsberg image in the May 1, 1969, issue of the Arkansas Traveler student newspaper.

The 1969 Razorback includes lots of photos of the alcohol-fueled Gaebale festivities, including shots of Steppenwolf in concert. (They released their best known song “Born to be Wild” in 1968, but it appeared in the iconic counterculture film Easy Rider in 1969, which was heavily advertised in the Arkansas Traveler.) There is no mention of Ginsberg’s appearance. As 1969 wore on, both on the University of Arkansas campus and across the country, the social spectacles and confrontations seemed both larger and more dire. Woodstock brought more than 400,000 hippies and counterculture youth together in a farm field in New York State for three days of peace, love, and music. Then at the Altamont concert in California December 6, 1969, when the Rolling Stones tried to have a larger and freer festival than even Woodstock, the craziness turned violent as Hell’s Angels acting as security attacked concert goers, killing one, marking an ugly end to the decade’s music scene. That same day, December 6th, Fayetteville would find itself host to the “Game of the Century” between the top-ranked football teams in the nation. That game would take place only after months of civil rights and self-expression protests on campus centered on the issue of the playing of “Dixie.” The changes on campus in Fall 1969 is the subject of part two.