April 23-30, 1968: Columbia University Students Stage a Strike
by Bonnie K. Goodman
Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.
On this day in history…April 23-30, 1968 leftist students took over Columbia University, NYC occupying five buildings on the campus before forcibly being removed by the police.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the most turbulent years in modern American history. The year was just beginning and yet as early as Aprils it was already volatile. Opposition to the Vietnam War was at an all time high, so much so that President Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for another presidential term. Just a few weeks before Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and student protests raged across the country’s universities, peaking in April 1968 with the stand off at Columbia University. According to historian Jeffrey Meyers, the protests “took place during a volatile and often explosive period in American history: between the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (September 1964) and the student riots in Paris, May 1968, between the assassinations of Martin Luther King in Memphis, April 4, 1968 and of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968, between the March on the Pentagon, October 1967 and the bloody protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 1968, between the Tet Offensive February 1968 and the My Lai Massacre, March 1968, and the escalating protest against the war in Vietnam.” (Myers, 2003) On April 23, leftist students began a strike at the university, which lasted eight days, culminating in a riot in the early hours of April 30 when the police busted the students.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Columbia University
In 1962 Tom Hayden, a twenty-one year old student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor created the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Along with other student activists at the university, they wrote out the Port Huron Statement, the organization’s statement of principles. In only two years, there were 40 SDS chapters on university campuses. Among the organization’s purposes was educating their fellow students about “the evils of capitalism, the plight of blacks, and the perfidies of the military-industrial complex.” (McCaughey, 427) In 1965, as the US was going on the offense in Vietnam, SDS turned its attention to the war.
On March 10, 1965, Columbia University established the fifty-second chapter of SDS, led by Ted Kaptchuck and Dave Gilbert. In its first few months, the chapter focused its attention on building its membership, which included campus radicals and sympathetic faculty, and trying to determine what the relationship was between the university and the country’s defense establishment. (McCaughey, 427) There were other leftist student groups at Columbia including the Columbia Citizenship Council (CCC), organized in 1959 with a mission to help the local community. Most of the University’s chaplains sympathized or supported the leftist groups.
During the revolt a majority of students supported neither the protesters nor the counter protesters. As Robert A. McCaughey writes in his account, “The students who joined SDS, CCC, and anti-war groups and who became sufficiently persuaded of the complicity of the university in the perpetuation of whatever evil they were protesting to move to shut it down were a minority in a minority.” McCaughey, 428 Columbia University had 20,000 students at the time, 6,000 of whom were undergraduates. By comparison, the radical organizations on campus boasted just three hundred members, with another seven hundred more providing moral support. SDS had just fifty members with another hundred supporters. The majority of the student activists were undergraduates. McCaughey, 428
Leading up to the Revolt: SDS Protests 1965-1967
Student protests against the university’s authority commenced in the spring of 1965. The university took minimal actions against the protesters to minimize media attention. University President Grayson Kirk believed the best policy was to keep the disruptions to a minimum, which would have worked, according to McCaughey, “had student protesters wanted immunity in exchange for not directly challenging the president’s disciplinary authority. But it was precisely the latter that the protesters wanted.” (McCaughey, 431) The students primarily opposed military-related recruiters on campus including the NROTC, the Marine Corps, the CIA and Dow Chemical (which supplied Agent Orange for the Vietnam War).
The university’s patience was tested in the spring of 1967 when CIA and Marine Corps recruiters came to the campus sparking anti-war protests. Two incidents prompted President Kirk to ban all indoor demonstrations for the next academic year. By the fall of 1967, SDS seemed to be losing momentum. The majority of Columbia’s students opposed the protests, SDS could not forge alliances with other leftist groups, and the groups were divided by internal battles. The student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, noted on October 30, 1967 that the tactics of SDS were ineffective.
