It was like a trip in a time tunnel.
I stood near the fountain at Arizona State last Friday as students demonstrated against racism on the campus.
The sun was hot enough to drive you into the pavement. The crowd wasn't large. Given the obscene actions of the campus police, that should be part of the story.
Apathy, however, seems to be a major field of study at Arizona State.
The demonstrators carried signs. A few students chanted. This was actually pretty low-key stuff.
But most important, the television cameras were there. That saved the day.
Demonstrations always look a hundred times bigger on the evening news.
And unfavorable television coverage is the last thing Dr. J. Russell Nelson, ASU's outgoing president, wants at this time.
Nelson sent over his prize gofer, former General Frank Sackton, who actually wore a pith helmet when he addressed the students.
Former General Sackton told the students that he was against racism, too. So, he might have added, is P.W. Botha.
Dr. Nelson's strategy was to diffuse the issue. Promise to "study" any demands if it will get the black students off the streets. After all, he never expects to seriously entertain any of the demands.
Do you actually think the Board of Regents would allow any student to be expelled for racist activities?
Not in Arizona. My God, this is the state where the legislature is so dimwitted it can't perceive it's time to pass a Martin Luther King holiday bill.
Yes, the primary thing was to get those sign-waving black students off the television screens.
Let's forget the ugliness on ASU's fraternity row. Everyone else is more than willing to do that, too.
Suppose we do have a campus police department that arrests and handcuffs the victims? Forget about it. This is ASU. Strange things happen.
Here in Arizona, we elected Evan Mecham, a man who thought it was just fine to call people "pickaninnies." Why shouldn't we approve when the brothers at Sigma Alpha Epsilon decide it's only college high jinks to spit on fellow black students and call them "coons" and "niggers"? Driving over to Tempe, I heard Dr. Nelson on the Pat McMahon talk show on KTAR.
Someone called to tell Dr. Nelson he was leaving a legacy of racism at ASU.
Nelson remained unruffled and, as always, oleaginous. He replied that racism was "antithetical" to the mission of Arizona State.
Clearly, it's Dr. Nelson who is antithetical.
He stands in unequivocal opposition to what should be the mission of Arizona State. And he has since the day he arrived eight years ago.
There are many things wrong at Arizona State. Nelson hasn't done a single thing during his tenure to change any of them.
It remains a huge, amorphous campus without energy or soul. The center cannot hold in such a place. It is a chunk of geography upon which contractors friendly to the legislature continue to pour more and more concrete.
They put it into varying shapes and forms. Skyboxes here. Classrooms over there. A separate building containing weightlifting rooms for the football players over there. The grass continues to disappear.
The buildings themselves do not bring about education.
But teachers are not very highly regarded at a school where they buy the football coach a $75,000 golf membership at the Phoenix Country Club.
There can be no real educational purpose to such a university.
This is a place as deeply devoted to television and radio contracts for sports events as other institutions are to the pursuit of the Nobel Prize.
The operation of the stadium as a home for a professional football team and for the benefit of the Fiesta Bowl takes more synergistic energy than the development of Rhodes scholars.
Arizona State is a place where sports events are held. It is not a citadel of learning.
There is no way the inmates of such an institution could have a real demonstration about racial problems. It is not a proper subject for concern.
The administration caring about black students is limited. It extends only as far as blacks can excel on the playing fields.
Nelson's hands are not clean in this matter. Certainly he is not alone.
If Nelson has nothing to hide, he can settle it this very day. ASU's million- dollar computer system could spit it out within minutes.
He could publish a list of the black players recruited in the last ten years. He could show us what courses they took. He could list the names of all who have been granted college degrees. He might possibly attempt to explain how several black athletes left school after four years of play and were still unable to read and write.
Finally, there's a delicious irony.
It's only fitting to recognize the school's true mission by making Herman Chanen, the state's largest producer of concrete, president of the board of regents.
Chanen came down to the student union late Friday, along with Nelson, to meet with the black students.
Chanen must have thought he was visiting a construction site.
As a young reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I was assigned to cover a series of marches the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. made in Chicago during the early 1960s.
It was a big story. But the Tribune sent the newer staff members only because the veterans were committed to the proposition that blacks must be kept in their place.
If you wrote a story that wasn't slanted against Dr. King and the demonstrators, you were looked upon as some "liberal idiot pinko" who was not only a gullible reporter but probably un-American as well.
I remember that King's march on Washington came a little later. The Tribune sent a reporter on the train with a Chicago delegation to hear Dr. King give his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The story ran on page one, but from then on the reporter who covered it was ostracized by the veterans on the staff.
"He sounds like one of them" was the indictment against him.
The reporter left the paper within a year. I never heard anything about him again.
In those days, covering those marches with Dr. King was so exciting that it created energy within you. No march was too far because you never knew what marvelous thing would happen in the next block.
There was the day that perhaps 10,000 marched on Chicago's City Hall for a meeting with Mayor Richard J. Daley.
When Dr. King reached City Hall on the LaSalle Street side, he found the door to City Hall locked. Mayor Daley had left for the day.
I still remember the sick feeling I felt in my stomach when Dr. King was hit with a brick during another march.
But even more than that I remember several short talks he gave inside black churches. His message seemed so reasonable. I think that even ex-Governor Mecham might have understood. But the event that shocked everyone into action in those days didn't come until the police moved on Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers.
Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death in their apartment by state's attorney police on December 4, 1969.
The cops' story was that they had come to the apartment at 3 a.m. to serve a warrant. They said hundreds of shots were fired by the Panthers.
Not until later did we learn that all of the bullets except two were fired by the police from the outside and that Hampton was actually asleep when he was shot to death.
Bobby Rush was the minister of defense for the Panthers. He escaped death that night but went into hiding.
Some time after Hampton's murder, I ran into Rush again.
He had succeeded Hampton as the leader of the Black Panthers.
Rush told me that the biggest tragedy of Hampton's death was that he had the potential to become such a great leader. Hampton was only 21 when he died, but even then he was a charismatic speaker.
I asked Rush what the Panthers were doing. Rush said that they were working at voter registration.
"We want to gain the power to throw the `corrupticians' out," he said.
He then said something I've always remembered.
"You know," he said, "Daley is the same as us. He started out with the Hamburg A.C., which was nothing but a street gang. He understands the energy and determination of people who are oppressed because he's Irish and he was oppressed, too, when he was young." Bobby Rush, of course, kept working with black voters. He is now a Chicago alderman who has a strong following.
Several years ago he helped elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago.