Sixty-four Morningside Drive, nestled in a quiet courtyard abutting the western border of uptown Manhattan’s Morningside Park, marks the red brick and limestone façade of Columbia University’s Faculty House. On most days the venue would host a range of functions: conferences, seminars, and even the occasional wedding. On the evening of March 19, a group gathered in the Presidential Ballroom to recall their participation in a student movement that 50 years ago was considered by some to have nearly dismantled the university.
The activist Tom Hayden wrote in 1968 that “Columbia’s problem is the American problem in miniature.” I came to Faculty House to understand just what was remarkable about the Columbia student protests of 1968, or what made them remarkable in the memories of their participants. Though neither the longest nor most brutally suppressed student strike in America that year, the Columbia movement became something of a cause célèbre due to its proximity to the national press and its photogenicity as an Ivy League campus in disarray. That April, hundreds of students at Columbia and Barnard seized five campus buildings—beginning as a single occupation in Hamilton Hall until the black students directed all white students to take their stand elsewhere—demanding three concessions from the university: cancel controversial construction plans for a gym in Morningside Park, sever ties with a military think-tank, and grant amnesty to all demonstrators. A week of occupations and “diplomatic rigor mortis” among the students, faculty, and administration came to an indelicate end when a thousand policemen armed with blackjacks stormed the occupied buildings in the wee hours of Tuesday, April 30. The bust resulted in over 700 arrests and 120 charges of police brutality, at the time “the largest number of complaints ever received in New York City for a single police action.” It galvanized a wider campus strike that rendered the university “classless” for a week, after which students won fulfillment of their demands, along with the early resignations of Columbia’s president Grayson Kirk and vice president David Truman. (Ironically, the most consequential injury during this confrontation was inflicted on a policeman by a student: Patrolman Frank Gucciardi recalled the moment he “felt like a truck hit me” when, on May 1st, the day after the bust, as “wastepaper baskets and books” and “globs of this white glue” rained upon the officers from campus windows, a student had landed on top of him after jumping out of the second story of a nearby building. Gucciardi was left with permanent spinal damage despite two surgeries and twelve weeks at the hospital. The student was never identified.)
I came to Faculty House to understand just what was remarkable about the Columbia student protests of 1968, or what made them remarkable in the memories of their participants. Though neither the longest nor most brutally suppressed student strike in America that year, the Columbia movement became something of a cause célèbre due to its proximity to the national press and its photogenicity as an Ivy League campus in disarray.
Since then, the eighth year of every decade has been experienced by many as a wormhole of sorts, a call back to life as it was in an era that has continued to evolve in both the memories of those who were there and the imaginations of those who were not.
March 19, 2018 was an occasion for veterans of Columbia 1968 to celebrate a book launch for Paul Cronin’s A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68, an anthology of essays collected from former strike participants and released in time for the strike’s 50th anniversary.
Perhaps I came to the event expecting some encapsulation of past lessons, a commentary on current political dilemmas, a dialogue between today’s student activists and their predecessors. In retrospect, I can only say I came to Faculty House expecting something other than what I saw.
• • •
That a protest would have transpired at Columbia in April 1968 hardly came as a surprise. A more-or-less affluent generation of American youth had come of age in a postwar milieu of unprecedented comfort and consumerism, removed from the Depression of which their parents told haunted tales. Many white children were raised with pedigreed dogs and picture windows, a mass-produced middle-class ideal of kit houses mail-ordered from a Sears catalog. Yet this material well-being came with not only rising income levels and a growing service sector, but also a pervasive, undefined malaise—what we might today call “insecurity”—that led to a sixfold increase of psychiatric professionals between the end of the Second World War and 1964., “Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity,” the 1962 Port Huron Statement observed, “but might it not better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe that there is an alternative to the present […]?” The statement, a 25,000-word self-proclaimed “Agenda for a Generation,” emerged from a national convention of the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), whose work, per the statement, was “guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living.”
Nineteen sixty-eight also saw a flash-flood of geopolitical crises: daily carpet-bombings of civilians in Vietnam shown on household television sets; riots in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination; the persistent menace of nuclear annihilation as H-bomb tests demolished Pacific atolls in an ever-mounting Cold War arms race. Many were left with a feeling that was, if not clarified as moral outrage, disquieting enough to make them receptive to the language of social change. That language was most commonly articulated on college campuses, as protests ignited across the nation from Howard University to San Francisco State College.
Many white children were raised with pedigreed dogs and picture windows, a mass-produced middle-class ideal of kit houses mail-ordered from a Sears catalog. Yet this material well-being came with not only rising income levels and a growing service sector, but also a pervasive, undefined malaise—what we might today call “insecurity”—that led to a sixfold increase of psychiatric professionals between the end of the Second World War and 1964.
At Columbia, student discontent had been brewing for years on a wide range of issues. Those issues ranged from the university’s callous expansion across Morningside Heights, which involved harassment of thousands of low-income residents in buildings Columbia purchased behind shell corporations, to specific occasions of dubious financial management, such as the university’s failure to convert its real-estate holdings into more lucrative stock-market investments., Of predominant concern was the draft. Campus opposition to the war was visceral and unequivocal. “By the time I arrived on campus, my new friends and I all knew of high school classmates who had returned from Vietnam in body bags,” writes Nancy Biberman, one of the Barnard women involved in the demonstrations. Against the backdrop of mounting anti-war sentiment and peaceful student resistance to campus military recruitment, the Columbia Daily Spectator confirmed in March of 1967 that the university was, in the words of an officer, “one of the three or four primary university sponsors” of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a think-tank conducting weapons research for the Pentagon. Adding to this discovery was the October 1967 disclosure that Columbia’s School of International Affairs had been receiving $125,000 in annual CIA funding for unclassified research on Eastern-European economies.,
The administration in turn developed a policy of tone-deaf dismissal to student concerns. “Whether students vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a given issue means as much to me as if they were to tell me they like strawberries,” Herbert Deane, the then vice dean of Graduate Faculties, had remarked in April 1967. When approached by a group of students in his office, Kirk was reported to have told them, “You’re only transitory birds and therefore should not have a voice.” More than 300 students gathered in October 1967 before Kirk’s office to deliver a letter demanding severance of the university’s IDA and CIA connections, which was received by an unidentified university official and never answered. A month later, the Selective Service System announced a new directive that “students who obstruct military recruiting may lose their draft deferments.”
In March 1968, Mark Rudd, a junior from Maplewood, New Jersey, was elected to the chairmanship of Columbia’s SDS chapter, marking the student protesters’ shift to more confrontational tactics. Under Rudd’s leadership, the group plastered the director of the city’s Selective Service System in the face with a lemon meringue pie – after which the unidentified “guerrilla pie thrower,” later revealed to be “a long-haired hippie named Lincoln Pain,” donned a bandanna and sought refuge in Rudd’s girlfriend’s closet on West 115th Street in a speedy escape pursued by no one.,
Harlem residents had denounced the “racist gym” for years, and in 1968, a growing number of students began to recognize the need to take up the community’s calls for support, rising to the chant of “Gym Crow Must Go!”
The gymnasium in Morningside Park became another focal point of the protest. Driven by Columbia’s need to upgrade its athletic facilities, university officials in 1958 had approached Parks Commissioner Robert Moses with a plan to construct a seven-acre athletic field on the southern edge of Morningside Park. Rather than demolishing neighborhood buildings to make way for the gym—which would have entailed displacing residents—the university opted to request 2.1 acres of parkland for lease, which it anticipated would be set aside for students to use on weekdays during the school year, with weekends and the summer left for the Harlem community’s use. In late February 1960, bills were introduced in both houses of the state legislature to authorize the lease; in August 1961, Kirk and the new Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris signed the deal. It was the first time that the City of New York approved the lease of public parkland to a private institution, at the bargain rate of $3,000 a year, for a facility to which critics later pointed out that public use was only an afterthought. Only 15 percent of the floor space was to be allocated for community use, and separate entrances—one on the lower side for the predominantly black Harlem neighborhood, one on Morningside Drive for the largely white student body—smacked of segregation. Harlem residents had denounced the “racist gym” for years, and in 1968, a growing number of students began to recognize the need to take up the community’s calls for support, rising to the chant of “Gym Crow Must Go!”,,
On April 22, 1968, Columbia’s SDS called an emergency general assembly meeting to discuss whether the group would have a future beyond the two-year life spans that, per Rudd’s observation, had previously plagued left-wing campus groups. SDS consulted leaders of the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS), Columbia’s black students’ organization, and both groups concluded that the student body was jaded and had little appetite for further political engagement. It was on account of this specific concern of campus relevance (as one SDS member put it, “we have a tactical problem in that we are trying to save our ass”) that student leaders decided to hold a joint SAS-SDS rally for the next day – a last-ditch effort to build student participation with few long-range plans apart from a sophomore’s whimsical conjecture that events might roll into “ever-bigger demonstrations effectively shutting down afternoon classes until they give in”.
