Preface to Louis Kampf's 1971 MLA Address
by Paul Lauter
It's 1968, a lovely year: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy are murdered. Rebellions all over America follow King's assassination and help bring the war home. In Vietnam itself, the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese carry out an offensive over Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, that is terrible in its costs but that reduces to rubble American claims to "progress" in the war. Nevertheless, napalm, agent orange, and antipersonnel bombs continue to rain down from American planes onto Vietnamese rice fields and dikes. Back home, Dr. Benjamin Spock, America's favorite baby doctor, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin of Yale, and three other men are indicted for aiding and abetting draft resistance, which is growing apace. Catholic radicals break into a draft board in Catonsville, MD, take out draft files, and burn them with home-made napalm. Soon after, the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, encourages his rarin'-to-go cops to break the heads (and arms and legs) of protesters outside the Democratic National Convention, where Hubert Humphrey is being nominated for president. Humphrey will lose the election to Richard Nixon, later to become the first American president forced to resign. And in late December of that very year, the Modern Language Association (MLA), an organization for professors of literature and languages, arrives in New York for its annual convention at the Hilton and Americana hotels.
Just before the MLA meeting, a group of us radicals, including Dick Ohmann, Florence Howe, Paul Lauter, Elaine Reuben, and, of course, Louis Kampf, hold an open meeting at Columbia to talk about "stirring things up" at the staid MLA. What might we do to respond to the brutal events of 1968? Someone designed a button--"Mother Language Association"--others put together posters like one saying "The Tygers of Wrath are Wiser than the Horses of Instruction." Others still began developing a call to set up a Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession. At the convention, we organized ourselves into a Tactics Committee that met frequently in Ohmann's room at the City Squire and morphed into an on-going Radical Caucus in English and the Modern Languages. We passed out buttons, circulated petitions, and put posters on the hotel walls. In fact, Louis and two others were arrested and put in jail for trying to keep the hotel dicks from tearing down our posters. That led to pickets, protests, and ultimately at the annual business meeting a motion to nominate our jailbird comrade Kampf to the position of MLA second vice-president. He represented the kind of change many of those gathered at the meeting in New York were demanding of their professional association, as well as of their country. From that elected status he would, in the normal course of things, succeed to the presidency in two years. He did. And thus the speech that follows.
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Reprint of the 1971 MLA Address by...