The Three Issues at the Center of the Revolt
There were three central issues behind the revolt with two factions merging together for a common goal; opposition to the university’s administration. The first issue was Columbia University’s proposed expansion into Harlem. The university was planning to build a new gymnasium on city park property in Morningside Heights bordering Harlem. Both Columbia students and local residents would be using the gym; however, they would use separate entrances. Although Harlem civic organizations approved the project, militants objecting to the use of separate entrances, claiming this was an example of blatant racism. (Meyers, 2003) African-American students from the Students’ African-American Society (SAS) and the CCC protested the expansion, calling the new building “Gym Crow.”
At SDS there was a power struggle between Ted Kaptchuk, who wanted to focus on membership, recruitment, and education (what critics referred to as the “praxis axis”) and Mark Rudd, who was more interested in “direct confrontation with authorities.” (McCaughey, 437) Rudd, a junior who had just returned from an extended trip to Cuba, believed in participatory democracy. On March 13, 1968, Rudd was elected chairman of the Columbia SDS chapter on the slogan: “How to get the SDS Moving Again and Screw the University All in One Fell Swoop.” (McCaughey, 437) Rudd was unpopular with many. Columbia’s faculty disliked his arrogance, and those on the radical left objected to his suburban New Jersey upbringing, his athletic country club good looks and his male chauvinism. Tom Hayden described Rudd as “absolutely committed to an impossible yet galvanizing dream: that of transforming the entire student movement through this particular student revolt, into a successful effort to bring down the system.” But Hayden also described Rudd as “sarcastic and smugly dogmatic.” (McCaughey, 437)
Another of the issues that preoccupied radical students was the university’s often secret involvement and affiliation with the Institute of Defense Analysis. (Conlin, 284) The IDA did not issue contracts, but affiliated universities got preferential treatment from agencies that did. Columbia’s involvement with the IDA was common knowledge. What was not known, however, was the extent of the university’s military research. Columbia’s Institute of East European Studies was accumulating economic data for the CIA, while faculty members may have been conducting some contract research. The news came as a surprise to the university community. SDS was firmly committed to convincing the university to disengage itself from the IDA, and in March 1968, around 1,700 Columbia students signed a petition urging the university to break its affiliation as had other universities such as the University of Chicago.
The third issue was the university’s crackdown on the protesters, though this was slow to materialize. In February when two hundred students protested against Dow Chemical recruiters on campus, they went unpunished, as did Mark Rudd a few weeks later when he shoved a lemon meringue pie in the face of the visiting New York City director of Selective Service. But when at the end of March Rudd and a hundred members of SDS staged a new protest at Low Library six of the group’s leaders were identified and put on probation. Immediately the gym issue became relevant, and SDS students began protesting the disciplinary action, declaiming: “No disciplinary action against the Low Six.” (McCaughey, 440) The students claimed their constitutional rights had been violated.
Spring 1968 Events Leading up to the Campus Revolt
In early 1968, the tension that had been mounting around the country’s campuses had “reached a fever pitch.” (Davis, 39) The primary reasons were the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek another term, and Martin Luther King’s assassination. SDS saw Johnson’s announcement as a reason to distrust all US institutions including the university administration. As Kirkpatrick Sale explains: “April began the escalation of student resistance that would mark this spring as the most explosive period up to that time in the history of American universities.” (Sale, 429) Columbia’s SDS protest coincided with the Tens Days of Resistance, a massive demonstration against the Vietnam War on campuses all over the country. Fifty colleges and universities participated. On the campuses there were “rallies, marches, teach-ins, and sit-ills, climaxing in a one-day ‘student strike’ on April 26.” As Sale writes, “It was a demonstration of significant proportions — probably as many as a million students stayed away from classes … and yet somehow its impact on the public was slight.” (Sale, 429)
