Entering a Different World

by Nancy Kerber MacRae, Class of 1963

It was my freshman year, and I had only been at Vassar for a month, maybe. There were four of us in our rooming group in Strong—two suburbanites, two city girls. Three of us were on scholarship. The civil rights sit-ins in the South were taking place, and a group of Vassar students wanted to support the students on the front lines by picketing Woolworth’s in Poughkeepsie.

We four roommates spent intense hours debating whether or not we would join the picket line, and at the end the personal decisions split by geography. The two city girls could not imagine not joining the demonstration, having grown up in a tradition of taking a stand on ethical and liberal political issues. The two suburbanites had no such upbringing, and we were terrified that if we picketed at Woolworth’s we would lose our scholarships. Our city friends scoffed. They went; we stayed on campus.

The marchers returned, and to my utter amazement I learned that Sarah Gibson Blanding, the president of Vassar, had participated in the demonstration! I could hardly comprehend it. Vassar College was truly a different world, opening up vast new possibilities.

Four years later I stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C., listening to Martin Luther King Jr. mesmerizing an audience of 200,000 with his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the first and last demonstration I joined (except for a minor protest in my Capitol Hill neighborhood over an historic building being torn down), I never forgot the moment when I first understood that “standing up” and challenging authority for a belief was a normal expectation.