On April 23, 1968, Columbia University students began a nonviolent occupation of campus buildings that lasted nearly a week. Students and community supporters called for the university to cut its ties to research for the war in Vietnam and to end construction of a gym in Morningside Park. After negotiations failed, the administration sent in the police, injuring many and arresting over 700, triggering a campus-wide strike that shut down the university.
Forty years later, participants in the protests organized a conference about the events of 1968 and about war, racism, sexism, and the role of universities. This web site is an outgrowth of that conference. It makes the proceedings of that conference and other material on the strike available to the public for non-commercial use. Our goal is to provide a repository for our experiences of the history of Columbia 1968 and to create a source for reflection and discussion of the events and issues of that time and how they relate to today.
Years like 1968 don’t come around very often. Hope and horror ricocheted around the world in mind-bending fury. The year began with the election of Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, marking the beginning of a thaw that came to be known as Prague Spring. It was followed three weeks later by the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which suddenly made the mighty U.S. seem vulnerable. A week after that, three black students were killed by police during a protest against a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg, S.C. In early March, Senator Eugene McCarthy, who called for a negotiated end to the war, came close to beating President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Before the month was out, Senator Robert Kennedy had thrown his hat in the ring, the My Lai massacre had occurred, and Johnson had announced he would not seek another term. A few days later, in early April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and 60 cities erupted in grief and rage. The year was less than a quarter gone.
At Columbia, as elsewhere, students were reeling. A memorial service for King was disrupted in protest against Columbia’s plans to build a gymnasium on public park land that offered only limited backdoor access to residents of nearby Harlem. An official of the Selective Service System was hit by a lemon meringue pie during a talk on campus, a protest against the draft and the university’s involvement with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which did weapons research for the war in Vietnam.
On April 23, several hundred students gathered at the sundial on the Columbia campus to protest the war and the gym led by the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Some went to Morningside Park, where they tore down a fence around the gymnasium construction site and battled with police. Then they and other protesters marched into Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate classroom building, occupied its lobby, and prevented the dean of the college from leaving his office. By morning, African American students continued to occupy Hamilton, while other Columbia and Barnard students, mostly white, took over President Grayson Kirk’s office in Low Library. Soon student protesters took over three other buildings—Fayerweather, Mathematics, and Avery.
For six days, while demonstrations for and against the occupation roiled the campus, faculty members attempted to mediate. But to no avail. The stumbling block: a demand for amnesty for the protesters that the administration was unwilling to accept. In the early morning hours of April 30, Kirk summoned the New York City police, who entered the occupied buildings, beat many of the demonstrators, as well as bystanders and faculty members, and arrested more than 700. The building occupation was over, but the outrage was just starting to build. Thousands of students and faculty, many radicalized by the police action, went on strike, effectively shutting down the university for the rest of the semester.
The gym was never built in Morningside Park, and Columbia’s weapons research contract was terminated. But the implications of the 1968 occupation and strike went far beyond those two demands. In the wake of Columbia’s protest, campuses around the country exploded. And students took to the streets in cities around the world, from Paris and Prague to Tokyo and Mexico City. The social framework—institutions that excluded minorities, political parties that disenfranchised voters, a government that waged an unpopular war—seemed to be coming apart. Hopes were soon dashed. Before the year was out, Kennedy was assassinated, Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks, the Chicago police violently beat protesters at the Democratic Convention, and Richard Nixon was elected President.
On the 40th anniversary of the Columbia protests, alumni from around the country joined with current students, faculty, and community members to re-examine those historic events and their legacy. The three-day conference, which was held April 24-27, was part reunion, part reflection, and part reaching out to current students in an intergenerational dialogue about issues of race and war that still very much haunt America. Participants, including scholars and activists, addressed such questions as the ethics of violent protest, the nature of academic freedom, and the consequences of 1968, from the emergence of the feminist movement to the creation of ethnic studies programs and the mainstreaming of the counterculture. A special event was a dramatic presentation by many of the people involved in 1968—a living history of the occupation and strike. The 40th anniversary conference was both painful and joyful—fitting for a commemoration of 1968—and a unique encounter between generations. One of the last activities of the conference was a tree planting sponsored by Friends of Morningside Park and other community groups at the site in Morningside Park where the gym was to have been constructed.
This site has been created by the organizers of the 2008 conference: Nancy Biberman, Thulani Davis, Robert Friedman, Tom Hurwitz, Hilton Obenzinger, and Laura Pinsky, in collaboration with Woody Lewis and Harris Rashid.