Dive Into the Digital Archives: A protest against the war

On March 13, 1970, Washington State University was the site of an Anti-Draft Week protest. Approximately 275 students participated in a grape boycott march organized by the Three Forks Peace Coalition.

The students carried signs and banners, marched from campus down Campus Avenue to the Selective Service draft office. The protest was preceded by a panel discussion that was led by four veterans and two draft resisters.

The peaceful protest was disrupted by the police, and the students continued their march into downtown grocery stores where they removed grapes from the shelves and crushed them on the floor to symbolize their opposition to the war. The stores also suffered minimal damage due to the theft, consumption, or damage of beer and wine.

One African American student, Ralph Atkins, was arrested and accused of inciting a riot. Atkins was a parade marshal and dressed in a black beret, black leather jacket, and sunglasses.

“Obviously I was the perfect choice by the prosecutor to be named the leader,” Atkins wrote in a letter that was later digitized by the WSU Libraries. 

He was sentenced to six months in jail, which sparked outrage among the student community. Professor Al Crosby, who oversaw Atkins’ defense fund, stated that the charges against Atkins were based on race and that “this is one of the oldest crimes in American History.”

The Daily Evergreen reported that the police identified seven people at the protest, five of which were African American students. 

In response, 25 students went to the city police and Whitman County sheriff’s office to turn themselves in for the same crime as Atkins, but their requests were declined. Many of these students dropped out of school in protest, and a rally was held in support of Atkins at the CUB Auditorium on April 1.

“I suffered a lot, but they gave up all they had,” Atkins said.

Despite the challenges he faced, Atkins remained grateful for the support he received from the community. Atkins’ sentence was reduced to 90 days, and funds were raised to reimburse the stores for damages.

Atkins wrote about his experiences during the protest and his time at WSU as one of the very few Black students. He expressed gratitude to the university administration for handling the situation and keeping things from escalating and reflected on the sense of community and caring that existed at WSU during that time.

Atkins wrote, “I don’t know what Pullman is like now, but then it was alive. There was a time people really cared about each other and shared what little they had.” He added, “I have to say the University Administration deserves applause. Their handling of various situations kept things from getting totally out of hand. Some of them grew, changed their attitudes, and widened their worldly outlook too.”

Ralph Atkins’ story is a testament to the power of peaceful protest and the importance of standing up against injustice. It serves as a reminder of the bravery and sacrifices that were made by students, and the impact that one person can have on their community.