Peace Park is that grassy little knoll along the north edge of MU’s campus. It’s at the corner of 8th and Elm, a stone’s throw away from the columns. There’s a creek (or drainage ditch) that saunters through it, creating a calm and tranquil vibe for the meditators and hammock dwellers.
You can find a large sample of people making use of this downtown green space: hula hoopers, medieval re-enactors, slackliners, and casual readers on the benches. Columbia’s Earth Day festival fills the park with face painted children and dreadlocked activists. In 2011, there was even a famed rooster that made Peace Park its home. MU’s admissions booklet relays a legend that if you walk across the bridge in the park with a special someone, the two of you are destined to marry.
And while many find this space tranquil, there’s no sign declaring it officially as “Peace Park.” So where did it get its name?
The answer to this question takes us all the way back to a groovy period in American History - the late 1960’s. At this time, Peace Park wasn’t known as Peace Park. It was instead casually referred to as McAlester Park after the building that backs up to its southern edge, McAlester Hall.
President Lyndon B. Johnson began sending regular combat units of American soldiers to Vietnam in 1965. In 1968, the war spread into Laos and Cambodia and a spirit of disillusionment with the war likewise spread throughout America.
The University of Missouri at this time was in some ways a conservative relic of the south. They played Dixie at the football games and female students had curfews.
Paul Blackman was a student at the time. He said even the Quad had a different set of rules when he first came to MU.
“Woe be unto he who bend a blade of grass,” he said. “That was a major offense.”
But slowly, students like Blackman, not too liberal but still disturbed by American involvement in Vietnam, began to be swayed by the national tide. Students organized rallies and marches to protest the war and pull people out of what they called “business as usual.”
There was gentle Saturday in 1967, a peaceful gathering in McAlester Park to show student support for anti-war movements. Then Moratorium Day in 1969, where students and teachers were urged to skip classes and meet for a rally.
Nationally, the movement came to a head on May 4th, 1970 in Kent Ohio. National Guard Troops shot into a crowd of students at Kent State University killing 4 and wounding 9 others.
This, Blackman said, woke up even old Mizzou.
“It was like a slap in the face to think that students such as myself who were nonviolent just wanting to express a stance on our government along with issues at Mizzou,” he said.
Students gathered in Columbia on May 8th, just four days after Kent State and burned an effigy of Nixon. They stormed Jesse Hall. According to articles written at the time in the Missourian, they threw two Molotov Cocktails into the ROTC building on campus.
But Blackman and many other students weren’t radical. They wanted change but didn’t want to continue the violence. A year after Kent State, Blackman helped to organize a march through downtown Columbia - a peaceful march.
On May 5th 1971, around 1,500 people gathered in McAlester Park and marched together. Businesses closed in honor. They ended back in the park for a rededication ceremony: naming the space “Peace Park.” It included speeches, a rally, and then an all-night rock concert in the park.
“It’s dedicated to a concept that’s not that foreign – a simple but elusive notion of peace,” he said.
Edwin Hutchings, who was the Dean of Student Affairs at the time, made a speech commending the organization and peaceful protest of the students. “By performing as your have today,” he said, “on an issue which invites widely divergent views throughout the country, you have by this alone rededicated this ground to the peaceful pursuit of your objective in this open forum we call a university.”
They built a small memorial in the park honoring the students killed at Kent State and Jackson State in Mississippi. The rocks are still there, in the shape of a peace sign, and you can barely make out the names painted in black.
In order to officially name this space, the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri would have to approve the name. Students like Blackman and Dan Viets (who you may recognize from his involvement in Columbia politics today) circled petitions and tried to garner support. The Board of Curators has no record of ever voting on the issue.
But even though the space may not officially be named Peace Park today, it’s the name that’s stuck. Visitors and students today may not know its history, but they can still recognize the green corner of campus as a peaceful spot to walk through on the way to class, or to pause for a snack. And that legacy, Blackman said, is the most important.
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Richard Nixon as ordering regular combat troops into Vietnam in 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson was responsible for this action. The error has been corrected.