• • •
“So you still runnin’ the world?” a suited man asked a seated woman at Faculty House. “Or now you just hang ‘round the house?”
“I don’t remember hearing that sound in 1968!” quipped a man in the aisle seat when an iPhone ringtone went off.
From the dais, Paul Cronin ran through introductory acknowledgments and called out the ’68 veterans he spotted among those present, a scattershot list of names including Stu Gedal, Phillip Lopate, Michael Steinlauf, Lois-Elaine Griffith, Neal Hurwitz (“Who could forget Neal Hurwitz?”) and Bill Sales. Nods of recognition coursed through the audience.
Reunion panels of earlier decades had been criticized for their outsized focus on white male perspectives, and on the panel that followed Cronin’s remarks, care had been taken to re-balance the demographics. The four featured speakers represented a 50:50 ratio across the principal divides of race and gender that had most characterized political discourse of the late 1960s.
Teasing “that Svengali” Cronin for obliging him to dredge up a deeply personal experience, Ray Brown made it apparent that he joined this panel to impart one message: that the Columbia protests “cannot be understood outside the context of race.” Though “the Gray Lady chose not to tell the story,” he stressed that the black students of Hamilton Hall formed the true epicenter of Columbia ’68. The delay in police action, Brown pointed out, stemmed entirely from those students’ solidarity with the Harlem community, given politicians’ fear that a bust in Hamilton—just weeks after Dr. King’s assassination—would risk all-out revolt in Harlem. The black students’ ability to remain grounded in the community, Brown said, enabled them to stage a mature, focused, and ultimately successful protest: “By the way, we won, and with no casualties!”
Paul Berman, author of several books on politics and literature, drew parallels to movements such as the iconic Paris student and worker strikes in May 1968, affirming that the Columbia strikers had felt “tremblings of the same earthquake in every part of the world.” These movements “set a worldwide agenda that lasted 48 years,” he declared. “I think that agenda ended in 2016. We are now in the era of the counterrevolution.” The audience nodded.
A lawyer in white-collar criminal defense and international human rights, Brown is as “silver-tongued” today as his contemporaries remembered him being when he addressed crowds as a spokesman for the Hamilton Steering Committee. During the panel discussion, his words defined the terms of debate, key phrases reverberating in later discussion as either quotations or points of protracted dispute. Expressing his confusion at how others have remembered the movement (“What level of sophomoric myopia has taken hold of my campus?!”), he explained his “shock” in recent years at how many of his white contemporaries continue to feel “deeply hurt” by the moment at which black students had turned them away from Hamilton and urged them to occupy their own buildings. This move had been tactically “the right thing the to do,” he reiterated, conceding that SAS leadership could perhaps have “communicated more gracefully.”
Other panelists focused on broader geopolitical shifts. Paul Berman, author of several books on politics and literature, recalled “the feeling that something cosmically immense was taking place.” He drew parallels to movements such as the iconic Paris student and worker strikes in May 1968, affirming that the Columbia strikers had felt “tremblings of the same earthquake in every part of the world.” These movements “set a worldwide agenda that lasted 48 years,” he declared. “I think that agenda ended in 2016. We are now in the era of the counterrevolution.” The audience nodded.
