Student Activism and Law Enforcement in 1960s Austin

War Machine Protestor

The 1960s in the United States was an era of change—changing social ideals, changing military involvement, and changing surveillance tactics. College students in particular, for many of them, away from home and the constraints of a rigid social structure, found themselves at the forefront of this rapidly evolving decade. The University of Texas at Austin, known to many for its contemporary student activism, can trace back this association with student movements and organization to at least this shifting time period. Organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the W.E.B. Du Bois Club found a home at UT-Austin.

The changing nature of the 1960s brought a shift in how surveillance was conducted, though, with student activism being a main target of this new era's surveillance. While this post-McCarthy domestic surveillance had a hand in the downfall of 1960s student activism at UT-Austin, it is also one of the few windows into a time where students rebelled against the establishment of the day and how that same establishment set out to hinder that disconformity.

Student Activism and The Rag

While Cops Disappear Marines Attack Peaceniks

The Rag and other such publications allowed the New Left movement at UT-Austin an opportunity to connect and keep in contact with the movement at large. Here, one can see The Rag contributor, funnel, and co-founder Thorne Dreyer reporting and weighing in on an altercation that occurred at a Houston rally between veterans and activists.

The Rag

A column from the May 1, 1967 showcasing a "Chick of the Week" at UT-Austin.

Showcasing the content that they would have seldom been seen in the Daily Texan at the time, this "Chick of the Week" column gives likely-prominent members of the New Left movement at UT-Austin a chance to have their voice heard in a written medium. In this column, it displays how, contrary to the misconceptions some hold, the New Left movement was anything but unified. Stating "Communism is Christianity in disguise," Becky Reavis holds a view contrary to what the Stalinist, Trotskyist, and Maoist branches of the student organizations was likely to believe. Still, this was not someone who was a fringe member of the movement as seen by her credentials such as being a member of the SDS, and an elected officer at that.

Surveillance, COINTELPRO, and the New Left

Report on November 24, 1964 W.E.B DuBois Club of America, UT-Austin

A police report detailing the attendance of a new student organization on campus.

As in most of the United States, the antiwar, socialist political activity was frowned upon by established institutions. In this report by Lt. B. Gerding and Lt. George Phifer detail who was attending a W.E.B. DuBois Clubs of America meeting for the UT-Austin chapter. This report, likely created some time close to November 24, 1964, is notable since at this time the institution—Austin Police Department (APD)—was likely acting on its own accord and not that of a federal organization.

Passages like "...and that this Club (W.E.B. DuBois Clubs) was possibly a Communist front organization..." and "...Arrangements were made to have a non-police photographer to photograph as many of the persons in attendance as possible as well as photograph the principal speakers," inform us of the state of mind of this institution. For APD, such accusations were so important that they felt the need to document and report on a simple meeting hosting an antiwar speaker.


At the same time as the rise of the New Left at UT-Austin, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was engaging in the then-classified COUNTER INTELLIGENCE PROGRAM, or COINTELPRO. This program, while it also sabotaged the Ku Klux Klan in the same decade, is now more known for its coordination with local police agencies to gain intelligence on student organizations affiliated with the antiwar New Left movement. While this program is not what started the surveillance conducted by APD at UT-Austin, it is known that they did begin to work with the FBI and COINTELPRO at some point in the mid-1960s.

Student Activist Events

Note circled text in top right corner and bottom half of item.

As time went on and the New Left experienced more and more disunity, the institutions conducting surveillance on them continued to do so. Their documentation of events is one of the only ways, the main other being exceprts from The Rag, to confirm that an event occurred. While this document listing the various events hosted by the socialist student organizations on campus, it also includes one of the few pieces of evidence directly connecting the Austin Police Department to the FBI. Here one can clearly see the words "From local FBI Office."

The items depicted above are all likely products of the surveillance conducted by the local police agencies and FBI coordination during the COINTELPRO era. The first and second pictures showcase the student body and their rallying for some event. The third picture illustrates how tensions could run high on campus with someone having written "PIG" over a memorandum either by the university or police administration. In the fourth picture, it is made clear that those conducting surveillance were also paying to which professors were beginning to involve themselves with the New Left movement on UT-Austin's campus.

The Ghetto Papers

The "Ghetto" Papers

The surveillance conducted by police agencies and the FBI did not just consist of photographs and finding informants within the New Left organizations. The following images are of a document called “The Ghetto Papers,” which references a certain hangout spot for many members of the student activist organizations at the time. The document is a detailed list of several people who have been associated with the home, their whereabouts, and any identifying information. This exhibit does not focus on the work at large but makes note of a few interesting figures and marginal notes throughout the work, either due to name recognition or the nature of their description.

The "Ghetto" Papers

Note marginal check beside Joplin's name. It is unclear what exactly the annotator was signaling here or in the other instances of these checks. 

The "Ghetto" Papers

Note again the "associated with other members of the group." It is unclear if Gibson was a frequenter to The Ghetto or an associate of one.

Most definitely “not a student,” even the singer and icon of the mid-late 1960s Janice Joplin found herself being connected to The Ghetto. It is not certain if the performer ever actually visited The Ghetto or if she was a frequent guest, but the agencies collecting information on the student activist movement found it appropriate to believe that she was connected to the UT-Austin organizations.

The second image, mentioning two more entries, gives the viewer another impression of just what information the surveillance was searching for. Here, one can see, “believed to be a homosexual.” They were collecting any information that could have negative repercussions for student activists, with another common entry being “promiscuity” for women involved in the New Left movement.

The New Left's Decline

Protesters gathering at South Mall

Students gathered at the South Mall of UT-Austin's campus. The event is unknown, but the date is likey sometime between 1968-1970.

COINTELPRO, while it has given us some documentation on the student activism present at UT as the New Left movement swept over the nation, is also one of the key reasons for the downfall of these organizations. Planting informants through the Students for a Democratic Society, the sending anonymous letters concerning different group leaders, and the aiding of a more radical branch of the SDS, COINTELPRO, with the aid of the local police agencies like Austin Police Department, was able to foster the splintering of the SDS. Division was already present, but with the SDS announcing their acceptance of Maoist theory in-line with the radical Progressive Labor Party in 1969, this marked the end of the SDS’s nationwide strength. Other organizations suffered similar fates, and it was not until 1971 that COINTELPRO was ended, and years later before it was understood exactly what had occurred.

The 1960s saw the rise of the student activist. Students found themselves creating youth branches of fringe political parties that had been attacked by the FBI in the preceding decade. The Rag showed the students that their voice could be heard and that it was not necessary to adhere to the established structure or norms to progress the New Left movement. Antiwar sentiment, though one of the greatest features of the movement, was what also led to its downfall by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program through their domestic surveillance with Austin Police Department.

Today, student activism is a feature of the university. While the New Left movement may have faltered on campuses like UT-Austin and all others that were sabotaged by the COINTELPRO, the energy and passion that was central to the movement persevered. Contemporary UT-Austin students are likely to know several friends affiliated with some sort political group, and regardless of it is adhering to the ideals of the1960s organizations, it can at least back to the time period as the one that solidified what it meant to be a politically active college student.