Pulitzer Prize

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The 1970 Pulitzer Prize for News Photography Picture

Armed Afro-American students exit the student union at Cornell University after a three-day takeover and occupation to protest racial incidents at the Ivy League University.

The Cornell Takeover Story-In the mid 1960’s, Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, began a then unique program to encourage admission of Afro-American students under the leadership of University President James Perkins.

Some of the newly admitted students encountered racial slurs and racist incidents, including a cross burning. The Afro-American students responded with several campus demonstrations in protest. Escalating their protests, the Afro-American students took over Straight Hall, the student union, on the Friday of Parent’s Day Weekend, April 18,1969. They evicted parents and other students.

After their takeover, the Afro-Americans were attacked in a fist fight with fraternity students. To defend themselves they secretly brought rifles and shotguns into Straight Hall. Fearing an armed confrontation, university administrators began intense negotiations to end the takeover peacefully.

Sunday afternoon the Afro-American students accepted an amnesty agreement and agreed to a retreat from the building with their weapons. As the Associated Press staff photographer covering upstate New York, I was at the doorway making pictures when the students exited. In the Pulitzer picture Eric Evans, center, carries a shotgun and Ed Whitfield, at right, carries a rifle.

Next morning this picture was front page in nearly every United States newspaper. The picture raised fears that nationwide student protests over racism and the Vietnam war would escalate into armed conflict and deaths.

My Cornell picture was awarded the Pulitzer on May 4, 1970, the day when four Kent State protesters were killed by the Ohio National Guard. At Kent State John Filo made his Pulitzer news picture of death and grief.

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Pictures from the Pulitzer Series-At left Tom Jones brandishes a rifle and gives a “black power” salute. Jones was the president of his freshman class. In a radio broadcast during the takeover he said "Now the time has come when the pigs are going to die, too. We are moving tonight. Cornell has until 9 o'clock to live. It is now three minutes after 8." After graduation Jones began a career in international finance, including service as President and CEO of TIAA-CREF, the world’s largest pension fund. He was elected a university trustee and started a scholarship named after President Perkins.

At right wearing a dashiki and carrying a 30:30 rifle, Homer “Skip” Meade marches across the Cornell campus after the exit from Straight Hall. After graduation Meade earned two graduate degrees at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and began a career as a distinguished educator and W.E.B. Du Bois scholar.

Cornell University President James Perkins is shown meeting with students the day after the takeover, holding a Pepsi can. Perkins resigned two months later, the Board of Trustees calling him “a statesman of higher education.” He died in 1998 at the age of 86.

I’m the 25-year-old AP photographer with the Nikon and the smug smile the day the Pulitzer was awarded.

© Steve Starr 2017