This is the first part of a three-part essay comparing USNSA in 1966 with its successor, the United States Student Association, fifty years later. The second installment is here.

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For most of its first two decades, the United States National Student Association (USNSA) was a liberal, but cautious, force in American student organizing.

Founded in 1947, USNSA was a federation of student governments with hundreds of member campuses around the country. It had taken progressive stances on issues like civil rights and student power from its founding, but it was always aware of its limits — because its base was in student government, it could never get too far ahead of student opinion on the campus.

Over the course of the early 1960s, USNSA’s activists grew increasingly discouraged. The organizing victories of the lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the campaign against nuclear testing hadn’t created a broad, sustained movement presence on the campuses, and many of those who had been pushing for student empowerment on the campuses eventually burned out, graduated, or both.

By mid-1964, though, it had begun to seem like all the previous years’ work was beginning to bear fruit. Freedom Summer led to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and with the escalation of the war in Vietnam in the spring of 1965, antiwar protest escalated too.

USNSA’s summer 1965 National Student Congress, reflected this transformation only dimly. In an article in that Congress’s mimeographed conference newspaper, Hendrik Hertzberg (then a student journalist, now of the New Yorker) described that Congress as “in some indefinable way hipper, more aware that life does not begin and end with resolutions and caucuses, than the one that preceded it.” But “hipper” is not the same as “hip” — that Congress’s biggest speech was given by Vice President Humphrey, and the convention closed with the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and the national anthem. Activists made their presence known in 1965, and they pushed for change in the Association, but they didn’t transform the space, and tellingly participation in that Congress was among the lowest in USNSA history.

During the year that followed, three USNSA staffers drafted lengthy reports on the status and prospects of the Association, and although each approached the problem from a different perspective, all arrived at the same fundamental conclusion — that the Association would grow only if it strengthened its ties to the American campus and embraced a more aggressive direct action agenda.

Such projects were already beginning to appear by then. The Association sponsored a “Freedom Christmas” voter registration project in the South at the end of 1965, for instance, and developed a program of assistance to American anti-apartheid protesters. But the most significant transformations of 1965-66 came in NSA’s relationship to its members. The Association mounted regional conferences throughout the country that year, and mandated that members of its board of directors conduct campus visits in their regions. (After losing three close affiliation referendum battles in the fall, NSA won all seven referenda that were held in the spring.)

And if change was growing visible within USNSA, it was now impossible to miss on the campus. In the wake of Berkeley and the Vietnam escalation, student activism became a cultural and media phenomenon across the United States. At the very moment when campus activists had given up on organizing students, they discovered that students were beginning to organize themselves.

This change was perhaps most obvious in the student government elections of the spring of 1966. As students came to see themselves as activists, they gravitated to activist candidates for student government office. Again and again that spring, activists who had run for student government as protest candidates — to get a voice in debates, or coverage in the student newspaper, or just a space to express their views — found themselves winning.

The 1966-67 president of the Stanford student government, David Harris, was a perfect example. A leader in campus protests, he had been approached by a leader of the small activist faction in the campus student assembly to run as a protest candidate for student government president. He would lose, he was told, but in running he would have a platform from which to publicize an activist agenda.

Fraternities had long dominated the Stanford student government, and Harris stood out among his fellow candidates that year. While he strolled the campus in jeans and what the campus newspaper called a “beatnik-style” haircut, the others campaigned in suits and ties. He ran on a platform that he described later as:

“Elimination of the Board of Trustees, student control of student regulations, equal policies for men and women, the option to take classes on a pass-or-fail basis, legalization of marijuana, and the end of all university co-operation with the conduct of the War in Vietnam.”

Harris was a sensation. He led the field in the first round of voting, and a week later beat a fraternity candidate in the runoff, an election that saw the highest turnout in Stanford history.

At the NSA Congress that summer Harris emerged as one of the strongest radical voices in the Association, and soon he would be a movement celebrity — co-founder of the draft-resistance group The Resistance, subject of an Esquire feature on “The New Student President,” and husband of folksinger Joan Baez, whom he met while both were jailed for their participation in a draft protest.

This was the context for the 1966 National Student Congress: USNSA’s twentieth annual summer convention.