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An activist concert, Dead ahead

Amid the turmoil of the antiwar protests in the spring of 1970, two unforgettable performances by the Grateful Dead offered a welcome reprieve.

The Grateful Dead played a free show at the MIT Student Center the day before their “official” show at DuPont Gym.MIT Museum

The first week of May 1970 was a tumultuous and traumatic time on college campuses around the US, MIT being no exception. But for alums who were there at the time, recollections of political protest and upheaval are inseparable from something else: a memorable soundtrack provided by the Grateful Dead.

On April 30, as the Vietnam War dragged on, President Richard Nixon had announced an “incursion” of US troops into Cambodia—a neutral nation—to disrupt North Vietnamese operations.By that time, campus protests against the unpopular war had become common. A few weeks earlier, more than 1,500 protesters had clashed violently with police in Harvard Square after a peaceful antiwar demonstration in Boston, and in January, a small group of MIT students had broken into President Howard Johnson’s office with a homemade battering ram, vowing to occupy it until their demands to be spared any discipline for antiwar protests were met (they were not). Now, a vote on whether to participate in a nationwide student strike to protest the war’s expansion into Cambodia was set for 3 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium on Monday, May 4. 

That afternoon, according to accounts in The Tech and the Technique, more than 1,300 students and at least 200 faculty crowded into Kresge for a mass rally. While making an impassioned plea for MIT to join the nonviolent strike, Mike Albert ’69 made a shocking announcement: as many as 15 students had been shot at Kent State University in Ohio just a few hours earlier. It would later become clear that inexperienced National Guard troops had killed four students and wounded nine more. The room was stunned and ultimately rose to action, voting overwhelmingly to strike. Within days, 760 student bodies—around a third of all US college campuses—were on strike.

students holding protest signs saying, " Join Us Get MIT Out of War Work"
battering ram

In January 1970, students broke into President Howard Johnson’s office (left) using a homemade battering ram (right).

On the morning of Tuesday, May 5, 700 MIT faculty members, with the support of President Johnson and Provost Jerome Wiesner, voted to cancel classes for the rest of the week. Only about a dozen voted no. Kathy Swartz ’71, then working for The Tech, would write in the 1971 Technique that she returned from the vote “with a feeling of pride for the faculty, and mounting excitement and sureness that the Strike was going to be widespread and successful.” Issue 23 ½—an extra edition the Tech staff decided to produce about the strike—was at the printer by 10 p.m.

To listen to the 1970 Grateful Dead performances at MIT, visit

Wednesday morning, the Bush Room (10-105) was buzzing with students painting strike fists on T-shirts and making posters, as well as organizing efforts like door-to-door canvassing campaigns, meetings with members of the local business community, and tables where Cambridge residents could write telegrams to their members of Congress. The Bush Room also became a data control center of sorts as MIT and Brandeis students tracked—and publicized—information about which schools were striking.

MIT students joined some 20,000 from other Boston-area schools to march to the State House. The staff of the MIT Libraries and MIT Press signed letters of support. Postal workers and truckers refused to cross campus picket lines. A massive demonstration was planned for May 8 at Harvard’s Soldiers Field.

The following Monday, the faculty convened again to vote on the fate of classes for the last few weeks of the school year. Departments followed up with memos to President Johnson outlining their plans; most opted for no class or no mandatory classes, prompting a few students—and parents—to ask for their money back. 

What did the Grateful Dead have to do with all this? Their role was a case of fortuitous timing. Biology major Ned Lagin ’70, who had also studied jazz at Berklee College of Music, had helped friends on the Lecture Series Committee schedule a concert by the group for May 7. But the Dead arrived days earlier, just after the news about Kent State had broken. Lagin says he spent the next few days showing the band around Boston and MIT, visiting science labs, the Student Center, the MIT Coop, the Great Court, and the music library. He also took Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, the band’s bass guitarist, to basement computer labs where they played Space Wars. (After graduation, Lagin would move to California to collaborate and tour with the group.) With students upset over the Kent State shootings and the escalation of the war, the Dead apparently decided they could help ease tensions on campus with more music. A cryptic announcement in the special edition of The Tech alerted students that something might be afoot: “2 p.m. — There will not be a free concert by the Grateful Dead today.”  

Mountaine (then Mort) Jonas ’70 was in the Infinite Corridor on the afternoon of May 6 when someone ran by him shouting, “The Dead are playing outside the Student Center!” Jonas had already purchased tickets for the May 7 show, but “whatever I was doing could certainly wait!” he recalls. “What I remember is that it was very cold, and they played a short set. I think it was Bobby Weir who told us that they would have to stop because their fingers were freezing.” The Dead played around 90 minutes before the blustery weather shut down the show.

Meanwhile, Ed Clendenin ’70, the dinner shift captain at Twenty Chimneys in the Student Center, wondered why the café was so empty. Then he heard the music. Food was forgotten—students who’d come to eat, as well as those working at the café, “just ordered Cokes and sat down and listened,” he says. Clendenin is still “amazed that I got to see them while I was working to pay my tuition,” he says. “I have forever associated the band with this memory.”

In fact, for many the music was just as important as the activism. During the setup for the “official” concert at DuPont Gym on the night of May 7, “I got to meet more of the Grateful Dead crew and the New Riders of the Purple Sage—the opening music group,” says Lagin. “I spent the gym concert mostly with the crew behind or next to the amps, and afterwards for a while with Jerry and Phil.” 

Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart had painted a strike fist with “MIT” on the wrist on his drum set. For a ticket price of just $3 (or $3.50 at the door), students got to hear more than 40 songs.

Ralph Brindis ’70 remembers a more visceral experience, thanks to marijuana that he and Lagin shared with the musicians. “After the intermission, we then both went on stage,” he says. “I was standing near the percussionist ‘Pig Pen,’ who at one point banged a six-foot gong within two feet of me! My ears were ringing for at least two or three days after that!”

Ultimately, the 1970 national strike was not successful. Although the US withdrew from Cambodia later that year, bombing continued through 1973; many student activists became disillusioned and left the antiwar movement. Only 60% of seniors attended that year’s commencement, and those who did asked President Johnson not to speak, demanding instead “two minutes of silence to consider what can be done to help resolve the conflicts which divide mankind.” 

Karen (Wattel) Arenson ’70, a class officer since 1990, marvels at how her peers weathered the upheaval. “Many of my classmates have remained politically committed to antiwar, social justice, and climate issues, and probably fewer have entered the corporate world than in classes before and after us,” she says. “We had the traditional MIT education with an extra layer of politics and society on top.”

Find recordings of the May 6 and May 7 Grateful Dead concerts at MIT here.

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