It was the memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr. at Columbia that made the April riots all but inevitable. One of the chaplains at Columbia, John D. Cannon, believed there should be a memorial service. President Kirk and Provost David Truman were not invited until they heard about the plan and insisted on participating. Their presence prompted the SAS not to attend. Held on April 9, the service was well-attended, and was going smoothly until Mark Rudd came to the pulpit while Truman was speaking and “proceeded to declare the service an ‘obscenity’ given Columbia’s systematic mistreatment of blacks and workers King had lost his life championing.” (McCaughey, 441)
Afterwards Rudd left the chapel with forty other students; the walkout shocked the faculty and administration in attendance. The administration was unable to take disciplinary action against Rudd because Chaplain Cannon essentially blessed Rudd’s action by claiming “that St. Paul’s welcomed the views of anyone ‘who sincerely believes he is moved by the spirit.’” (McCaughey, 441) Although it appalled history Professor Fritz Stern, who caught Rudd before he departed and told him “his actions in the chapel were akin to the takeover of Socialist meetings by Nazis in Weimar Germany.” (McCaughey, 441) As McCaughey claims, “This would not be the last time this analogy was invoked in the weeks that followed.” (McCaughey, 441)
SDS found what they believed was a legitimate excuse to protest the administration. SDS adopted the race issue and the gym as their own, and on April 12, the chapter’s steering committee voted to mount demonstrations throughout the spring in protest of the gym and the university’s connections with the Pentagon “war machine.” Then on April 17 at the SDS general assembly, nearly a hundred students voted in favor of spring demonstrations. April 23 was set as the day for the first day of the protest, which would begin with a noontime rally at the sundial in front of the Low Library. Rudd’s mastermind planning included two pre-protest steps to “assure a crowd at the sundial.” (McCaughey, 441) In a letter entitled “Letter to Uncle Grayson” on April 19 Rudd “listed three nonnegotiable demands that SDS had settled on: the cessation of gym construction; Columbia’s withdrawal from the IDA; and no disciplinary action against the Low Six.” (McCaughey, 441) Rudd also began negotiating with other student groups to embrace their issues of concern. According to McCaughey, this “marked a new departure for SAS, which until now had avoided involvement in any campus issues that were not directly related to the circumstances of black students.” (McCaughey, 441)
Although the Ten Days of Resistance was according to Sale “the largest student strike in the history of the country,” it was dwarfed by the sheer size of the Columbia strike, which dominated the press. The media made it seem as if other universities were copying Columbia. (Sale, 429) Over a million students participated in the nationwide strike on April 26. The next day there was a huge anti-war rally in Central park with eighty-seven thousand attending. Still the eight-day saga at Columbia unfolded in the media and stood out in the minds of many as the ultimate student protest. (Davis, 41)
April 23, 1968: Day One
On April 23, 1968 at noon the SDS, CCC, SAS and the university’s black students joined at the sundial in a protest that drew more than a thousand students. (Davis, 39) The SDS and SAS demonstrated at Columbia’s Low Library, but decided they needed to take a more active approach. The groups wanted to get into the Low Library to confront President Kirk, but counter-protesters, the anti-SDS–Students for a Free Campus–blocked the front entrance and the building’s rear entrance was locked. Mark Rudd tried to take charge, using a bullhorn to organize the students. Someone spontaneously suggested the group exit to the grounds of the proposed gymnasium. At the gym site, they were prevented from entering by the police and one student was arrested. As a result, SDS’s main grievance shifted to the student that had just been arrested. Rudd wanted to organize “a democratic decision-making event, proposing a future student strike.” (Boren, 174) However, when someone suggested regrouping again at the sundial the frustrated group moved again.
