Student protest T-shirt, 1969, Harvard University Archives
In April 1969 Harvard experienced a two-week period of student protests — including the takeover of a University administration building — over the Vietnam War and other political and social issues. This T-shirt and others like it, as well as protest posters, were printed by a group operating out of the Graduate School of Design called the Strike Artists’ Co-operative.
The shirts themselves were regular, everyday clothing — students brought their own to be printed, so some of them are pretty worn out. The silkscreen process used to print on the shirts is a lightweight, easy-to-use method. And the printing was done collectively, in the spirit of political and labor protest everywhere. The quick, handmade design is very much in the DIY spirit of the late ’60s — embodied in publications like the DIY-focused magazine Whole Earth Catalog — and is similar in style to ’60s art focused on social justice, like works by Corita Kent.
The T-shirts provide concrete evidence of the hurly-burly, spontaneous activism at Harvard, and in society more broadly, in the late 1960s. Specifically, these items reflect the turmoil of the late 1960s from the perspective of students and other participants in the protests. Several of the shirts were given to the Archives by students who protested at Harvard in 1969. Having kept the T-shirts for so many years, I assume they felt the protests represented an important part of their Harvard experience. For the Archives, these perspectives balance the perspective of University administrators, which are evident in the University records we also hold.
Today, any researcher can visit the Archives to see these items. Researchers might be interested in the history of student activism and protest, or graphic design in the 1960s. As the “social media” of their day, the T-shirts are one of the best reflections of the broader American culture during a time of political and social change.
—Robin McElheny, Associate University Archivist for Collections and Public Services