The eyes of the nation were upon Morningside Heights 50 years ago this week. On April 23, 1968, Columbia and Barnard students gathered at the sundial to protest the suspension of students who opposed the University’s complicity with the Vietnam War effort and the plan to construct a gymnasium for the private use of the Columbia community in Morningside Park. The protest spiraled into a weeklong standoff between student protesters and the central administration. Students occupied five buildings—Hamilton, Low, Avery, Fayerweather, and Mathematics—while engaging in a protracted battle with the University administration. The campus was shut down. Violent clashes broke out between supporters and opponents of the strikers, and the threat of an impending intervention by the New York City Police Department loomed. After an exhausting week of conflict and negotiation, Columbia President Grayson Kirk made the controversial decision to call in the NYPD to end the crisis. The police forcibly—and violently—removed many students and faculty from in and around the occupied buildings. “The Bust,” as it became known, was an ignominious episode that further delegitimized the central administration.
The protests of 1968 have been a polarizing topic for longtime Columbians. Some argue that protesters were out to destroy the University, while others feel that the efforts of ’68 veterans to change the University have not been adequately appreciated. Throughout the semester, Columbia and Barnard alumni, students, and faculty have gathered to reflect on the events of 50 years ago and what they mean for us today. Last month at Barnard, alums and current students debated the afterlives of the 1968 protests. Columbia University Press recently published A Time to Stir, an anthology of writings from participants in the protests. The volume, edited by Paul Cronin, is a remarkable collection that exemplifies his more than 10 years of research on the Columbia protests. A conference and a film screening of Cronin’s companion documentary that examines the protests within the context of the many historic transformations from that period will be held this coming weekend.
Indeed, ’68 veterans and scholars shouldn’t be the only ones reflecting on the protests this spring. Current Columbia and Barnard students and faculty might well do the same, for the mobilizations of that time had transformative effects we recent arrivals often take for granted. What is remarkable about the protests is their ability to reveal the influence of a variety of social movements from that era: the mobilization against the Vietnam War that was exploding across the country; the national Black Power movement, which inspired a small but influential group of black students at Columbia to stop the University’s racist treatment of their Harlem neighbors; and the local community activist movement that was part of a city-wide tenant rights mobilization that resisted urban renewal in New York City.
As a relatively new faculty member here, I am convinced that the causes and the events of 1968—and their legacies—are topics that are worthy of study and reflection, and that current Columbia and Barnard students are ideally suited for the task. Inspired by the innovative “Columbia University and Slavery” digital history course, I created a new undergraduate seminar entitled “Columbia 1968,” in which students conducted research on all the issues connected with the protests, exploring their global, national, and local contexts, and their aftermath. Last fall, my students produced illuminating research papers on existing topics associated with the protests, while also doing what good researchers do: opening up new lines of inquiry. They examined such subjects as the persistent silencing of women’s participation in the protests, revisited the efforts of faculty to intervene in the crisis, explored the impact of the protests on the Jewish experience on campus, analyzed the formation of a proto-Asian-American identity when Asian-descended peoples were beginning to be positioned as “model minorities,” and studied the impact of the protests on black electoral politics in West Harlem, among other fascinating topics. One of the recurring themes that ran through the submissions was the strike’s transformation of campus: it set in motion the makings of the Black studies curriculum; it curtailed the university’s relationship to the Vietnam war effort; and it transformed University governance by leading to the formation of the University Senate. The protests also radicalized a class of students, many of whom went on to do extraordinary things after leaving Columbia. The protests’ impact on the University’s relationship with the surrounding Harlem community, however, is less clear. While the protesters successfully stopped the ill-advised gymnasium in Morningside Park, they couldn’t slacken the tensions that are still embedded in the University’s relationship with the neighborhood.
As we find ourselves confronting another polarizing moment in U.S. history, now is the time for us to reflect upon and yes, even express gratitude toward the ’68 veterans who took enormous risks that produced concrete results that the Columbia community benefits from today. The protests should no longer linger in the background of the University’s public history—instead, we ought to recognize their importance, and our students should lead the way in helping us reimagine our relationship with Columbia’s remarkable past.
The author is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Columbia University.
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.