As many political activists have muttered, political dissent at Carnegie Mellon University can be a little squishy. So perhaps it's no surprise that when Strom Thurmond visited the CMU campus on Jan. 20, 1970, protesters chose to attack him with marshmallows.
Thurmond, a one-time pro-segregation presidential candidate, and archconservative, was visiting to talk about issues ranging from welfare to the war in Vietnam to the virtues of the Nixon presidency. Any one of these subjects might have been enough to set off hecklers; weighing in on all of them was a recipe for disaster ... or at least for Rice Krispie squares.
Thurmond had a chance to avoid trouble. According to coverage of the speech in the Pittsburgh Press, when the heckling began, Thurmond "ask[ed] his audience in Skibo Hall if it would prefer to hear his critics instead. When most of the remaining 500 students applauded, [Thurmond] interpreted this as a signal to proceed."
Looking back on it, Thurmond just might have misread the crowd.
According to the next day's Post-Gazette story, "The marshmallows were thrown at the end of his talk. ... After the barrage, one heckler stood and shouted: 'They're not bombs, they're marshmallows. Don't be frightened.'" Presumably, by this point even Thurmond realized he was facing a tough crowd. (Unless, of course, he interpreted the marshmallows as a call for "four s'more years" for Nixon.)
Rising to the history of the occasion, CMU's campus newspaper The Tartan boasted, "C-MU students may go on record as the first ones ever to throw marshmallows at a U.S. Senator.
"The Senator survived the barrage," the paper added.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, nor were Thurmond's assailants ever brought to justice. And the most obvious question -- why marshmallows? -- has never been answered. There are, however, photos of the aftermath. The photo in the Tartan is especially plaintive: Thurmond sits in his chair, face downcast and hands folded in his lap, while marshmallows litter the ground at his feet. "I've never seen anything like it," Thurmond told the campus newspaper, which captioned the photo "Now all I need is a campfire."
Incredibly, the Pittsburgh Press made no mention of the marshmallows in its brief story on the event. It did, however, point to another reason students had for accosting Thurmond. The senator "authored the 1968 law under which the federal government is now prosecuting the Chicago 7," a group of war critics blamed by police for stirring up riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Coincidentally, a member of the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman, had visited the campus of Pitt just days before.
Clearly a lot has changed since 1970. For starters, who knew CMU students were ever that political? But over the years, the political climate off-campus changed too. According to the Tartan, for example, "Laughter and more heckling greeted [Thurmond's] remark that welfare should be administered to people who are willing to take training." Nowadays, laughter and heckling would greet anyone who didn't believe welfare recipients should be forced to take job training. Strom Thurmond hasn't often been accused of being ahead of his time, but this may be an exception.
Thurmond also warned "big government is the biggest threat to freedom we face today." By all accounts, this conservative nostrum generated a mixed reaction from the audience -- maybe because one key government initiative, the Vietnam War, was not especially popular on college campuses at the time.
Not surprisingly, the war was one big-government program Thurmond favored. But perhaps the biggest surprise looking back on this speech is the other form of government spending he backed: The P-G quoted Thurmond's contention that "[M]oney spent by the government to fight pollution 'is money well spent.'" The Press, too, noted Thurmond's contention that "nothing is more important than protection of the environment."
Thurmond reportedly cut short his talk after the outburst, telling the audience it was a "disgrace to allow a handful of people to disrupt a meeting." Then he returned to Washington, where he could act with the dignity befitting a U.S. senator. By concealing illegitimate children, for example.