April 23, 2018 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Columbia student uprising in 1968. Since I was involved in the events in various capacities, I want to offer a testimony to what happened and what seems to me today the most important lessons we can draw.
May 1 is a famous date. It is Mayday, celebrating the Haymarket riots in 1886 and it is the date celebrating the worldwide events of 1968 that most commentators argue began in France. But actually Columbia predates Paris by a week as I often remind my French friends and is a better starting date for the celebrations.
One outstanding lesson of Columbia is how spontaneous the uprising was. We now know that shortly before it started the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) felt it was virtually impossible to obtain and maintain student support for their objectives.
SDS had listed six demands. There were two crucial ones: The first was that Columbia should withdraw from its affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which was a mainstay of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The second was that Columbia cease building a new gymnasium in Morningside Park, which was seen as Columbia’s eviction of the Black community in Harlem from land that was rightfully theirs.
The day started at noon in a traditional site of public discourse in Columbia. There were speakers from SDS and from the Student Afro-American Society (SAS). They voiced once again the six demands. At a certain point the group decided to march on Low Library, where the university administration was located. Finding it locked down when they arrived there, some individual shouted that they should go to the gym. We don’t even know who shouted this, but everyone went to the gym site.
Finding the site protected by police, the group decided to go to Hamilton Hall, the center of Columbia College activities. They sought to enter the Dean’s office. And finding this locked too, the group simply sat down and asked non-participants to leave the building. This was defined by the administration as holding the Dean hostage. And thus began the uprising.
A meeting of the professors of Columbia College ensued. They debated what to do: call the police? negotiate? The students “released” the Dean, but otherwise stayed put. Indecisiveness was everywhere. In the night, the SAS students asked the SDS students to leave Hamilton Hall and “seize” their own building, which they did – four buildings in fact.
Someone telephoned me that night and suggested I come immediately to campus. There I found various professors unsure of what to do. We decided to meet in Philosophy Hall, which had the space. The supervisor of the Hall was very opposed to this, but could do nothing. In effect, the professors had “seized” Philosophy Hall. However, they allowed anyone to enter. The professors then constituted themselves as the Ad Hoc Faculty Group (AHFG) and would begin to meet continuously. An executive committee of I think 17 persons was chosen. I was one of them.
This brings me to my second major lesson. SAS had evicted SDS from Hamilton Hall because SDS was undisciplined. Boy, were they right! SAS was in contrast incredibly tightly disciplined. It turned out in retrospect that SAS was far more important in transforming the university and the larger U.S. situation than SDS, although no one seemed to understand that at the time.
Various Harlem politicians offered themselves to Columbia as mediators, about which Columbia was very reluctant. At the same time, the AHFG had voted to send emissaries to discuss with both SDS and SAS their demands. I was asked to be one of those who discussed with SAS. Others went to see SDS.
I went to see David Truman, the Vice-President, and asked him if he would welcome my playing this role. He was delighted, seeing it as a way of cutting out the Harlem politicians. SAS also agreed that I play this role on condition that I discuss matters only with a four-person group they had constituted.
I thus went in and out of Hamilton Hall several times and was allowed to speak only with the four-person group. Each time, we spoke in coded indirect language. I cannot say that I could report back to the AHFG any significant change in position. SAS seemed to wish to maintain contact but that was all. I at least did better than those who went to see SDS, who reported back total stalemate.
After seven days or so, the Columbia administration decided to call the police. David Truman came to the meeting of the AHFG to tell us that they were going to do that. He simply reported this; he didn’t discuss it. Various professors made different personal decisions. There were many who decided to surround the entrance to the occupied buildings. Most of them surrounded Fayerweather, the building occupied by the graduate students. A smaller group, of which I was one, decided to surround Hamilton Hall.
And that brings me to my last surprise. When the police arrived where I was, they gently wiggled their way past us. The group surrounding Fayerweather was treated quite differently. They were beaten, some of them badly, as well of course as the students occupying the building. What we learned later is that SAS had made a deal with the police. They would leave quietly through a back door and not be arrested. This was why those of us who surrounded Hamilton were treated so gently.
My final conclusion is that the real winner of the Columbia events was SAS. The Columbia administration was devastated and David Truman never became President as had been expected before this. SDS fell apart and was destroyed. The Harlem politicians lost their authority. And SAS had shown the power of discipline. SAS was the winner but of course only as part of a long ongoing struggle against racism in the United States.
As for 1968 as a whole, I have written on this many times and have no space here to repeat the argument. In one sentence, what happened was the ending of the geocultural dominance of centrist liberalism and the reopening of a three-way ideological struggle between the Global Left and the Global Right with centrist liberalism struggling to maintain some support as a real alternative.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).