As I mentioned earlier this week, the United States Student Association’s annual Congress starts today at UCLA. What follows is a short history of USSA and its predecessor, the National Student Association — it’s the latest revision of an essay that I wrote for distribution within USSA when I served as its national secretary as an undergrad in the early 1990s.

–Angus Johnston


Although discussions of American student movements frequently begin and end with the radical activism of the 1960s, the real history of those movements begin far earlier. American students have been organizing for centuries, and USSA has been an important part of that organizing since the end of the Second World War — as a newly-created national student union in the late forties, as an increasingly activist association of student governments in the sixties, as a radical antiwar outfit in the early seventies, and as a broad-based advocacy group in the eighties and nineties. Today, with a growing membership and a powerful lobbying presence in the country’s capital, USSA stands as the largest, most inclusive national student association in the nation.

The Beginning

In 1946 students from the United States and 37 other countries met in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to launch the International Union of Students, a federation of national student unions. Although national student groups had flourished in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, each had collapsed with the coming of the war, and the Americans returned from Prague convinced of the need for a fresh start. Hundreds of students from all over the country attended a planning meeting that December, and the constitutional convention of the United States National Student Association was held at the University of Wisconsin the following summer.

NSA emphasized student concerns from the start, working to strengthen student government, to protect civil liberties on the campus, and to expand access to higher education. The group’s articulation of a pro-student campus agenda in its Student Bill of Rights was a milestone in American educational history.

From the beginning, some NSA members argued that the association should avoid taking on political causes, but others contended that the group’s members had a right to address any problem that affected them, and a responsibility to consider issues of national concern. This debate would persist for decades, but the association discovered early on that there was no easy way to make the distinction between ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ actions.

The Cold War and the Fifties

The early fifties brought financial difficulties for NSA — in 1951 the group was forced to eliminate three of its five staff positions. Meanwhile, the US government took a new interest in student politics as the cold war got underway. Although NSA embraced a range of student voices, the group’s leadership was generally moderate, and so NSA’s relationship with the government was a comfortable one. It was in this context that the Central Intelligence Agency began working with, and funding, NSA’s international office in the early 1950s.

For more than a decade, a small clique of NSA officers and staff worked closely with CIA officials, while others in NSA leadership, particularly those who worked solely on domestic issues, were kept in the dark. (Although a few of these students later claimed that their co-operation had been coerced, for the most part they were motivated by self-interest and a sincere belief in the rightness of the government’s cause.)

The Movements of the Sixties

At the end of the 1950s NSA was becoming ever more politically engaged. In 1959 the group hired an alumna named Constance Curry to open a civil rights office in Atlanta. When student sit-ins against segregation began to spread throughout the South in early 1960, Curry provided funds and logistical support to the activists, and when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organized that spring, she was made a member of its executive committee.

NSA played a vital role in the wave of student activism that rose in the early 1960s, doing much to advance a student-centered vision for the American university. Many founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) met and became involved in national activism through NSA, and thousands of students got their first glimpse of the civil rights and antiwar movements through NSA events. Although SNCC and SDS were often critical of NSA’s national leadership’s moderation, they relied on the association for volunteers, publicity, and national communication.

By the mid-sixties, many of NSA’s incoming officers were perturbed by the group’s CIA ties, and the association began taking steps to disentangle itself from the agency. By late 1966 CIA funding had slowed to a trickle. The relationship was on the verge of disintegration when Ramparts magazine broke the story in February 1967, exposing not only NSA’s CIA ties but the agency’s support of to a long list of supposedly independent organizations as well.

New Directions

Unexpectedly, NSA thrived in the wake of the CIA revelations. Freed from the association’s previous secret constraints, the 1967 Congress withdrew NSA from membership in the cold war international group it had founded and passed a resolution endorsing the Black Power movement’s struggle “by any means necessary.” Congress delegates renewed the association’s commitment to  student rights and university reform, and cheered when a network television commentator called NSA “a left-wing radical outfit.”

That same Congress launched one of the most extraordinary campaigns in American political history. Allard Lowenstein, a former NSA president and Democratic activist, persuaded the group to initiate a task force to attempt to deny Lyndon Johnson renomination for President in 1968, replacing him with a candidate who was committed to ending the war in Vietnam. This “Dump Johnson” movement led directly to Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy’s antiwar candidacies for President of the United States, and culminated in LBJ’s stunning 1968 announcement that he would not seek re-election.

NSA, the National Student Lobby, and USSA

NSA now reached out to constituencies it had slighted in the past. The 1969 Congress featured workshops on gay rights and a new pledge of support to activists of color, and in 1971 the association elected its first woman president, Marge Tabankin. At the same time, however, the ideal of liberal-left coalition that had guided NSA through the previous decade came under strain as the association’s membership was further radicalized by assassinations, government brutality, and the continuing war.

As the sixties ended SNCC faded away, SDS shattered, and NSA turned toward more radical attempts to achieve social change — in 1972, for instance, the association’s president traveled to North Vietnam to gather evidence of US violations of international law, hoping to lay groundwork for a war crimes trial. Actions like these earned NSA a place on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” and caused division among activists as well.

In 1971, a group of California students broke away, dissatisfied with NSA’s lack of focus on legislative organizing. They formed a new group, the National Student Lobby (NSL), to lobby the states and the federal government on issues such as economic access to higher education. But the pendulum was already swinging back. In 1974 NSA created a separate foundation to carry out non-political work. This move allowed the association to become more involved in lobbying, and encouraged cooperation with NSL. In August 1978 a joint meeting of the two groups overwhelmingly approved a merger, naming the new group the United States Student Association. Leadership was chosen from the ranks of both, and at the prodding of the National Third World Student Coalition, today known as the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC), new guidelines were put in place to ensure the diversity of campus delegations.

Grassroots Legislative Work and Student Activism

USSA won legislative victories on a variety of issues in the years that followed. Direct funding referenda and other new income sources provided financial stability, and made it possible for the organization to offer new services. In the early 1980s USSA began to provide organized assistance to state student associations, and in 1985 the group co-sponsored the first Grass Roots Organizing Weekend (GROW) for campus leaders. In 1991 USSA entered a new era of activism with the hiring of its first regional field organizer.

The association took a bold step toward multicultural leadership in 1989 when the Congress mandated that people of color fill half the seats on USSA’s Board of Directors. The diversity of the NPCSC delegation guaranteed that no racial group would gain a majority of seats, and ensured communication and organizing across racial lines at the highest levels of the organization. In succeeding years similar amendments ensured the representation of women and lesbians, gays and bisexuals on the board, and USSA entered its second half-century with a model of multiculturalism that was based on coalition and commonality of interest.

Conclusion

In 1949 an educational journal declared that NSA was charting a course “between the extremes” of American political thought, and two decades later Newsweek magazine reported that NSA’s membership extended “to the right of [conservative activist] Bill Buckley and to the left of [SDS radical] Tom Hayden.” That both of these statements remain true today is a testament to USSA’s strength, and indicates the unique position that the United States Student Association occupies in American history.

USSA is the oldest and largest student group in the country, and in many ways its story is the story of the last six decades of American student organizing. Few advocacy organizations have been as successful in adapting to changing times, and no group has ever educated and inspired to action as many students. With the nation’s universities confronting historic challenges — and a historic resurgence of campus organizing — USSA’s 2010 Congress may well prove to be a new turning point for the association, and for the students of the nation.

Angus Johnston is a historian (PhD CUNY 2009) and the founder of the website studentactivism.net. A USSA alum, he speaks frequently to student government and student activist groups around the country. He lives in New York and can be reached by email at angus@fecko.com.