San Marcos Students' Protest Against Vietnam War Shaped Free Speech On Campuses For 50 Years
Fifty years ago, a group of students at Texas State University took a stand against the war in Vietnam. The students, nicknamed the San Marcos 10, faced serious consequences for that stand. Their example and the consequences that followed still echo across college campuses today.
The college reunion was an unusual one. Former students Michael Holman and Murray Rossenwasse squinted at grainy black and white photographs of themselves taken a half-century ago.
“I’m right here," Holman said. “I’m looking over at Murray thinking, 'who is that idiot?' ”
“I am right there," Rossenwasser said.
They both stared at a photograph showing them and eight others sitting crosslegged in the grass at Southwest Texas State University – now Texas State University. A mob surrounded them.
It started out as a silent demonstration against the Vietnam War. About 70 of the students sat in the grass and held signs that said “Peace”, “44,000 U.S. Dead, For What?” and “The Vietnam War is an Edsel.” This was not at all shocking for a college campus in 1969. Anti-war protests were common in the big cities.
But this particular protest took place in conservative Texas, and the college administration was not going to tolerate it. Officials gave the students three minutes to end the protest. All but ten obeyed. Those ten became the San Marcos 10, which included Sally Ann Satagaj.
“And then we were surrounded by kickers, by jocks," she remembered. "They shouted horrible things to us. 'Love it or leave it.' 'Kill us.' You know – horrible things.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The dean of students, Floyd Martine, warned the protesting students to disperse or they would be suspended from school. And that’s what happened to the San Marcos 10.
Holman remembered what happened next: “And then they came in and roped us off, and I’m going 'what?' Here all these people are screaming and yelling, and all these people are peaceful, and they rope us off? They were wrong. I said it then, and I’ll say it now, and I’ll continue to: They were wrong with what they did, and, by God, I’m glad I sat there and told them.”
The San Marcos 10 were suspended for the year and ordered to immediately clean out their dorm rooms.
But their fight wasn’t over yet, and it came at a tumultuous time in the U.S.
Richard Nixon was president of the United States: "In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse of not just South Vietnam but Southeast Asia, so we’re going to stay there.”
A week earlier, on Nov. 3, 1969, Nixon gave a primetime televised address about the war. Nixon had run for president promising to end the war. But on that night, instead of announcing an end to the war, he outlined his policy of “Vietnamization,” which meant continued fighting for Americans until they could hand over operations to the South Vietnamese.
“I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action," he said, "or we can persist in our search for a just peace.”
And Nixon also took aim at the anti-war protestors like the San Marcos 10. He said their demonstrations were prolonging the war by giving hope to the Communists that America would soon withdraw. And it was by uniting in support of the war that the U.S. could win it.
“And so tonight – to you – the great silent majority of my fellow Americans," he said. "I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we can win in the peace. I have enabled a plan of action that will allow me to keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed.”
Nixon’s speech added fuel to the antiwar protests across the nation and even across Texas – up I-35 at the University of Texas about 1,500 students gathered peacefully to hear antiwar speeches. At Texas Tech in Lubbock some students wore black arm bands. At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, students read a list of the 2,200 Texans who had died in Vietnam. It was only in San Marcos that students were suspended.
The San Marcos 10 challenged their suspensions in federal court on grounds that their right to free speech was violated.
E.R. Bills wrote the book The San Marcos 10: An Antiwar Protest in Texas. “They were like, 'We feel like we have a constitutional right [to free speech]," he explained. Bills says the ACLU agreed with them.
The court approved an injunction against the university, but it was appealed, and the case eventually ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the students lost.
The ruling from the highest court set a legal precedent that stands today. The legal standard is frequently cited in court battles across the nation about free speech. Schools and universities can place restrictions on the time, place and manner of free speech activities.
But despite the court defeat, Satagaj fondly remembers their fight, and she thinks it was a morally right expression of opposition.
“My father was in Vietnam," she said, "and I wrote him a letter the night before, and I said, 'I love you dad, and I love my country.' And he wrote me back immediately, and he said, 'I don’t really agree with your stance on Vietnam but I know the Constitution gives you the right, and I support you all the way.' ”
She said her father eventually admitted that she was right about opposing the war.
But the administration at Texas State University has never issued an apology to San Marcos 10.
David Martin Davies can be reached at DMDavies@TPR.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi.