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Columbia Student Rebellion 1968 - 40 Years Later

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 Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies 28

Paul Spike was going to participate in “Voices of 1968,” a reading featuring poets, novelists and other writers as part of a conference commemorating the 1968 student occupation and strike at Columbia, and he wanted me to take a look at the piece he had just written. I sat with Paul just before the reading on the ledge in front of Columbia University’s famous Alma Mater statue on the steps of Low Library, our backs against the pedestal.  

Alma Mater sits with a book on her lap and her arms outstretched to both sides, the mother of wisdom offering herself to all of her children. Anti-war students had pulled a black hood over her head and connected mock electrodes to her hands a couple of days before. The iconic statue had turned into yet another icon, the hooded crucifixion image of Abu Ghraib. 

Paul writes novels and non-fiction – he’s also a journalist, the first Yank to edit Punch. For this event, he wrote of the murder in 1967 of his father, the Protestant minister who led the civil rights work of the National Council of Churches, marching with Martin Luther King in Selma and elsewhere. The murder remains unsolved. Paul has long suspected that the murder was a political assassination – but his grief was only an entry point to his main purpose: to offer an apology to Columbia’s black students of 1968. 

Why an apology? 

Forty years before, Columbia had wanted to build a gym in Morningside Park, and the community and students (and the parks commissioner and the mayor) objected to the landgrab by a private entity of a public park. And to make it even uglier, the magnanimous university allowed for the Harlem community to use a small part of the gym, except that the students (almost all white) would enter from the front door and, as the park sloped down hill toward Harlem, the black community would enter the facilities from the back door. This smacked of Jim Crow –  in fact, we called it Gym Crow – and it was emblematic of the way the university lorded over Harlem. At the same time, the university persisted in conducting counter-insurgency research to support the Vietnam war, despite avowals by President Grayson Kirk and others that Columbia had cut all ties to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), the consortium of universities conducting the research.  

Tensions had been building for a long time. But in a swirl of events, starting with a rally at noon, April 23, 1968, students spontaneously rushed to Morningside Park to tear down the fence around the construction site, and then ended up occupying Hamilton Hall, the main undergraduate classroom building, with Dean Henry Coleman in his office. (A day or so later, the black students asked the dean if he was hungry, and suggested that he go get lunch across the campus, never saying he was released, so as to avoid any impression that he had been held hostage in the first place.)  In the middle of that first night the black students in the Students Afro-American Society asked the white students, led by Students for a Democratic Society, to leave: the black students would hold Hamilton Hall on their own, and they invited the white students to take over their own building. And they did, with great enthusiasm. In the end, four more buildings were occupied, including the president’s office in Low Library – which is where I spent that week.

Once we were ensconced in Low, we tried to keep the office suite as clean as possible, considering that it held about 125 people, and we set up cramped living quarters. We also dug out the files on the IDA that proved the university’s complicity and spirited away copies to expose the truth in the underground press.  

The faculty tried to intervene and negotiate, and it soon became obvious, no matter what kind of maneuvers by President Grayson Kirk, that the gym and the defense contracts would be dead. In the end, one demand remained the thorniest: amnesty. We felt that we would not accept punishment for doing the right thing, and that if the university wanted to punish us that they should just go ahead and do it, but that we didn’t have to agree to accept it in exchange for . . . being right.

According to former Deputy Mayor Sid Davidoff, the city urged the university to grant amnesty. That would isolate Mark Rudd and his band of radicals, Davidoff had explained his strategy, and he warned that the police were frustrated and itching for blood, “chewing on their nightsticks” in buses for days. Once they were unleashed, he had explained to the university administration, they could not be controlled. Meanwhile, Yale President Kingman Brewster and others called Kirk, telling him to stand firm, that if Columbia gave in to amnesty, other universities would collapse in the face of student rage – another version of the domino theory. 

Kirk finally did send in the cops. The black students, advised by lawyers, told the police that they would not resist but that they would not leave Hamilton Hall without being arrested, and they allowed themselves to be cuffed and taken away with no violence. Their approach prevented black students from being brutalized, a spectacle that could have ignited Harlem, and their charges were limited to criminal trespass and no more. 

 The white students in the other buildings offered passive non-violent resistance of various forms – and as a consequence they were severely beaten. Over 700 were arrested that night, and over a hundred injured, as the cops charged through faculty and students outside the buildings and bloodied many of those inside.

Events spiraled after the bust into a strike involving the entire university, including faculty, and to other occupations, demonstrations, police riots, and negotiations, going on through the next academic year and beyond. The gym was history, the war research was canceled, and Columbia went through a process of rebuilding itself and, with other universities, reforming higher education to include more democratic governance involving students and faculty, innovations such as black and ethnic studies and women’s studies, and a deeper sense of accountability. The discourse of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” arose from the revolts of Columbia, as well as other schools, to the dismay of the right-wing to this day. 

So, forty years later, we came together on the campus from April 24th to 27th with current students, faculty and community members to commemorate the revolt. The “wrinkled radicals,” as the student newspaper called us, reconnected and exulted, sensed our mortality and mourned, perhaps all to be expected at any kind of reunion. We wanted, as Gus Reichbach, now a judge in New York, underscored, to show today’s students that it’s possible to live lives committed to social justice – and still have fun. But we also wanted to discover the deeper significance of the strike and its legacy. With the country embroiled again in yet another immoral war and Columbia once again expanding into Harlem, the similarities and differences were crying out to be explored.  

The day before the conference, the New York Times published a personal reflection on the strike by critically acclaimed novelist Paul Auster, “The Accidental Rebel.” He had been part of the occupation of the Math building, and he too would read at “Voices of 1968.” Auster constructed the little essay around the idea that 1968 was “the year of craziness, the year of fire, blood and death . . . and I was as crazy as everyone else.” He went on to observe that “Being crazy struck me as a perfectly sane response to the hand I had been dealt,” which was the threat of being drafted into a war that “I despised to the depths of my being.” He reflected on the gym, the landgrab, the backdoor apartheid quality, but for him the war was at the center of his own revolt. He didn’t recant, had no regrets, and “was proud to have done my bit for the cause,” even though he felt that not much had been accomplished, considering that the war continued to drag on for too many more years. And then, noting that he would not say “the word ‘Iraq’” (and by not saying it, did just that, in great Jonathan Swift tradition), he ended his piece with humorous defiance that “I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.” 

Auster’s “craziness” managed to surface periodically through the conference panels on Vietnam and Iraq, on the ethics of protest, race, the legacy of the student movement, the emergence of the women’s movement, and more. Longtime activist Tom Hayden, also a veteran of Math, objected to the essay, regarding Auster as trivializing the protest as insane, an aberration, and not a political eruption. The next day, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami regarded Auster’s craziness differently, describing it as part of Erich Fromm’s observation that, in an insane society, one must become “crazy” to become sane, one must disrupt the bland, grim normality of the lunatics in charge. In fact, Erich Fromm spoke at the counter-commencement held by protesting students in 1968, so Bilgrami may have certainly captured one aspect of the spirit of the age. At the same time, Ray Brown, one of the leaders of the black students in Hamilton Hall, also objected to considering what the African American students had done as “crazy.” As the conference would reveal, the black students felt they had to act with utmost sanity to undermine racist expectations. All of this was quite a bit of play for a little personal reflection – but it was, after all, the only voice in the New York Times for what we had done, so a lot more hung on a short essay than anyone might otherwise note, and the controversy was intense. 

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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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