Speak Up: MLK, Strom Thurmond and Others Put Impact on the Map 50 Years Ago



Tensions were so high at Memorial Gym on the evening of April 7, 1967, that 40 plain-clothes police officers were scattered throughout the bleachers. Six officers stood outside, and a fleet of patrol cars circled the gym, just waiting for a confrontation.

A sellout crowd had gathered, not for a Commodore basketball game, but to listen to some of the country’s most relevant and controversial speakers on the first night of the student-run Impact Symposium—a program only in its fourth year at that point, but already considered, in the words of the late Arizona senator and GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, as “the best college presentation of its kind in the country.”

In town for two nights of speeches were Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Strom Thurmond and Allen Ginsberg—four electric figures dropped in the middle of what remained a relatively sleepy and nonpolitical campus, confronting students with disparate views on the most polarizing issues of the 1960s: war, peace, poverty, racism, drugs, social justice, freedom of speech, and the role of authority.

As Vanderbilt celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Impact Symposium, an event that will always be remembered as one of the signature moments in the university’s history, it’s tempting to believe the speaker series was a hit from the very beginning, and that bringing newsmakers to campus to share their thoughts on world events was always part of the Vanderbilt student experience.

Far from it.

The idea for Impact grew out of a desire in the 1950s and early ’60s to provide students with more intellectually stimulating programming outside the classroom. At a meeting of VUceptors and administrators in 1963, Dean Sidney Boutwell (BA’55, MA’56, MAT’56) and a group of students discussed ways to bring a bit of the outside world into the campus bubble. Boutwell suggested a speakers’ symposium. A handful of students took an interest and, along with Boutwell, visited Princeton University and Randolph Macon College to observe how those schools organized their own speakers’ events.

The students returned from that trip excited about the idea—if only someone else would execute it. They were too busy.

Finally, student Dan Brasfield, BA’64, was convinced to take on the project, though many on campus remained skeptical and publicly mocked the idea, doubting controversial speakers could be convinced to come to Vanderbilt.

During its first few years, Impact was host to notables like Goldwater, civil rights leader Julian Bond and Alabama Gov. George Wallace. But it was the ’67 affair that cemented the symposium’s place as an iconic Vanderbilt tradition with a national reputation for excellence.

The event wasn’t a big hit with many alumni, however. In a typical letter in response—the likes of which fill four folders at Vanderbilt’s Special Collections and University Archives—a writer complains that Chancellor Alexander Heard had invited “a gang of treasonable hoodlums to wreck the serenity, the very safety of property and human life.”

In the face of heated criticism from some alumni, Board of Trust members, state legislators and local business leaders, Heard defended the value of the “open forum” concept. The Vanderbilt campus, he said, was a place where the free flow of ideas—even and especially controversial ones—not only was accepted, but encouraged, a value that continues to this day. The students who organize Impact Symposium have always had free rein to invite the most compelling speakers they can find.

The very next year, in 1968, a milestone was reached when presidential candidate Sen. Robert Kennedy drew a record attendance of 16,000 people from more than 100 college delegations across the United States.

This year’s Impact chairman, Conor Bloomer, who graduated in May, said he was unaware of the series’ deep history until he became involved with the campus Speakers Committee—but it didn’t take him long to come to revere and appreciate the symposium’s role at Vanderbilt. On a campus and in a country where activism perhaps more resembles that of the late 1960s than any time since, he believes Impact still plays a crucial part in helping students find, and develop, their voices.

“The radical spirit is always existent on a college campus. I think that’s what’s amazing about having such youth, vigor and passion all in one place,” Bloomer says. “Everyone here believes in a cause as much as they believe in themselves. That spirit is still here today like it was in the 1960s.”

Still, he acknowledges that times have changed dramatically since 1967. A newsmaker’s visit to campus may have been the only way a student back then could hear that person’s thoughts in more intimate detail. Today’s students can read anyone’s musings on Twitter or listen to anyone’s podcasts between classes. Every opinion is available at the push of a touchscreen. So what’s the appeal of an old-fashioned guest speaker?

“With Impact we try to appeal to as many different people as possible to make them interact with people and ideas they might not otherwise be exposed to,” Bloomer says. “And there’s something about that ritual of going to a space and having a common experience that doesn’t feel old-fashioned at all. People are still into it; you’ve just got to hit the right types of speakers that will interest them.”

For 50 years the Impact Symposium has struck that balance: entertaining, informing, challenging and inspiring. And as Heard once said: “The chief credit, like the chief reward, belongs to the students.”

Andrew Maraniss, BA’92, is author of Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South (2014, Vanderbilt University Press), a New York Times bestselling biography of Perry Wallace, BE’70.