This spring marks the 40th anniversary of the building takeovers and student strike of 1968, events that are often referred to with great passion from multiple perspectives. For some, they are a great black mark on Columbia's history, which sent our prestige and donations down the drain for decades. For others, they have become the high point of Columbia's great protest tradition, from a time when students really fought for what they believed in and put their bodies on the line. Many other folks don't particularly care one way or the other, as the past is in the past. But no matter what your take on 1968 is, going forward this semester, there seems to be a lot at stake in how we commemorate the events that shook this campus. For while 1968 may have been a long time ago, protests and confrontations have continued on this campus, this year being no small example, what with Ahmadinejad, the expansion, and the hunger strike. Taking a long look back at our most famous episode of student protest will perhaps cause us to ask, "What is it about Columbia that gets people so riled up?" While the commemoration ceremonies won't be until April, it's not too early to think about how our community should mark this anniversary.
There are plenty of retrospectives and opinions on 1968, but I feel that a great many are missing a big piece of the picture. A couple of summers ago I read a dissertation by Stefan Bradley about black student participation in 1968 which greatly reframed my understanding of the event. Looking over Spec articles and reflecting upon opinions I have heard, I believe that black students' participation and investment in the 1968 student rebellion is grossly ignored, as it disrupts the neat narratives that many people like to tell.
While many people acknowledge that a great part of the motivation for student action was rooted in the gym plans for Morningside Park and in issues of racism, I feel as though the role of race and racism is minimized in some of the most popular imaginings of 1968. Too often I think that 1968 is painted as the grand adventures of a bunch of white students. To some who deride the students' actions, they are an example of spoiled children running amok. For some who look back more fondly, the student rebellion has become a marker of a special, but past time. However, when we look more closely at black student participation, both the derisive and overly nostalgic narratives don't quite work anymore.
Too often the Morningside gym is presented as an isolated conflict without taking stock of Columbia's recent history in Morningside Heights. According to several reports published around 1968, Columbia was a very active player in local real estate over the previous 10 years or so. After a postwar influx of black and Puerto Rican residents, Columbia and other local educational institutions were displeased with the quality of the neighborhood and embarked on a campaign to create an enclave for themselves in Morningside Heights. By some accounts this process displaced as many as 10,000 people from the area, many black and Puerto Rican. Thus the slogan "Gym Crow Must Go!" was not simply about the segregated entrances of the gym itself, but a reflection of how Columbia as an institution treated its neighbors and its own students.
One of the more dramatic moments of the 1968 student rebellion was when the black students, who had taken over Hamilton Hall with white students, asked the white students to leave. The black students believed they had to stand on their own, although they asked for the white students to support them in other ways. In contrast to the other building takeovers, in which students were beaten, the Hamilton Hall occupation was orderly—the police peacefully escorted the black students out. As some of the first black students to attend Columbia in numbers, the Hamilton occupiers' story and their dedication to Harlem should not be lost in the shuffle this spring.
There is much more to this story, but in this small space it is important for us to realize that the 1968 protests were not only about a group of white radical students, or Mark Rudd and Students for a Democratic Society, or Columbia's prestige. Taking a closer look, we can see the roots of conflicts between students of color and the administration that still persist. The gym was a flash point, but in the next few years after 1968, students of color would stage protests and takeovers for ethnic studies and "safe space," fights that still continue at Columbia and across the nation. I hope that as we move forward with this semester's commemorations, we don't forget to tell the whole story about 1968, and that we remember why it matters not just for our own sake, but for our neighbors in Harlem as well.
Christien Tompkins is a Columbia College senior majoring in African-American studies. Freedom Dreams runs alternate Thursdays. Specopinion@columbia.edu