Carolyn Rusti Eisenberg, a professor at Hofstra University and expert on 20th century U.S. foreign policy, articulated both an endorsement of the 1960s’ political spirit and a critique of past mistakes. She opened with the little-known fact that Nixon had considered the Columbia protests “a grave threat to the nation” (—one heard a “Jesus” in the audience—) that marked “a naked attempt to subvert and discredit” authority. She then went on to highlight the “non-existent” coordination of Columbia’s Strike Steering Committee. Recalling her time as a representative of occupants in Fayerweather Hall and the only woman on the initial Strike Steering Committee, Eisenberg posited that the group’s “macho atmosphere,” reinforced by its media portrayal as a guerilla contingent of white radicals, had led many Committee members to believe that their group should function as a “cadre” that issued directives pushing other occupants to an ever-higher standard of militancy. She recalled one bristling episode in which someone on the Committee, after the mayor’s office informed them of the impending police bust, accused her of being “a known CIA agent” for suggesting that they notify other occupied buildings. Past errors notwithstanding, she stressed that the protest “was really no panty raid” and recalled the gravity of the war’s proximity to student lives in that era. “Now that documents are declassified, we can more clearly see that domestic dissent had an effect” on the larger anti-war movement, Eisenberg concluded, adding that the impact might have come sooner had the movement been more inclusive.
Karla Spurlock-Evans, dean of multicultural affairs at Trinity College, recalled her personal experience as a Hamilton occupant. As a Barnard freshman from a predominantly white Connecticut mill town, she had “felt somewhat apart” from events she had “experienced vicariously from the television set.” She revealed with a smile that she had been an “accidental” protester, having first made her way to Hamilton to hear the campus band Soul Syndicate play Smokey Robinson before finding the doors locked behind her. “I was going there to hear ‘Ooh baby baby,’” she said to a murmur of audience laughter. Like Brown, she was “most animated politically by what I perceived to be Columbia’s insult to the community of Harlem,” she said, adding that she was transformed by the “more local than global” experience of being “part of a community that was itself evolving.” “Seven days later, I really did emerge with a sense of commitment,” Spurlock-Evans affirmed. “I was scared out of my mind”—she paused, then leaned into the mic—“I honestly felt that I was prepared to die if necessary.”
Carolyn Rusti Eisenberg, a professor at Hofstra University and expert on 20th-century U.S. foreign policy, articulated both an endorsement of the 1960s’ political spirit and a critique of past mistakes. She opened with the little-known fact that Nixon had considered the Columbia protests “a grave threat to the nation” that marked “a naked attempt to subvert and discredit” authority.
Berman seized on Brown’s comments. “When the black students asked the whites to leave, that was extremely upsetting,” he said, explaining that many students who were neither black nor white, along with black students who did not identify with SAS, were “thrown into an existential quandary” when the protest divided itself along racial lines.
Brown acknowledged that “many folks felt rejected” but maintained that the Hamilton students “did the job,” noting with some glee that Chairman Mao had sent them a congratulatory telegram (“now he’s turning in his grave when he sees what’s happening in China”). Regarding Eisenberg’s critique on the lack of consensus in their decision-making, he argued that the multiplicity of identities in the movement (“we had Muslims and Christians, conservatives and radicals…”) created an environment where “you can’t vote on every decision.”
“I won’t even begin to try to litigate,” Eisenberg joked in response, but added that the white students’ expulsion from Hamilton Hall was “experienced by a lot of white male leadership as humiliating.”
Cronin invited the audience to ask questions, noting with a hint of chagrin that not many young students appeared to be present.
He called on a young man who introduced himself as a third-year student, then explained that he took a course on Columbia 1968 and was studying the police “raids,” a term the rest of the audience promptly corrected to “bust.” (“Language,” he shrugged). He asked the protesters to what extent they had been aware that they were risking their lives.
“Our principal objective was not to sustain casualties,” Brown clarified. He described how, against the backdrop of social unrest and of “bullets whizzing by our head in Harlem after Dr. King’s death,” it became necessary to take a peaceful stand in Hamilton. He highlighted that much of the police violence had occurred in other buildings where students resisted arrest, while Hamilton occupants had pre-negotiated peaceful arrests with the City Human Rights Commission and NAACP Legal Office. “We weren’t worried about people’s feelings,” he exclaimed. “We were worried about people’s lives!”
A woman stood up to argue that “a lot of white students felt that they wanted to prove that they cared,” and that the ejection from Hamilton ultimately served “to radicalize the whites.”
“I’m not being patronizing by saying I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings,” Brown insisted. “I’m shocked to hear how much resonance this still has.”
Still, hurt feelings seemed to be the evening’s leitmotif. It was hard to shake the sense that much remained unprocessed since the event of decades past. “I was in Hamilton Hall and my feelings were hurt,” proclaimed a man towards the front, voice booming.
