A few weeks ago, I watched Emma Gonzalez address hundreds of thousands of anti-gun protesters in Washington. I was one of millions more tuning in on television to hear her powerful six-minute, 20-second speech, most of which was delivered in silence as she stared fiercely ahead, tears trickling down her cheeks. The intensity of her rage, the righteousness of her cause, the incandescence of her youth brought back memories of a time 50 years ago when campuses across America were on fire. Like cicadas with a half-century life cycle, students were making deafening noises again.
This time the protesters were even younger, most of them still in high school. They were more articulate, and they commanded a bigger megaphone: the social media platforms that weren’t invented until long after 1968. The issues were also different. But the moral indignation was the same: America had serious problems, and the people in charge were making things worse.
I was named editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator in March 1968, a few weeks after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and a few weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Those two issues—an unjust war and an unfinished quest for racial justice—defined the time and fueled the protests at Columbia that erupted on April 23.
The first inkling I had that something unusual was in the air came six days after I took over as editor, when a lemon meringue pie was thrown at the New York head of the Selective Service System during a campus speech about new regulations. I remember the headline that ran on Spectator’s front page as if I had just written it: “DRAFT OFFICIAL HIT IN FACE WITH PIE DURING TALK HERE.”
A week later, Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, and a week after that, King was shot dead in Memphis. American cities erupted in violence. At Columbia, Mark Rudd, the newly named leader of Students for a Democratic Society, led a walkout during a memorial service. He seized the microphone and assailed the University for its hypocrisy in praising King at the same time that it was denying wage increases to cafeteria workers and building a gym on public parkland with only a backdoor entrance for Harlem residents.
SDS and the Student Afro-American Society jointly called for a demonstration on April 23 to protest both the gym and the University’s involvement with the Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank that did research for the military. It led to the takeover of Hamilton Hall and four other campus buildings. As both sides dug in, as armbands and leaflets proliferated, and as the faculty tried ineffectually to broker a deal, Columbia was suddenly at the center of the universe. The mainstream media arrived in force, and the student uprising was on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and on the nightly news.
Most of the press was denied access to the occupied buildings, and the administration, paralyzed, wasn’t talking. So it fell to a group of not-quite and barely twenty-somethings—the reporters, editors, and photographers who made up the Spectator staff—to explain what was going on. With little or no sleep, we worked around the clock, climbing in and out of buildings, interviewing participants on all sides, describing what was being said behind closed doors; then writing, editing, and proofreading until dawn to keep the campus and the outside world informed, and then doing it all over again the next day.
I was probably half brain-dead by the time New York City cops rushed onto campus in the early morning hours of April 30 and cleared the buildings by force, arresting about 700 students. At least 100 more were beaten, including Spectator’s executive editor and the campus rabbi.
And then we had to retreat to the Spectator office and publish a four-page paper. An editorial had to be written. All week, we had debated and disagreed about the events unfolding around us. Some editors dissented from editorials they thought were too supportive of student demands and tactics; one quit in disgust. But that night there was no disagreement: Exhausted and horrified, we decided to run two columns of white space, surrounded by a thick black border, just below the masthead where the editorial was supposed to appear.
It was probably the most memorable, and certainly the most emotional, statement we made that spring. We discovered, as Emma Gonzalez would 50 years later, that sometimes silence is more effective than words.
The author is a senior editor at Bloomberg News and was editor of Spectator during the protests of 1968.
This op-ed is part of a Scope on the 1968 protests at Columbia. To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.