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Alums' documentary revisits the 1969 Straight takeover

By: Beth Saulnier,  Cornell Alumni Magazine
November 28, 2016

It was a meta moment. In September, a documentary film about the Willard Straight Hall takeover played at Cornell Cinema—in Willard Straight Hall.

The hour-long film, Agents of Change, explores the events of April 1969, when African American students occupied the Straight—eventually arming themselves with smuggled-in guns after repelling an incursion by white fraternity brothers. The event made worldwide headlines and won a Pulitzer for the AP photographer who'd captured the seminal image of the armed occupiers leaving the building, which was bedecked with a welcome banner for Parents' Weekend.

The film was a passion project for its director/producers, Frank Dawson '72 and Abby Ginzberg '71. Despite sharing a major—government—and being one class year apart, the two had never known each other on campus. They met seven years ago, when a fellow Cornellian suggested they team up to make a film about the takeover, an event that had been life-changing for both. He was one of the black students occupying the building; she was a white member of Students for a Democratic Society marching in solidarity outside. "We had no idea it would escalate into something that we'd still be talking about today," says Dawson, now an associate dean at Santa Monica College, sitting with Ginzberg on the sunny Willard Straight terrace during a recent visit to campus. "There was no sense that this would be something historic. Not at all."

Before shifting to academia, Dawson had a two-decade career as a TV executive at NBC and CBS. Ginzberg is an award-winning documentarian who has made a half-dozen films on social justice topics. The idea of revisiting the events of 1969 seemed like fate, and they formed a creative partnership with a handshake. "We felt the film could tell an untold story," she says. "We were filling a gap by telling a story about the convergence of the civil rights movement and the black power movement on college campuses."

Agents of Change places the Straight takeover in the context of its era, when colleges and universities were becoming more racially inclusive but often resisting the academic and cultural changes that a more diverse student body would inevitably require. (The movie's first half is devoted to a 1968 protest at San Francisco State, where demands for a black studies program led to a lengthy strike, violent confrontations, and criminal prosecutions.) It features interviews with more than a dozen alumni and former administrators including then-provost (and later president) Dale Corson, widely admired as a voice of reason who helped resolve the crisis without bloodshed. "This was a touchy situation," Corson, who passed away in 2012, tells the camera. "There were deputy sheriffs downtown, everyone well armed. There was a group of [about 100] students in the Straight, most of them without experience with firearms. I had a strong fear that if we went through another night—it would be the second night of the students in that building—somebody was going to get killed."

Read the full article in the Cornell Alumni Magazine

Learn more about the history of the Africana Center here

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