‘Is your school revolting?’ High-school radicalism in the Vietnam era

When I was a teenager, my mum loved to regale me with tales of her university years. By far her – and my – favourite story was of the daring escape of draft resistor Michael Matteson from the clutches of police at Sydney University. Matteson was in a car near Broadway with a friend when two cops noticed him. The cops leapt inside and Matteson was handcuffed. But his friend drove into Sydney University and ran around the campus drumming up support, and hundreds of students (including my mother) surrounded the police. In the tumult, a pair of bolt cutters were found and Matteson was freed and whisked away. As a young leftist devouring Noam Chomsky and passionate about the history of the Spanish Civil War, this story was music to my ears.

It wasn’t until my twenties that I learned that Mum hadn’t just been involved in university activism but was a protester in high school, too. She recalled that she was one of only five students at her school to wear a Moratorium badge and skip class for two of the rallies. Even more impressively, she was repeatedly disciplined for arguing about communism and the war with her right-wing history teacher, Mrs Blackburn. In some ways, being a member of a small activist minority made her dissent seem more radical than her memories of university.

Hearing this story sparked so many questions. Why had I previously only heard about university activism but not her high-school endeavours? Did other high-schoolers protest in this period, too? If so, how were they organised? Was Vietnam the sole issue or were there other reasons for protest too? In light of the recent climate strike and other forms of secondary student organising, is there a history of high-school radicalism that we can draw and take inspiration from?

My research soon exposed a rich array of stories and struggles. While the Vietnam war and the threat of conscription were a major impetus of the protests, the prevailing authoritarianism was a factor, too, as were the poor conditions in some of the schools. For instance, at Blacktown North one student quipped that the lighting in the school was so bad that their diploma should come with a pair of glasses. At their most radical, activists called the very system of education and capitalism into question. One article in The Spark, a 1969 underground newspaper at Cremorne Girls’ High, asked:

We wanted to go to school when we were five, but who wants to learn in order to be a cog in a wheel, to help perpetuate a society which stinks of inequality, where the powerful in knowledge are directed by the powerful in money, where the rich own the media, manipulate the government and live the good life at the expense of others? Who wants to endorse a society which wages war on people because they are trying to eliminate just this in their society? Who wants the hollow glory of being a WINNER?

Sydney has the strongest history of high-school radicalism. In July 1968, a four hundred-strong teach in of secondary students was organised by High School Students against the War and the socialist group Resistance. Its success led to the publication of the first issue of Sydney’s Student Underground, on 9 September 1968. Student Underground declared the war ‘senseless and totally unjustifiable’ and aimed to ‘show the effect that High School students could have on efforts to stop the Vietnam War’. It printed educational articles about the NLF and Vietnam, and reported vividly on student struggles.

1969 saw several such protests throughout Sydney. Birrong High, Belmore Boys’ High, Sydney Tech, Narrabeen Boys’ High and Cremorne Girls’ High all saw protests, while red flags were hoisted up the flagpoles at Sydney Girls and Cremorne. Perhaps the most substantial struggle was at Kogarah High, which Four Corners had dubbed as having ‘the worst conditions in the state’. A thousand-strong student strike took place in March. Two students even smuggled in TV cameras to photograph the conditions, although one was confiscated. Eventually, some concessions were won – with a Students’ Representative Council established and a sick bay introduced. For Student Underground’s correspondent, this victory was apt as the education system was indeed making the students ‘quite ill’.

Actions took place in the other states as well. In Brisbane, a substantial campaign kicked off when Margaret Bailey, an eighteen-year-old Inala High student, was expelled from all Brisbane secondary schools for advising a younger student that a teacher had no right to enforce restrictions around the length of her dress. Soon a teach-in was organised at the University of Queensland, schools were leafleted and around a hundred people (mostly high-schoolers) picketed the Education Department. Most dramatically, Bailey chained herself inside the Treasury Building for ten hours. She recalls:

End result was I was expelled from all schools in Queensland. Little compared to the fact that I met and began friendships with people who would become and remain important to me and whose friendships constantly remind me of the importance of a moral and questioned life.

Melbourne also had a lively culture of high-school activism. Underground newspapers were published at University High, Mentone Girls’ High, Peninsular High School, Camberwell High, Highett High, Caulfield High, Prahran High, Chadstone High, Melbourne High, Croydon High and Doveton High – and possibly elsewhere, too. Michael Eidelson (now Meyer) was suspended in 1968 for publishing Sentinel Underground, Melbourne High’s underground newspaper, sparking a substantial campaign. Eidelson was eventually able to return to school in 1969. At University High, a student strike in 1972 led to a city demonstration of around five hundred students on April 19. In turn, this fuelled calls for a Melbourne-wide high-school strike, which eventuated on May 31, with around three thousand students marching. The newspaper of the Socialist Youth Alliance, Direct Action, claimed that Brighton High abolished uniforms and introduced a democratic school council as a result of the strike.

Perhaps the peak of high-school radicalism was the 1972 national student strike. Inspired by the success of the May action, three thousand students participated in downtown rallies in all major cities but, as most strikes took place on school grounds, the actual number of strikers may have been substantially larger. Around a thousand students rallied in central Sydney, and some burnt their ties in protests. Even the south coast town of Nowra saw around five hundred students protest at one school, while at Melbourne’s Macrobertson Girls’ High forty students were suspended the next day for refusing to wear their uniform. At Wodonga, NSW, near the border of Victoria, a large section of students supported the strike, and ten even made the 320-kilometre journey to Melbourne for the main rally.

Today, the issues are different but some things remain the same. Climate change and economic precarity – like conscription and war before them – stand to disproportionately affect young people. Crucially, collective action in the streets remains the best tool to remake the world. While the history of high-school activism is filled with ups and downs – like any movement – it shows us that high schoolers can mobilise and win. Even campaigns that seem unsuccessful, like the one for Margaret Bailey, demonstrate that the experience of learning through activism can be more important than winning specific demands. As The Spark argued in 1969, the first step in taking control over the decisions that affect our lives is to shout loudly. A rich future of continued high-school radicalism awaits.


Image: detail from a poster made in 1969 by Sydney high-school student Chips Mackinolty

Tim Briedis

Tim Briedis is a historian who works at the University of Sydney. He is currently researching the history of high-school activism, and would love to hear any stories of high-school protest. He can be contacted at timbriedis (at) gmail (dot) com.

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  1. Dear Tim,
    I loved reading your article, I was very much involved in the Resistance movement – having attended many meetings at Bob Gould’s book shop which was located at 35 Goulburn Street Sydney. I vividly remember discussion between the Percy Bothers, One was a Marxist the other supported Trotsky. Anyway the catalyst was our opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war. I actually financed the distribution of Student Underground in some schools in Central Western NSW – I attended Bathurst High High School. One of the things I did was to obtain thousands of small sticks which read ‘Support the NLF’ (aboutn 1968) I still have about 20 of these after all these years. I gave these stickers out freely to other students and the school was plastered so was many parts of downtown Bathurst. What was interesting is the glue on them made it very hard to remove them.
    Anyway I have many stories of our opposition to the Vietanm war and our attempts to bring the education system into the times – remember this was when it was illegal to own a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Conservatism was extreme.

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