Keith Sprunger, professor of history at Bethel College from 1963 to 2001, spoke about student protests during the 1960s on Tuesday at Newton Public Library.
"The '60s began, in my memory, with President John Kennedy and the spirit of Camelot and then it descended into the more complex era of the Vietnam War, civil rights movements, the Beatles, assassinations, conspiracy theories, all kinds of social and educational reforms," Sprunger said. "And students all across the country joined something called the 'counterculture.'"
The decade was marked by the upswing of the hippie lifestyle, which encouraged casual clothing, long hair, free love and disrespect for "the establishment." It also saw a rise in advocation for civil rights.
In the early 1960s, delegations were sent down south from colleges to support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"At that time, we thought the problems were all somewhere else and were not aware of how many we had among ourselves," Sprunger said.
In 1967, a reporter from The New Yorker was sent to college campuses around Kansas to see what was happening with students in the middle of the country. At Bethel College, he learned of the Peace Club, a group of 20 to 30 Mennonite students who thought the war was immoral.
"He reported this was a real hotspot of antiwar activism," Sprunger said.
While the issues of racism, social justice and feminism were discussed, most protests at Bethel College were demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
"Some of this agitation at Bethel came from the Anabaptist Mennonite traditions of pacifism ... (and) the idea of religious freedom," Sprunger said.
In 1966, a "Repentance Walk and Mail" anti-Vietnam War protest planned to take place on Nov. 11 — Veteran's Day.
"The plan was to write the congressmen and then the whole group would march ... down Main Street and mail their letters at the Newton Post Office," Sprunger said. "This raised a certain amount of controversy and, at the request of Bethel College President Vernon Neufeld, the plan was changed to march only to the North Newton Post Office."
Around 90 people were involved in the event. Around 60 college students were involved, and The Newton Kansan reported at least one student from Wichita State University joined the walk.
"That was sort of the beginning of the larger launch of student protests at Bethel," Sprunger said. "The other ones had been somewhere off in the South, but this one brought it much closer into the community."
Another protest event that drew attention from national television and radio stations was Moratorium Day, held on Oct. 15, 1969. Beginning that day, a large bell was rung at four-second intervals for 12 hours. It took four straight days to complete a ring for each soldier who had died in Vietnam.
"This was followed by a march down to Wichita for an antiwar rally," Sprunger said.
Pictures and an article about the bell ringing were featured in the Oct. 24, 1969, issue of LIFE magazine.
Not all Bethel College students on campus were involved in the protests — in fact, some were barely involved in going to class.
"Young men could get a deferment of the draft if they were in college, so that helped to boost enrollment in those days," Sprunger said. "...Our classes of that era were a mixture with a conglomerate of very motivated students wanting a good education and getting ready for graduate school, activists wanting to be involved in protests and some very unmotivated kinds waiting out the draft."
This made for an "exciting and unnerving" atmosphere in the classrooms, Sprunger recalled, as students began to challenge teacher's authority and demanded more relevant classes.
"The students began to raise some uncomfortable questions about what was happening on campus," Sprunger said.
An academic revolution began as students fought for more power, viewing themselves as downtrodden and deserving of freedoms from their parents, churches, the college and the establishment.
Rules regarding dorm hours, dress codes, required chapel attendance and course requirements were brought into question. Sprunger recalled hearing of one act of rebellion where several young men sitting on the front row during chapel pulled out Playboy magazines to read during the service.
Orville Voth, who served as Bethel College's president after Neufeld, had firecrackers thrown at his door, found a dummy with a bloody dagger on his porch, received threatening phone calls and was told in messages his family should "watch out."
Sprunger later learned the FBI kept files on Bethel College, getting information from the Newton police chief, Harvey County sheriff and college informants. He gained access to the files through a Freedom of Information Act request, but they came with much of the specific data redacted.
"It was hard to tell whether these secret sources who were feeding information to the FBI were faculty, staff or students," Sprunger said.
As a result of the student's actions, some changes were made at Bethel College. Course evaluations were brought in and classes like African-American history were added.
Sprunger admitted those years made him more self-aware about what he said in class and he chose to spend more time encouraging classroom discussion.
"I think this was the most decisive decade in Bethel College history," Sprunger said. "It was never the same after all these things were scrambled into the story."