But instead of moving to the sundial they went to the lobby of Hamilton Hall. It was there that Rudd gained leadership control of the protest, suggesting that the protesters “take a hostage and occupy Hamilton Hall, the main classroom building of Columbia.” (Boren, 174) Their chosen hostage was the university’s interim Dean Henry Coleman, who had not left the building after 6 P.M. in the evening when the majority of the students and faculty had already left. The protesters held him in his office for 24 hours. Coleman was an agreeable hostage, partially because he was treated well by his captors: “We had more food than we could possibly eat.” (Davis, 40)
Although the protests had started off haphazardly, the students began organizing themselves. Rudd acted as the leader, and “appointed a steering committee.” (Boren, 174) The students began drafting their demands to the university, and organized a stand off with the authorities. They also set about posting all over the interior of the building Che Guevara posters and political slogans. (Boren, 174) As Meyers reports, the students “took their revolutionary style and dress, their beards and berets, from Che Guevara” and seemed, as “Dupee wrote, ‘to unite the politics of a guerrilla chieftain with the aesthetic flair of a costumer and an interior decorator.’ ” (Meyers, 2003) Hamilton Hall became a closed occupation and several dozen armed black activists were invited. (McCaughey, 443)
The students made six demands. The first two were the withdrawal from the IDA and a moratorium on building the gym. The others included the right to stage indoor demonstrations, the establishment of open hearings on student discipline, the dropping of charges against the student arrested at the first demonstration, and the granting of amnesty for past, present, and immediate future acts of the protesters. (Colin, 287)
April 24, 1968: Day Two
On April 24, the second day of the revolt the two factions broke ranks, the black students no longer wanting to collaborate with the white ones, and kicked them out of the building. The dynamic changed at midnight, when the SAS voted “that an ongoing occupation of Hamilton–now dubbed Malcolm X Liberation College–should be a blacks only project.” (McCaughey, 444) Although Rudd and SDS were shocked, they agreed to leave. The black students began fortifying the building against a possible police attack and they took over keeping Coleman hostage. (Boren, 174-175) The white students not knowing what to do, took up the suggestion by one of the black students to “Get your own building.” (McCaughey, 444) Rudd, SDSers and white student protesters chose to take over the Low Library, and particularly make their headquarters in President Grayson Kirk’s office. They easily took over the building almost uncontested in the early morning hours. Soon however, there were rumblings that the police were approaching, prompting Rudd and other SDS leaders to jump from the window. The remaining twenty-five students remained there unchallenged for the next six days, with many others joining. Rudd wanted to occupy other buildings, but SDSers voted against it fearing it would scare away support, prompting Rudd to briefly resign his post.
The administration made its headquarters in the unoccupied part of Low Library, and although President Kirk wanted to call in the police and resolve the strike quickly, Provost Truman opposed such action. The administration feared the black students would incite residents in Harlem and was cautious in dealing with them. Support grew rapidly for the strike with students taking over other buildings on campus. Students opposed to the strike “began marching on the city campus” and tried to retake Hamilton Hall, without success. (Boren, 175) (McCaughey, 444)
April 25, 1968: Day Three
Day Three ended with graduate students taking over Fayweather Hall. However the most important event of the day was the faculty’s decision to try to resolve the strike. The faculty made their headquarters in Philosophy 301 where they convened an emergency meeting. Daniel Bell offered the most popular resolution, which called for the students to vacate the occupied buildings and a tripartite committee consisting of faculty, students, and the administration to decide on appropriate disciplinary action. He ended by claiming, “We believe that any differences have to be settled peacefully and we trust that police action will not be used to clear university buildings.” (McCaughey, 447) The SAS released Dean Coleman, and he joined the meeting that almost unanimously endorsed Bell’s proposal.
Kirk and Truman were not as supportive. President Kirk announced that classes were canceled until Monday, and Provost Truman told the faculty the police might need to be called in. In response the faculty created the Ad Hoc Faculty Group (AHFG), which would insert itself between the police and the students.
The students were for the most part were unwilling to work with the faculty. The university hoped to end the stand off by announcing that construction on the gymnasium would stop. But things remained at an impasse for four days. The students demanded amnesty for those involved in the revolt, while the administration resisted, fearful that amnesty would give students an incentive to stage another strike later. (Boren, 175)
The day also marked the occupation of another building, after students in Fayerweather considered abandoning their occupation, hard-line SDSers moved on to Mathematics Hall. Later it would be the scene of the most radical protests. National radical leaders came to the campus to endorse the plight of their local chapters. Black Power leaders Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee also came into to speak with the African-American students occupying Hamilton Hall.
April 26, 1968: Day Four
Faculty members were staying round the clock at Philosophy Hall, but in the early morning Provost Truman warned that the faculty must leave. The administration called in the police “to secure the campus,” and plainclothes policemen scuffled with faculty members at the building. (Boren, 175) Still President Kirk decided to withhold widespread police action, holding out the hope that the AHFG could work out a compromise. A break seemed in sight after a meeting with SDS leadership; Rudd agreed to meet on the next day, Saturday, with AHFG at Philosophy 301.
