“The student today is not the carefree, frivolous young person of yesterday’s college novels, and decisively he is not the acquisitive careerist we bemoaned as members of the silent and apathetic generation. Today’s student is a serious-minded, independent-thinking individual who seeks to analyze and understand the problems of our society, and find solutions to these problems which are in keeping with the highest traditions and values of our democratic system. … Today’s student is now recognized as a significant political actor with amazing power to influence the course of societies all over the world.”
— Coretta Scott King, Harvard Class Day speech, 1968
The 1960s were a decade of sweeping social and political change for the United States, and nowhere was that more evident than on its college campuses. From Civil Rights protests and the women’s movement to the Vietnam War, student activism played a major part in bringing about change, galvanizing people on campus and rippling outward to the country at large.
For the Harvard and Radcliffe Classes of 1968, the changes between 1964 and 1968 came sharp and fast, bookended by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy ’40 in 1963, and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy ’48 in 1968.
King, the first Class Day speaker invited by students, never made it to campus. He was assassinated on April 4, prompting the Class of ’68 to invite his widow, Coretta Scott King, to speak in his place. In remarks that seem as prescient today as they were then, she focused on the importance of actively participating in society and standing up for values, and the power of change.
The method of choosing a Class Day speaker wasn’t the only change to graduation-related festivities. Breaking with Seven Sisters tradition, Radcliffe students refused to attend graduation — one of the last held in the Radcliffe Yard — unless they had a student speaker of their own.
“It could have been a dozen other people,” said Rachel “Ricki” Lieberman ’68, who was selected by her classmates to address graduates that year. “We came into a Radcliffe that was parietals and jolly up. When we left, Radcliffe was battling toward being co-ed, and that represented a sea change. We [wanted] a student speaker to address some of the tumult, angst, and danger of that period.”