Other men offered protracted remarks on the shrewdness and discipline of the black students, contrasting them with the whites who seemed “out of their minds.”
Another man mentioned the December ’67 draft protest on Whitehall Street. “I was bitten on the arm by a horse,” he says. He continued at length, speculating his contemporaries were “high on some fumes” and reminiscing on the “heady times” before asking, “was the draft as paramount in your minds as it was in mine?”
The panelists acknowledged that it was indeed of paramount importance.
“Forgive me, concise questions please!” Cronin added before calling on the next person.
A man in a black ten-gallon hat stood. “There were lots of protesters like me at Columbia who were not students,” he began. “We called them outside agitators. We didn’t think of it as a negative thing…”
“Honestly, please, a specific question?” Cronin asked.
Karla Spurlock-Evans, dean of multicultural affairs at Trinity College, recalled her personal experience as a Hamilton occupant. … “I was scared out of my mind”—she paused, then leaned into the mic—“I honestly felt that I was prepared to die if necessary.”
“We occupied Math Hall. Math was the only building not busted by the police—”
“I am sorry, but that was simply not true,” Cronin cut in. “Read the book. Johnny Sundstrom’s essay talks about agitators.”
“I’m saying the agitators played a big—”
“I’m sorry, do you have a question?”
“My question is, were you aware that outside agitators played an important role in the protests?”
As the evening wore on, the event, intended to be as a two-way dialogue between the old and young, increasingly became an echo chamber in which members of the older generation reflexively appraised the validity of one another’s memories. The conversation that unfolded had little to do with Columbia today. Younger audience members, when they got a word in edgewise, seemed to ask questions immaterial to the event’s emotional core. A junior history major, who had also taken a course on the protests, asked whether any students may have agreed with the protesters in spirit but still wanted a new gym in light of Columbia’s winning streak in men’s basketball that season.
• • •
How have the student protests of 1968 remained so indelible?
“We now might call it a brand,” reflects Michael Neumann, a founding member of Columbia SDS, who today considers the tactics a form of “therapy through ‘radicalism’” that “sought cosmetically extreme actions as a means of transcending its middle-class hang-ups.” As Joan Didion more wryly described the scene at San Francisco State, campus rebellion resembled “an instance of the enfants terribles and the Board of Trustees unconsciously collaborating on a wishful fantasy (Revolution on Campus) and playing it out in time for the six o’clock news.” The Spectator’s editors expanded on the protests’ air of revolutionary make-believe:
Each side viewed the University as a miniature version of full-scale national revolution. Just as the administrators saw themselves as the representatives of law and order, the student leaders often cast themselves in the role of the vanguard of impending global insurrection…when this analysis was exaggerated—as it was by both sides—to the point where the Battle of Morningside Heights became the decisive engagement in the War Between the Generations, its only result was highly principled stubbornness in each camp.
The mainstream press told a similar story about Columbia 1968, mostly centered on the picaresque narrative of a band of white radicals who, led by Mark Rudd, waged an insurgent revolution against the Columbia administration and, by extension, American society at large. This “overdramatization of dissent,” Eisenberg told me in a phone interview, consisted in “a concentration of media that went from zero to ten, from ignoring the protest to describing it as more extreme than it was.”
Many women have since spoken out against the profoundly gendered dynamics of the protest’s day-to-day operations. Women’s participation went largely undocumented; the all-male editorial board of the Spectator credited the “girls” primarily with “manag[ing] food and housekeeping details,” neglecting to mention that among the 700 students arrested were nearly 200 women.
SDS, for one, seemed keener to perpetuate the movement than negotiate substantive compromises, an attitude immortalized in Rudd’s catchphrase, “the issue is not the issue.” Some observed that when George Collins, an art history professor and opponent of the gym, approached the students to discuss his proposal to preserve the aesthetics of Morningside Park, “no one seemed interested.”
The demonstrators understood that their tactics appeared at times to be more cinema than sedition. “[S]ome of our great debates were over things like whether or not to make the toilets unisex,” Meredith Sue Willis recalled of her time in Math Hall. At one point a few Low Library occupants considered blockading entrances with rare Korean vases to deter police intrusion. One climactic battle in the guerrilla revolution was incited when the Majority Coalition, a counter-demonstration force of students clad in jackets and ties, formed a cordon around Low to cut off the occupants’ food supply. The outcome was a war of “salamis, candy bars, oranges and grapefruits” conducted between demonstrators tossing their incoming groceries through windows and counter-demonstrators “waving blankets and frying pans over their heads to block their opponents’ passes.” Spectator editors observed amongst the skirmish a “demonstrator wielding a knife squar[ing] off against a counter-demonstrator wielding a soda bottle.”