April 27, 1968: Day Five
AHFG was willing to offer Rudd full amnesty for the protesters at the meeting, but he exclaimed, “Bullshit,” and left. Day Five also saw the appearance of national SDS leaders including Tom Hayden, who held control over one building. (Boren, 175) Counter protesters tried to stop food from being delivered to those involved in the strike. Other strike supporters served as supply blockaders around the occupied buildings.
A routine set in on campus. With the exception of those in Hamilton, protesters moved in and out of the buildings easily. The protesters made themselves comfortable inside the five buildings they were occupying. As Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin write, “protesters slept in the president’s office, smoked his cigars, drank his sherry, and rifled through his files for politically incriminating documents…. Life inside the ‘liberated’ buildings was tense but passionate, sleepless yet amusing.” (Isserman, 229)
On day five even a marriage took place between two of the protesters, Richard Eagan and Andrea Boroff, who recalled, “We went out on the balcony, and the [university] chaplain proclaimed us children of a new age. There were flowers. There was cake. They took us out and marched us around campus with people banging on pots and pans. . . . Someone had keys to a faculty office and they gave us a honeymoon suite.” (Isserman, 229) The day ended with a rally: “The effective united front among all the variety of SDSers was neatly symbolized on Saturday night, when three SDS leaders addressed a crowd of antiwar marchers who collected outside the university gates: Mark Rudd, Ted Kaptchuk, and Tom Hayden, ” as Sale recounted. Sale, 437, 438
April 28, 1968: Day Six
The calm peace was about to turn violent. On Sunday the AHFG, consisting of sociology Professors Immmanuel Wallerstein, Daniel Bell, Allan Silver, history Professors David J. Rothman and Robert Fogelson and economics Professor Peter Kenen, drew up the “Bitter Pill Resolutions”:
- Cancellation of the gym construction.
- Columbia’s withdrawal from the IDA
- Establishment of the principle of collective punishment for the building occupiers
- The disavowal by the faculty of either party, students or administration, that refused to accept these resolutions. (McCaughey, 452)
The faculty involved with AHFG voted in favor of the resolutions, but when Kenen and Bell presented them to Provost Truman, he asked them not to present them at the joint faculty meeting or he would resign. At the meeting 400 members of the faculty from the university’s six schools decided to take a centrist position, neither repudiating their president nor abandoning the students. (McCaughey, 453) Meanwhile outside of Low, the power struggle between strikers and counter protesters increased, reaching a boiling point as the anti-protesters circled the building, blocking the delivery of food. The scene, featuring strikers precariously balanced on window ledges, was famously captured by Life magazine in an iconic photograph.
April 29, 1968: Day Seven
Day seven was make or break in the strike and became known as “the day of decision.” Desperate to resolve the matter, the administration told the police to prepare to remove the students in the next 24 hours if they would not agree to end the strike. The intervention would take place in the early morning hours. This detail was kept from AHFG. President Kirk was open to considering the “bitter pill” resolutions, but the university’s trustees wanted changes made. (McCaughey, 455) The protesters’ reaction to the resolutions showed that police action was inevitable. The SDS’s Strike Coordinating Committee refused to compromise without a guarantee of amnesty. Hamilton Hall protesters also refused to go along. Only the Majority Coalition accepted the resolutions, and after one last skirmish with Low’s food suppliers, they vacated their barrier to the building.
April 30, 1968: Day Eight
Eight days into the stand-off there was no solution in sight. The two groups could not meet in agreement, and university officials were concerned that the confrontation was only escalating. As Boren writes: “With major facilities of the campus held by student radicals, a growing national interest in the students’ revolt, and the threat that residents of Harlem might decide to intervene, President Kirk gave the police permission to remove the students on April 30, eight days into the occupation.” (Boren, 175) It was the only way to end the stalemate. The administration, the police, and Mayor Lindsay feared that despite an attempt to remove the students quietly, there would be a riot. It was this fear that had prolonged the strike for so long. One of the mayor’s advisers, Barry Gottehrer, who had watched the proceedings develop since early on in the strike, believed police action could “result in a massacre.” (McCaughey, 456) Mayor Lindsay looked for advice from Yale’s President Kingman Brewster, who told him, “the very future of the American university depended on punishing the strikers.” (McCaughey, 456) His advice helped persuade the mayor to allow the police to move in.
