These Panty-Seeking College Boys Lit the Fuse on the 1960s 50 Years Ago This Week

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May 9 2013 4:20 PM

The Guerrilla Skirmishes of the Sexual Revolution

Fifty years ago this week, panty-seeking college boys lit the fuse on the 1960s.

The front page of the The Daily Princetonian
The front page of the the Daily Princetonian, May 7, 1963

Courtesy of the Daily Princetonian

The Spring Riot of 1963 flashed across cultural history like a pyrotechnic burst of wanton Americana. It lit on the campus of Princeton University on the first Monday in May and blazed up the Northeast Corridor, peaking in intensity on May 10 at New Haven where the boys exchanged beatings with the cops. For months thereafter, its smoldering wreckage filled sensational space in the national press as tens of millions of adults opened their morning papers to confront a generation gap and a moral panic. Old schools shivered in a cold sweat of spring fever—a case of student protest gone viral.  Viewed in retrospect 50 years on, the Spring Riot of 1963 is a pivotal event, a violent insurrection, a preview of coming destructions. But the men and women who in later years occupied Hamilton Hall or picketed Dow Chemical in Madison or died at Kent State were bona fide student demonstrators. The boys who in 1963 roughed up some pretty campuses were rebels with a cause unmentionable in polite company. The student rioters of ’63 demonstrated the temper of the times, unconsciously fighting a guerilla skirmish in the sexual revolution.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

That first Monday in May, the 6, followed Houseparties, Princeton’s annual spring formal, where, four decades earlier, when former student Scott Fitzgerald was at his hottest, he and Zelda had shown up as “chaperones,” brawling and cartwheeling. The women imported as dates for a weekend of booze and noise had returned to Smith or Sarah Lawrence or the Main Line or wherever, and the undergraduate campus reawakened to fairly dull life in a superlatively dull town in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey, under the in loco parentis supervision of an administration that never let you take the car out. The campus of Princeton had imbalanced hormones that Monday when the Spring Riot of 1963 began, around 10:30 p.m., as a small bit of study-break tomfoolery. That opening chapter ended two and a half hours later, after the crowd had peaked at an estimated 1,500, and after failed missions to gather lingerie from women boarding at both a nearby choir college and at Miss Fine’s, a prep school. Final tally: Tens of thousands of dollars in property damage, 644 marks on permanent records, 47 suspensions, 14 arrests, 13 convictions.

And then the thing leapt. That week, Students at Harvard, Columbia, and Brandeis made efforts at sympathy riots, but these never amounted to much more than half of the student body wandering around after curfew in a futile search for trouble (unless you count the May 19 aftershock initiated by Radcliffe women roaming Cambridge in search of jockstraps).

In Providence, R.I., and New Haven, Conn., the native spirits were more restless. One night that week at Brown, a frat boy accidentally broke a window with a softball, then his peers very intentionally broke some more, setting a tone for the next five hours. In pursuit of women’s underwear, members of a mob of 1,500 approached women’s residences at Pembroke College and at RISD, and the cops weren’t having it—15 arrests, nine police dogs.

At Yale, as many as 2,000 boys picked up the same act early on May 10, with the New York Times reporting:     

“This morning, soon after midnight, freshmen left Vanderbilt Hall and began shouting on the campus. Upper classmen joined in, and the students marched in the streets toward Helen Hadley Hall, Yale’s only dormitory for women. They found the police barring all approaches to the dormitory.”

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But to get the full effect of the moment, you had to pick up the Herald Tribune, which was not too decorous to report the marchers’ chant, “We want sex! We want sex!” Turned away at Hadley Hall, the boys regrouped, went downtown, and engaged in melee with police that produced 17 arrests and put significant mileage on at least 50 billy clubs.

That following Sunday, the Times editorial page greeted the Princeton riot with an entitled chuckle. Merely amused, the editorial, headlined “Elementary Rioting I”, boasted with “nostalgic pride” of the havoc wrought by “greying veterans” of the campus mayhem scene. The Times suggested that colleges develop curricula for how-to-riot classes “to run for one week every spring on every American campus. Those who flunk the course would be required to repeat, annually.”

Meanwhile, the relevant editorial in the Herald Tribune headlined the riot as “Sleazy Kid Stuff,” joining the populist indignation expressed by Hearst columnist Bob Considine: “These bums should have been locked up and booted out of school. If 1,500 Puerto Ricans had run similarly berserk in New York … the full weight of the law would have clobbered them.” However, elsewhere the Herald Tribune shared the Times’ regal indifference. The reporter who transcribed the we-want-sex detail compared the Yale event against New Haven’s history of wanton rampages and declared himself unimpressed.

The man from the Herald Tribune did not see that the energetic brutality of the Spring Riot was different in kind and in context than its predecessors. In a world that was going electric and egalitarian, a youth culture was finding its voice, and challenging an establishment with bodily force, using the rhetoric of the old-school boys-will-be-boys prank. Which was rather an ill fit when contrasted with the news from Birmingham, Ala., of the disenfranchised being attacked for praying in the street. Witness the Daily Princetonian’s headline about the conclusion of the Spring Riot—“Yale Riot Marred By Police Brutality,” as if the cops had spoiled all the fun by preventing total chaos.

It first struck me as odd that the Herald Tribune reporter missed the mark, because his byline read Tom Wolfe. But that was a long time ago, and there weren’t yet any Tom Wolfe books to guide him through the strange rearrangements of American society in the 1960s. The Spring Riot of ‘63 was a freak footnote in the histories of co-education and the sexual revolution, of the Establishment and its bourgeois manners, of public assembly and private social life.

***

To follow the all-American tradition of the panty raid back to its deepest origins would require detailed reference to pagan fertility rituals. Let’s instead pick up its pre-history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 1920s, where a “Spring Riot” was an annual event that “broke out spontaneously on one of the first warm evenings.” Among other horseplay, the boys would invade the girls’ residences, asking for underwear. The classic imagery finds co-eds cramming sorority-house balconies and dorm-room windows, raining their silken scanties upon crew-cut heads, along with occasional water balloons, and sometimes a potted plant. The administration at Illinois tolerated this gentle mayhem as a healthy expression of vernal exuberance. 

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