Caught in the fervor of another night, a young couple—she in a white sweater, jeans, and veil, he in a Nehru jacket, orange turtleneck, and a small Black Power button—made their vows in a candlelit ceremony before 300 fellow Fayerweather occupants, pronounced by the reverend on hand to be “children of the new age.”
For some, despite the fun, life in the movement threw inequities among peers in sharp relief. “The experience for me was life-altering in two ways,” Nancy Biberman told me. “One was being at the center of a student movement against the war and doing something that felt important. The second was the experience of feeling less than equal.” Many women have since spoken out against the profoundly gendered dynamics of the protest’s day-to-day operations. Women’s participation went largely undocumented; the all-male editorial board of the Spectator credited the “girls” primarily with “manag[ing] food and housekeeping details,” neglecting to mention that among the 700 students arrested were nearly 200 women. In his book The Sixties, Todd Gitlin broadly observes that men in the national SDS movements “sought [women] out, recruited them, took them seriously, honored their intelligence—then subtly demoted them to girlfriends, wives, note-takers, coffeemakers.” Many women were simply shouted down; Willis told me that meetings in Math had “no sense of go-round or encouraging quiet people to take a turn,” that floor time went to those “who could talk longest, loudest, and with the most references to Marx.” Even many of the more militant women “ended up on the peanut-butter-and-jelly detail.”
Yet at the time, few of these grievances were explicitly vocalized. Biberman, then a member of the expanded Strike Steering Committee, wrote during the protests:
Despite the rhetoric of making decisions that affect our lives, we have often found ourselves behind desks answering phones and typing endless statements handed officiously to us by our bosses. The curious thing about it is that very few of us seem to mind. Somehow, the idea of being the soft, feminine voice saying, “Good morning, Strike Central,” is far more appealing than rapping to a crowd about administration “bullshit.”
Today, Biberman posits that part of the reason these resentments remained unarticulated at the time was that they had not yet been given form by the coming language of the Women’s Movement. The other part was that the gendered inequality of the strike was simply unexpected. “I had never felt that I was anything other than an intellectual equal to any of the guys I knew until the strike, until realizing there were meetings I wasn’t invited to, and decisions I didn’t participate in making,” Biberman said. “Ultimately, the experience taught me to use my own voice throughout my life.” As a Legal Services lawyer, she went on to win one of the first class-action lawsuits in the country to give battered women access to court and police protection; she has now worked for over 30 years in affordable housing development in New York City.
Willis, raised “with the language of righteousness and sin” in a West Virginia coal town, had found herself drawn to the “wondrous political motor-mouths” of the movement, compared to whom her own “skills at writing English papers were nothing”; she has since published over 20 books and now teaches writing at NYU.
For the white peers of the Hamilton occupants, the central memory is often that of being turned away from Hamilton Hall on the first day of the protest. In the context of a united front for change, their dismissal from Hamilton registered as a rejection of their empathy.
Karla Spurlock-Evans told me that she experienced “some kind of unspoken connection” with fellow protesters in Hamilton Hall that “created fertile ground for [her] willingness to open up to a more radical approach to social change.” The students in Hamilton upheld a distinct discipline in their protest, regimenting their days with eating periods and study periods and bathing intervals that began at 6 a.m., as well as maintaining contact not only with the West Harlem Tenants Association and other community groups but also with prominent black leaders like H. Rap Brown and Charles 37X Kenyatta. “Our efforts to me were motivated by a sense of wanting not to be alienated by a community that was quite outside of the Columbia bubble,” Spurlock-Evans said. She has since devoted much of her life to promoting diversity in campus communities.