In making that decision, the university administration was giving up its right to control the situation, leaving the police in charge. Provost Truman claimed afterward: “It was like deciding to take an airplane ride and having to leave everything in the air to the pilot.” (McCaughey, 456) The police intended to clear each building one at a time. A thousand police officers were sent in to remove the approximately 1200 students. Police would enter unarmed and the removed students would be transported in vans to jail and booked. Many things could go wrong and ultimately they did. Outside, students and faculty could attempt to stop the police from entering, and inside the officers would be dealing with uncooperative students. It was the perfect recipe for an eventual riot.
At 2:00 A.M. police officers entered the campus to break up the revolt. James Kirkpatrick Davis says the “assault by officers” lasted “nearly to dawn.” (Davis, 41) The first building emptied out was Hamilton Hall; the black students holding the facility had agreed in advance to leave peaceably. Fifteen minutes later the eighty-six protesters were escorted out of the front entrance. The second building emptied was Low Library, at 2:25 A.M. When the police entered they met only passive resistance; ninety-three students were arrested. As one student recounted: “We all gave passive resistance and were dragged out–heads were banged, clothes were torn, some people were bleeding. Nothing serious though.” (McCaughey, 457) Avery Hall was next at 2:30 A.M. After students refused to leave the police broke down the door. Inside they encountered some resistance and both students and police officers received minor injuries; forty-two students were arrested.
With each building the resistance escalated, and it became more difficult to remove the protesters. Fayerweather Hall was the next building the police entered at 2:45 A.M. There the police encountered faculty and students who stood in their path in front of the doors. In the scuffle history Professor James Shenton received a head wound. The injuries continued to mount inside as students resisted the police; 286 students were forcibly removed. The last building was the Mathematics Hall, which was the most difficult to clear. It was there that the most radical students, SDSers, and Mark Rudd, were hold up. The lights were turned off, leaving the police in the dark. Students poured liquid soap all over the stairs to hinder the officers’ access. Students resisted removal and were taken out by force and injured in the process. They threw “bottles, flashlight batteries, furniture and anything else they could get their hands on at the oncoming police.” (Davis, 41) They could get violent, “biting, scratching, punching and even kicking police officers.” (Davis, 41) Stairwells and halls were barricaded with broken furniture, and even a janitor was thrown down a staircase to stop the police from advancing. (Davis, 41) In the end, 203 students were removed. In a little over an hour, all of the buildings were cleared of 711 strikers: 239 were from Columbia, 111 from Barnard, and the rest from other university/college campuses. Three faculty members were arrested. (Davis, 41)
The removal process was far more peaceful than many had feared with only 148 injuries, most of them minor. One police officer suffered a permanent back injury in the process. However, as observers, students, faculty, and families on the South Field were watching students being placed in the vans, a call went out from officers in the vans to other police on campus. It was then that the police came charging at the crowd, and riots and violence commenced. As McCaughey recounts: “A phalanx of police charged the spectators in the South Field, forcing them to retreat south and west until they were backed up against Ferris Booth Hall and Butler Library.” The gates were locked and the crowd could not escape the police. That was where the worst confrontations and violence occurred. As Peter Kenen observed: “Even those of us who were intellectually ready for police action were not emotionally ready for what we saw.” (McCaughey, 459) As Davis states, “the New York Police Department received the highest number of complaints ever received for a single police action. This was also the largest police action in the history of American Universities.” (Davis, 42) In the process, the police injured hundreds of students and faculty, and arrested hundreds more. The day would be remembered as the Battle of Morningside Heights. (Boren, 175)
When the stand-off was finally over seven days later on April 30, 1968 Columbia’s president Grayson Kirk went into his office at 4:30 A.M. to survey the damage. Protesters had placed a sign on his window ledge that read “LIBERATED AREA. BE FREE TO JOIN US.” (Davis, 39) The state of the office surprised Kirk and the police officer who accompanied him. Kirk wondered, “My God, how could human beings do a thing like this?” The officer exclaimed, “The whole world is in these books. How could they do this to these books?” (Davis, 39) Provost Truman wondered: “Do you think they will know why we had to do this, to call in the police? Will they know what we went through before we decided?” (Davis, 39)
The university remained closed for the next week. Meanwhile, student radicals and SDS planned their next protests. For the rest of the term the students essentially remained on strike. (Boren, 175) On May 21 the students “placed a poster in Ferris Booth Hall which warned of ‘Showdown No. 2.’” (Davis, 42) They also distributed flyers that claimed: “Can an administration, which helps make weapons for Vietnam, steals people’s land and homes discipline anyone?” (Davis, 42) May 22, 1968 marked the second showdown, a much more violent revolt than the April strike. Students occupied Hamilton Hall again, and the more radical among the protesters set fires to parts of the campus. With this revolt, the administration wasted no time and called in the police.
