The smell of tear gas lingered in the air on campus for two days after the riot, recalls Benton White. Students had gathered on Seventh Street to protest the presence of Dow Chemical Company at a campus job fair. When students attempted to block the manufacturer of napalm from entering the fair, San José city police came onto campus with tear gas. A full-scale riot ensued.
White remembers that semester in 1967. He had just started his new position as the university’s first ombudsman. The former Air Force chaplain came to San José State in 1961 to be the campus minister. But then-President Robert Clark created the new position to address the problem of racial discrimination on campus—in response to protests about housing.
Under the apt leadership of Harry Edwards, ’64 Sociology, who was teaching in the sociology department, students protested the lack of adequate housing near campus for minority students. Clark asked for White’s help because the campus minister had already investigated discriminatory housing practices near campus.
“Having the Civil Rights Movement on one hand and an unpopular war in Vietnam on the other certainly had an impact on college campuses across the country, and San José State was no exception,” White says.
There were rallies almost daily on Seventh Street in the middle of campus. Men and women of all ages and ethnicities, religious and social advocates—everyone—“attended the rallies, threw stones and blocked doors,” says White. “They were passionate about the causes they joined and truly concerned about the wellbeing of an all-inclusive culture.”
During his more than 30 years on campus, White was a part of the changes that have made San José State what it is today. He helped create the first Title IX policies, established a religious studies program and facilitated a tutoring program for children of incarcerated parents with student volunteers. But it was in the 60s, when he walked among student protesters as they smashed windows in campus buildings and fought for causes they believed in, that the world and San José State changed forever, says White. “Things have never been the same, it seems to me.”