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IOWA CITY - Tuesday marks a little known anniversary in the annals of University of Iowa history.
Fifty years ago, on Oct. 20, 1965, UI student and Marion native Steve Smith, 20 at the time, stepped to a lectern in the Iowa Memorial Union before about 100 people at a then-campus tradition called the Soapbox Soundoff, a stage for political commentary.
'I feel that now is the time because of my own sense of dignity, my own sense of morality, to burn my draft card,” the sophomore English major was quoted as saying in the campus newspaper, The Daily Iowan.
He reportedly pulled his draft card and a lighter from his pocket and set the card ablaze to protest the Vietnam War.
David McCartney, a UI archivist who has been researching Smith's act of civil disobedience and how it influenced his later life, is holding a remembrance of the event at noon Tuesday at the south entrance of the Memorial Union near Hubbard Park.
McCartney plans to read quotes from Smith, who died in 2009 after an at-times rocky life. discuss his actions and talk about the context of the time. The event is open to the public.
'It was a significant event in recent university history regardless of how one feels about the decision,” McCartney said. 'He definitely put the spotlight on the issue in a way that brought discussion to the debate.”
Smith, who also was active in civil rights causes and participated in a hunger strike, was the first person on a college campus and the second person in the nation by five days to burn his draft card after Congress stiffened penalties. Anyone who ”knowingly destroys, knowingly mutilates” a draft card faced up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The incident came when war opposition in the United States was still smoldering compared with the protests of the late 1960s.
Occurring when it did in Iowa - a Midwestern public university campus - was significant and emblematic of the division of opinion toward the war, McCartney said.
'This was not Berkeley or Columbia, or even University of Wisconsin, which had a larger history of protests,” he said.
Smith gained national attention. The North Vietnamese government lauded Smith's 'brave new action” in a statement welcoming anti-war demonstrations by Americans, according to archives of The Gazette.
Around Iowa and on campus. reaction was heavy but mixed.
A campus group called the Students for a Democratic Society praised Smith's courage, while others criticized him for turning his back on his 'heritage.”
His father, a World War II Navy veteran, criticized the actions of his son in news articles.
In the incident's wake, state Rep. Chester Hougen, R-Cedar Falls, asked UI President Howard Bowen to expel any student demonstrating against government policy in Vietnam.
The UI remained mostly silent in an official capacity. It offered a tepid condemnation of Smith at the time and launched an investigation.
'Defiance of law is never an action to be commended,” said Dewey B. Stuit, dean of the UI College of Liberal Arts, according to The Gazette from Oct. 21, 1965.
A second UI student also burned a draft card prompting another response, on Oct. 23, 1965. Dean of Students M.L. Huit stated, 'The University of Iowa has never condoned any deliberate violation of law by any of its students for whatever reason there may be.”
Willard 'Sandy” Boyd, who was UI provost at the time and president from 1969-81, said the university was caught by surprise by Smith's actions. Its primary concern was the potential aftermath, he said.
'People thought the demonstrations were led by people from outside the university, so it surprised people this was one of our own, from Iowa,” Boyd said.
The university didn't believe its role was to enforce federal law, he said. The students had the right to free speech so long as it didn't interfere with operations of the university.
Fifty years later, the UI has no official comment about the event. It appears the investigation never occurred.
McCartney said it likely became moot when Smith dropped out of school shortly afterward. He was arrested and went to trial, which ended in 1966 with three years of probation.
McCartney said it is important to remember Smith's 'bold act of civil disobedience” because social and military atrocities persist today. Those in decision-making authority shape the legacy we all live with for better or worse, he said.
'The 50-year anniversary of this protest reminds us these kinds of debates continue,” McCartney said. 'I hope people remember there is a wide range of acts that may be considered patriotic.”