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How the Peace Corps began at the University of Michigan

October 14, 2015
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When the Peace Corps announced on Oct. 14 that applications to serve in the organization hit a 40-year high in the past fiscal year, it decided to share the big news on the steps of the Michigan Union. Attending the event was U-M alumnus Al Guskin, who gave a speech explaining why the venue was so special to the Peace Corps. Here is Guskin’s address: 

On Oct. 13, 1960, I was a 23-year-old third year PhD student in the social psychology program here at the University of Michigan. Everything changed at 2 a.m. the next morning. It was an event that changed my life, the lives of over 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers and maybe even the nation.

Al Guskin

Al Guskin

For on this day at 2 a.m. 55 years ago, then Senator John F. Kennedy spoke to the 10,000 students who had waited hours to hear him speak. His staff had told the media people that nothing important would happen that night, and they went to sleep. No speech was prepared. The election was three and a half weeks away.

Kennedy had come to the Michigan Union to get a few hours of sleep and start a one-day whistle stop train tour of the state of Michigan the next day. He had flown from New York, where he had finished the third nationally televised debate with Richard Nixon .

There was a slight drizzle as Kennedy faced the crowd, extended his arm, pointed and challenged us with the words:

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: How many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

It was a short three-minute speech, but it electrified the students. Kennedy himself is reported to have said that the speech “hit a winning number.”

Four days later on Oct. 18, Chester Bowles, Kennedy’s foreign policy advisor, spoke to an overflow crowd in the Union ballroom.  Bowles gave the impression that he did not know what Kennedy had said four days earlier.  At the end of his talk in a question-and-answer period, a student asked him what he thought about Kennedy’s challenge about young people serving overseas and helping people in developing nations. Bowles then told us about his son and daughter-in-law who were working in such an assignment in Africa.

Making Kennedy’s challenge such a concrete reality triggered something deep inside me and my former wife, Judy. I turned to one of my former students (I was a teaching fellow the previous year) and asked what she thought. She was as excited as we were.

Judy and I went out to eat dinner in a restaurant on South University and wrote a letter on a napkin to the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, challenging our fellow students to commit to meeting Kennedy’s challenge. We typed it up and I remember handing the letter to the Daily’s editor, Tom Hayden, who promised he would publish it.

We were told the letter would appear in the Daily on Oct 21.

The night before the letter came out, we invited a number of friends and former students to discuss the formation of a group to respond to Kennedy’s challenge.

We formed a group that organized events on campus at which hundreds of students and some faculty and staff attended. We developed materials on what such an overseas volunteer service would mean in developing nations and, probably most importantly, we collected signatures on a petition for those who were committing themselves to serve. About 1,000 did so. The campus seemed to be energized almost overnight. The Daily assigned a reporter to cover all of our many activities, some of which were then republished in one form or another in university student newspapers throughout the state of Michigan.

Al Guskin, a U-M alumnus who helped create the Peace Corps.

Al Guskin revisits the steps of the Michigan Union.

Kennedy’s campaign manager in Michigan, Millie Jeffrey, heard about what we were doing and asked for our materials to send them to Kennedy’s aides and speech writers. One rejected it as not political enough, but Millie Jeffrey persisted and Ted Sorenson and Harris Wofford were said to be major supporters and told Kennedy.  Kennedy was taken with the idea, the fact that students had responded to his challenge, and told them to include a commitment to a Peace Corps in his upcoming foreign policy speech.

On the night of Nov. 2, 1960, six days before the election, Kennedy gave a major foreign policy address in San Francisco in which he committed himself to the creation of the Peace Corps.  In that speech he stated:

“For this nation is full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way…I have met them on campaigns across the country.  When I suggested at the University of Michigan, lately, that we needed young men and women willing to give up a few years to serve their country in this fashion, the students proposed a new organization to promote such an effort.”

Earlier in the day, on Nov. 2, Millie Jeffrey called Judy and me at our apartment on Geddes Street, told us about the speech and said the Senator would like to meet you early tomorrow morning at the Toledo airport where he will be arriving for a campaign speech.