Again, a thousand police officers were called to campus, and the confrontation turned violent. As Davis reports, the police “were in no mood to be pushed around by rowdy college students. Students threw bricks, rocks, and bottles at the lawmen. The police gave no quarter. It was a bloody, wild fight.” (Davis, 42) As with the last strike, the police forced back the crowds that had assembled to watch. Two hundred students were arrested. In a final revolt, that academic year in June students and faculty “dramatically marched out of Columbia’s official commencement ceremonies and held a counter-commencement exercise, officiated by former Sarah Lawrence College President Harold Taylor.” (Boren, 176)
Many of the liberal students at Columbia wanted to reform and restructure the university; many of the students’ demands were met to accomplish this. The university wanted to move on from the strikes, and in August President Kirk resigned, another marker of change that pleased the students. With the changes, SDS lost its less radical liberal advocates. (Boren, 176) Dick Greeman, an SDS veteran and one of the few Columbia faculty members that unconditionally supported the radicals wrote them: “To student rebels, allies must be sought in the black ghettos and in the ranks of labor, not on campus. It means that ‘a free university’ will only exist after we have won a ‘free society’ ” (Sale 440, 441) Many of the radicals left the university after that spring, while others were suspended for the most destructive actions, including Mark Rudd, who soon became the leader of the violent radical group, the Weather Underground.
The events at Columbia radicalized the student movement. The SDS’s slogan of “two, three, many Columbias” inspired radical students all across the country. As Boren explains, “The incident immediately ignited a number of student power demonstrations on campuses throughout the United States, fueled more by antiestablishment sentiments than by specific attainable goals.” (Boren, 176) Rudd later admitted that the stated reasons for the revolt at Columbia were just an excuse to challenge authority. “We just manufactured the issues…. The gym issue is bull. It doesn’t mean anything to anybody.” (Meyers, 2003) As Sale observes: “Conservative critics were right, for the wrong reasons, when they argued that if the university had given in on these demands the radicals would have found three others just as urgent; or, in the words of a famous Berkeley slogan, ‘The issue is not the issue.’ ” (Sale, 435)
Sources and Further Reading
Mark Edelman Boren, Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject, (Routledge, 2001).
Joseph Conlin, The Troubles: A Jaundiced Glance Back at the Movement of the Sixties, (Watts, 1982).
James Kirkpatrick Davis, Assault on the Left: The FBI and the Sixties Antiwar Movement, (Greenwood, 1997).
Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, (Oxford University Press, 2000).
Michael J. Lewis, “Activism & Architecture: A Tale of Two Cities,” New Criterion, Volume: 16. Issue: 10, June 1998.
Robert A. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, (Columbia University Press, 2003).
Jeffrey Meyers, “Lionel Trilling & the Crisis at Columbia,” New Criterion, Vol. 21, January 2003.
Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, (Vintage Books, 1974).