Commentary – Mary Fran McCluskey

Riots ruined graduation

June 10, 1970 was to be graduation day at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale. But that did not take place.

In the spring of my senior year at SIU I was hurtling toward graduation. It was an exciting time. That final semester one of my classes was ecology, the first time I had ever heard the word, and on April 22, my 21st birthday, the campus and the nation celebrated the very first Earth Day.

My nose was to the grindstone as I wanted to finish up my college experience on the dean’s list. Peace and love … bell bottoms … tie dye … was the order of the day.

But looming in the background throughout my college years was the specter of the Vietnam War. In 1969 alone there were 500,000 American troops fighting and more than 11,600 were killed in a seemingly endless and ever-escalating conflict that faced increasing opposition from the American public.

Nowhere was this more pronounced than among young people on college campuses.

Across the country there was growing unrest, but because I was focused on my studies, I was quite naïve and clueless as to what was happening outside of our campus.

One night during the previous semester, Old Main, SIU’s original building, burned to the ground. It was heartbreaking to stand at the remains of the symbol of our school the following morning. Not until much later did I realize that this arson fire was a part of an increasingly militant anti-war movement on our campus and across the country.

Student demands for an end to the war continued to escalate as more troops were being sent to invade Cambodia. On May 4, 1970, at Kent State University, 29 members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of protesting students who were running away from them, killing four and injuring nine others. An indelible memory of watching the TV coverage of this event with my housemates will never leave me. Now, they are killing us we thought, in despair.

This was the beginning of the end for the graduating class of 1970 at SIU and other universities as riots rocked campuses across the nation.

At Carbondale we were in shock when, after an evening of angry protests at the college president’s residence, the administration closed the school for the term three weeks early. The following day there was tear gas in the streets. Residences were closed and all students were ordered to leave town. It was a sad and chaotic end to our college experience. There was no graduation to celebrate with our families, no final grades, no saying goodbye to friends.

We were dispersed at what should have been the special time when we were planning to venture off campus and into the wider world. It was devastating.

Thousands of students who were seniors and grad students at that time have felt a sense of loss from this experience for nearly 50 years.

Our goal at the 1970 Commencement Project is for every student who was not able to graduate with their 1970 class to take part in a graduation ceremony if they wish. Southern Illinois University is the first college to plan a commencement for its 1970 grads, to take place in 2020, 50 years after those fateful events on our college campus.

It has been reported that 52 colleges and universities did not have graduations that year. The Commencement Project aims to locate each of these colleges and work with them to graduate their 1970 classes. If you know of any of these colleges, or are a member of the class of 1970 who received a degree but did not have a graduation ceremony, please contact us at to learn more.

Mary Fran McCluskey is a former Richmond District resident.

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