By Ian Post
Fifty years ago, Columbia University students and Harlem residents turned the school into a physical and ideological battleground. Activists who occupied several campus buildings worked against the administration and counter-demonstrators to demand, in part, an end to the school’s racist and pro-military actions. Now the story of the 1968 Crisis at Columbia is being retold–in real time– through tweets from a reporter’s perspective using historical sources from the Columbia University Archives.
Campus activism reached new heights in 1968 when it found its stride as the Counterculture that staunchly opposed the Establishment and its war in Vietnam. At the time, the Department of Defense funded research at many universities, including Columbia University’s think-tank known as the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). The university’s administration, who activists believed were in bed with warmongers, was also several years into planning a controversial gymnasium on public land inside Harlem’s Morningside Park. The plans for the gym gave members of the university complete access on the western boundary, but residents of the local community would have to enter on the basement level where they would have access to only a small portion of the building. In addition to several other grievances, including President Grayson Kirk’s 1967 ban on indoor pickets, two student groups–Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Society of Afro-American Students (SAS)–took action on April 23.
The 23rd marked the beginning of chaos at Columbia with rallies and marches at the Morningside Park construction site and on campus; the protests quickly escalated to clashes with the New York Police Department and a sit-in in Hamilton Hall. Over the next several days, striking students occupied, fortified, and formed communes in five buildings until their Six Demands were met. Outside of the buildings, classes were cancelled, faculty attempted to negotiate a deal between the opposing forces, the administration sought to end the crisis with police raids, the Harlem community descended on the streets surrounding campus, conservative and other anti-radical students held counter-demonstrations, and activists across New York City came to support the students’ plight. The campus was akin to a war zone as many different factions jockeyed for command of the narrative and outcome– until the night of April 30. Between 2 and 4 A.M., the NYPD arrested 712 and injured 148 as they violently raided the buildings, removed the students, and cleared campus.
While working on the 50th anniversary commemoration project, I quickly realized that the story was not black and white like many had written before. The primary sources– letters, mimeographed flyers, photographs, audio recordings, and film– demonstrate complicated differences within each faction and highlight the complexity of the ideologies involved. Student activists, as well as faculty members, disagreed on whether amnesty should be granted to students occupying buildings. The administration was split on whether there should be a police presence on campus or if they should swiftly raid the buildings (mostly weighing the optics of the situation, however). Counter-demonstrators considered cutting food supplies and removing the occupation themselves, which at one point led to fist-fights outside of Low Library. These differences and the grayness that they represent make history and historical documents powerful.
Perhaps most interesting among the various in-fights were the sharp ideological divisions within the movement. Black students wanted control over their fate and consequently kicked all white students out of Hamilton Hall, eventually inviting H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to speak to their striking students. The Strike Coordinating Committee (SCC) also struggled with the envisioned outcome for the strike: destruction of the university or reconstruction of its flawed structure. These divisions within the movement, however, seemed to strengthen its force and even secure some of its successes– something that the Left could learn in 2018.
The strike’s events rapidly unfolded between April 23 and April 30, which will be retold at an equivalent pace on Twitter @1968CU. Imagine a journalist, airlifted to the campus of Columbia University in the spring of 1968, who has sources within each faction and is reporting for followers 50 years into the future. The story of the Columbia Crisis is increasingly relevant as activists, especially students, re-discover their role in culture and society. Follow along to discover the intricacies of the story as told through surviving documents from the Columbia University Archives.