The populist call of some black politicians has ignited a spark of political activity on college campuses in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But it's questionable whether this spark can fuel a revival of student activism across the country.
Chicago Mayor Harold Washington was one of the first to introduce the ''rainbow coalition'' as a means of gathering support from people of diverse cultures. The strategy worked for new Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, and Melvin H. King in Boston is hoping it will work for him in tomorrow's mayoral election. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson also is building a rainbow coalition in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In Chicago, students ''definitely played a more active role in this campaign than I've seen them do in any activities since the '60s,'' says Christopher Chandler, who managed Harold Washington's press office during his campaign earlier this year.
''Just about every major Chicago university had a chapter of Students for Harold Washington, with some chapters drawing more than 1,000 students to their meetings,'' Mr. Chandler says.
Mel King, Boston's first black mayoral finalist, has emerged in a political arena that has been dominated by conservative Irish politicians during much of the last century. Students are one of the driving forces behind his rainbow-coalition campaign. They are drawn to King because of his sensitivity to issues such as housing, education, and civil rights, say King campaign workers.
Like Mayor Washington, Mr. King also has several chapters of Students for Mel King on college campuses.
''He has given students an inspiration to work together,'' says Denise Sanders, a student at Northeastern University and a member of the minority students advisory board. ''I've seen a lot of people who would normally not participate in any kind of a campaign supporting King.''
King appeals strongly to many students, but his candidacy has special significance to minority students in a city that is struggling to overcome its racist reputation, she says.
Ms. Sanders says students on her campus conducted a voter registration drive, and many rode on the buses that provided Boston citizens with rides to the polls in the primary.
Spokesmen for Raymond L. Flynn, King's opponent, say there are no groups of ''students for Ray Flynn.'' But students are volunteering to work on his campaign, they say. Harry Grill, a law student at Northeastern University and assistant campaign manager, says he doesn't think Mr. Flynn addressed the particular needs of students but thinks he cares about education.
Students sometimes get a bad ''rap,'' says Virginia Bullock, a student at University of Massachusetts in Boston. ''A lot of people think students come here for four years and then just leave. But there are a lot of students who come here to stay and get involved in city politics,'' she explains.
In Philadelphia, Mayor-elect Goode also zeroed in on college campuses. His campaign strategy was similar to King's rainbow coalition, says Ben Binswanger, deputy press secretary for Mr. Goode.
Goode had student support organizations, which included university faculty and staff, on every major city campus, he adds.
Apart from these particular mayoral races, some observers are skeptical whether this means students as a whole are more politically active.
''Any time a campaign is pitched as a crusade or raises people's level of expectation, it will encourage greater student participation,'' says Ed Beard, director of the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
He defined a crusader as someone who pushes his campaign as an ''outsider against the insiders, someone who will throw out the bad guys and bring in new blood. That's the kind of message that appeals to students.'' Professor Beard cites Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign as an example of this type of crusade.
Beard says he expects black politicians as well as white candidates to continue using the rainbow campaign strategy. While the concept is a legitimate strategy, it's also an attractive marketing pitch, Beard says.
Beard says he doesn't think the current ripple of political activity can be compared with the wave of activism in the '60s. ''The times were different in the '60s, the economy was better and the issues were closer to home.
''Economically, it was easier to be politically active,'' he adds. The shaky economy has students focusing their attention on finding a job, he observes. ''Students are more conservative; they're protecting themselves. They don't want to offend a potential employer.''
Hubert Jones, dean of the school of social work at Boston University, shares the same perception. ''Today's students are more calculating. They're asking themselves, 'If I do get involved will it make a difference?' ''
Students must learn to use their influence, Beard says. ''This is the easiest way to fight apathy and cynicism.''
Beard notes that fewer demonstrations could be a positive sign. ''You don't want demonstrations of student activity if you need a Vietnam war to inspire it.''