Yet for the white peers of the Hamilton occupants, the central memory is often that of being turned away from Hamilton Hall on the first day of the protest. In the context of a united front for change, their dismissal from Hamilton registered as a rejection of their empathy. For though it was true that their talk of protest mixed with talk of partying—precisely the lack of discipline SAS aimed to avoid—the movement was driven by a conviction that they were still fighting for issues that mattered. “You really did have a generation of people that profoundly objected to the role of our government on these issues and resented Columbia’s participation in it,” Eisenberg said. “I think that’s why people stayed.” If it was felt that authenticity could only be confirmed by a show of militancy, it did not seem insensible that so many white students in other buildings then refused to compromise on their demands, brought to a ham-fisted denouement by the police.
The real revolution, therefore, was not across generations but within a generation. Columbia 1968, for all the political pontification and interminable meetings, really lives on in the little social gestures of quotidian inclusions and exclusions, of rebuffs private and public, of voices heard or voices ignored and now revisited by modern critique. It’s no wonder that, 50 years later, the protest’s participants still want a small share of that memory.
• • •
“You have to go back to the existential question: were you ready to die?” Frank Kehl stood before the Faculty House audience and recalled his time in Fayerweather. “The agony was, is it gonna come by mace? Is it gonna come by gun? Is it gonna come by tear gas? That was at least an agenda item …”
“Frank, please, is there gonna be a question?” Cronin asked, a pleading in his voice. After a decade of soliciting memories, the editor seemed at this moment to have finally grasped the Sisyphean nature of his project, having found himself over the evening’s course clinging increasingly tenuously onto the particular assemblage of narratives that he had so painstakingly curated but now could only defend from further amendment. Any contribution from the audience that was not explicitly a question posed an implicit challenge, a call for re-analysis. But of course there were no questions; to each of those involved, there could be no question as to what had happened, no version of events as worthy of centricity as the one of their own witnessing.
How have the student protests of 1968 remained so indelible? “We now might call it a brand,” reflects Michael Neumann, a founding member of Columbia SDS, who today considers the tactics a form of “therapy through ‘radicalism’” that “sought cosmetically extreme actions as a means of transcending its middle-class hang-ups.”
Hands competed in the air. A woman in a purple cable-knit sweater, whose hand had been shooting up after each of the last five men had delivered their soliloquies, finally spoke (“Yeah, we need a woman’s voice!”, cheered a seated woman). She explained that she had been a graduate student in 1968, and mused that undergraduates in SDS had been “out of touch.” “Any comment?”
“This is the hidden element,” Eisenberg nodded. “The level of neglect in undergraduate education was very extreme.” She reflected on a confrontation she witnessed in which a professor plainly refused to read an undergraduate’s essay. (The audience let out a knowing gasp, surmising amongst themselves which professor it was.) “There was this idea that Columbia was Athens and all these barbarians came and trashed Athens,” she continued. “Columbia wasn’t Athens.”
What did the trashing of Athens achieve? It wove mainstream issues and discrete confusions into a broader brocade that filled the otherwise terrifying blank space of post-collegiate possibility—of death overseas, of social disintegration, of personal stagnation—with a relatively finite set of ideals to live by, a set of hierarchies to challenge, victims to protect and villains to overthrow, caste systems within class systems ensnared in webs of collusion from the local university to the deepest layers of the government. It drew the contours of a Manichaean world that offered only a choice between doing something—for even doomed tactics implied the possibility of a future—or nothing. And though students entered the movement with varying degrees of political conviction from the inchoate to the zealous, they all shared a basic awareness of the issues at hand. With the same limited set of newspapers and TV channels to go by, no fragmentation in information flow had yet emerged on which opinions could diverge with the abandon they do today.
“There was this idea that Columbia was Athens and all these barbarians came and trashed Athens,” Eisenberg continued. “Columbia wasn’t Athens.”
And so while Columbia 1968 was a youthful political campaign as flawed as any, it was in another sense a demonstration of what it meant to be young and have a common stake in the future, what it meant to belong to an age, what it meant, in the broadest sense, to be alive.
All the ’68 veterans are hopeful, if mildly dissatisfied by a perceived lack of exigency in today’s youth activism, that today’s students might create some lasting change.
“I’m afraid we’re running late,” Cronin concluded. He reminded the audience that the evening’s discussions barely scratched the surface of the events in that Spring of 1968. In his hurried speech, he urged us to follow the project’s Twitter feed.
As people rose from their seats, a woman in the audience delivered one final impassioned critique of the editor’s own behavior, a barely audible diatribe in which I made out the words “authoritarian” and “disrespectful.”