On Nov. 3, myself, Judy and the other members of the leadership of our group traveled in three cars to Toledo and met and talked with Kennedy. The only press present was the Michigan Daily. Kennedy it seems just wanted to meet us.

Many observers agreed with what the founding director of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver wrote in his memoirs:

“It might still be just an idea, but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty…Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature.  That probably would have ended it then and there.  Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”

On Nov. 8, 1960, Kennedy was elected president by 120,000 votes, one of the slimmest margins in US history —  25 days after his Michigan speech.

Some observers state that Kennedy’s commitment to the Peace Corps may have been important in his election.

It still amazes me today 55 years later that it took only about three weeks for the students at the University of Michigan to influence a future president to commit himself to the creation of the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps was officially created on March 1, 1961, and the first group went into service in late summer of 1961. Judy and I became Peace Corps Volunteers in October 1961 and served until 1964 with the first group to go to Thailand, which received its training at the University of Michigan.

But the question remains: Why did the students respond the way we did?  Why did Tom Hayden, who was the editor in chief of the Michigan Daily, respond so quickly to support this new student group led by graduate students he had never heard from before. Why did Millie Jeffrey respond the way she did?  Why did students on other campuses in Michigan react so enthusiastically to what was happening on the University of Michigan campus? And how could all of this have happened so quickly?

Like everything in life context is critical.

Let me take you back to 1960.

The students of the 1950s were said to be uninterested in any active political or organizational action. We were said to be the quiet generation.

But on Feb. 1, 1960, in the city of Greensboro, N.C., four freshman students from North Carolina A&T College –a historically black college — decided they would sit-in at the lunch counter in the downtown Woolworth store and would not leave until they were served. Influenced by earlier events and speeches, especially by Martin Luther King Jr., and the actions of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Alabama Bus boycott as well as the idea of non-violence action advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, they had enough of not being able to sit and be served in restaurants. They and their fellow students continued the sit in for months.

But this was not to be a local sit-in. From Greensboro the student sit-in movement spread like wildfire led by students at scores of black colleges throughout the South and captured the imagination of young people and adults throughout the country. In Ann Arbor in the spring of 1960, students demonstrated down State Street in support of the sit-ins and picketed the local Kresge store which had the same national policies as the Woolworth lunch counters.

At the same time, Tom Hayden was writing editorials in the Michigan Daily about the need for students to be more active, reminding students of the Greensboro sit-in and the actions of students on other campuses. And Sharon Jeffrey — the daughter of Millie Jeffrey, Kennedy’s Michigan campaign manager — was a student activist on the Michigan campus. She was also instrumental in keeping her mother informed of how students were responding to Kennedy.

It should also be noted that most faculty and administrators at the University were very supportive of our efforts.

Along with the Ann Arbor and national movements, there was the growing role that young African leaders were playing in independence movements against European colonial control of their countries.

Indeed, the torch was being passed to a new generation and in the U.S., this was particularly emphasized in the presidential campaign of a young inspiring president and the civil rights movement.

The role of the students at the University of Michigan in the creation of the Peace Corps is a wonderful and important story but it would not have happened, I believe, without those four courageous students in Greensboro, N.C., who decided that they were going to change the society in which they lived.

I am indeed proud of what the students at the University of Michigan did in October 1960 in stimulating the creation of the Peace Corps.  We did choose to make a difference.  We did feel we part of the passing of the torch to a new generation, and we did choose to serve.

But who would have thought that four freshman students at North Carolina A&T College would have been a major force in the civil rights movement.  And who would have thought that a few students at the University of Michigan could in three weeks influence a president to create a Peace Corps.  But the reality is that many significant changes begin this way—people who want to make a difference and have the courage to act.

To quote anthropologist Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I never doubt that a small group can change the world.  But the key to success is not giving up. The key is perseverance in the face of opposition.

Kennedy challenged the Michigan students in 1960 and the students responded and persevered.  This is why there is a Peace Corps.

Guskin is a president emeritus at Antioch University. 


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