A Tradition of Activism Is Born

50 years later, how the 1968 protests live on at Columbia

By Ufon Umanah, Ryan Mohen, Ned Russin, Gaby Edward, and Miya Lee

In recognition of the anniversary of the 1968 protests that roiled Columbia’s campus 50 years ago, The Blue and White interviewed five individuals close to the events which brought the University to a screeching halt that Spring. We asked them to recall the events of 50 years ago, and to reflect on the University’s place in New York City today. 

It is 1968, and Columbia is reeling.

Since its move to Morningside Heights in the late 1800s, the University has been as much a surrogate of society as an academic institution. This has never been more true than in 1968, as the bonds between institution and community are strained to a breaking point.

On one hand, reads the Cox Commission Report, ordered by Columbia in the aftermath of the events of 1968, “the University look[ed] down on the flats of Harlem, one of the most depressed of all urban ghettos.” The post-WWII Morningside Heights housing market was littered with single room occupancy apartments. The cheaper rent attracted those with little means in life, mainly working class people of color. During the early 1960s, Morningside Heights Inc., an neighborhood association group operated largely by Columbia, “engaged in a massive campaign of evictions” that helped transform the community into “a sterile institutional enclave.” The eviction campaign would displace 7,500 people, or more than 10% of Morningside’s current population. As students tried to do community outreach work through the Citizenship Council, Columbia pursued expansionism without regard for the community. By 1966, the Trustees unveiled in President Kirk’s $200 million capital campaign a plan to annex city blocks down to 111th Street to build college residences and an undergraduate expansion of Butler Library. More poignantly, the University wanted to build a gymnasium on Morningside Park, asking the non-Columbia community to exchange 2.1 acres of rocky hillside for a quarter-acre of facility space.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

On the other hand, Columbia answered the call to arms drummed up during the Cold War. Columbia’s relationship with the military predated the decades-long conflict—the famed Manhattan Project, conducted in the Pupin basement, employed close to half of the current population of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and naval WWII officers trained here to administer occupied territory in the Pacific. As SEAS expanded to accommodate all the incoming research for the war effort, Columbia joined the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in 1959, created to provide research and analysis to the Armed Forces. While Columbia’s admitted responsibility for how much research was conducted was limited to a small group of faculty, the University was extremely secretive about what research it did do for IDA—perhaps with an eye on the times. When students started asking questions about Columbia’s military involvement, America was already entangled in the Vietnam War. Students had only in 1967 forced Columbia to stop giving the Selective Service class rankings that could determine the legitimacy of the student deferment for which they were attending college. But this did little to improve sentiment towards the war on campus, especially after the Tet Offensive in January of 1968.

As American soldiers fought in Saigon and Hue, Columbia had endeared itself to no one. Faculty were demoralized, students radicalized, and the community extremely wary. Smaller protests peppered the lead up to an explosive Spring of 1968, particularly demonstrations against the ROTC, military recruiters, and what would be known as ‘Gym Crow.’ Columbia’s black students, few in number but inspired by the civil rights movement and organized under Students Afro-American Society (SAS), were less and less willing to deal with the racism that permeated life at Columbia.

Meanwhile, 100 members of the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), led by Mark Rudd, pushed Columbia to disassociate from the IDA in an indoor demonstration in Low Library on March 27, 1968. Kirk had illegalized indoor demonstrations the previous September, after SDS students protested some Marine recruiters, and punished Rudd and five others with what one month later, on April 22, would become probation, a final warning before suspension. The next day, SDS would mobilize against the IDA, against disciplinary punishment for the IDA Six, and, with the SAS called in at the last minute, against the gymnasium.

From here, after an attempt to take Low Library, the protesters occupied Hamilton Hall and took the Dean of Columbia College hostage.

From the Spectator’s Kenneth Barry, analysing the crisis for the April 24th edition, “Never before have a group of students forcefully challenged the administration of Columbia University.” After SAS requested that SDS move out of Hamilton Hall, Rudd moved his people back into Low Library. By April 25th, the Architecture students had revolted in Avery, other students had occupied Fayerweather, and radicals had set camp in Mathematics. All the gates leading into campus, sans those through College Walk, were closed and manned by police officers. The counter-protesting students, known as the Majority Coalition, obstructed the protesters each step of the way, surrounding Low Library and cutting them off from other protesters outside Low. Within the week, Columbia called in the NYPD to suppress the rebellion.


By then, however, the damage was already done. Though protesters had kept the offices clean, the media circus orbiting Columbia had exacted its toll. Whereas Columbia received the fourth-largest amount of federal government money before 1968, the relationship chilled in the aftermath. The gymnasium, which the Cox Commission complained would be beneficial to the community, was hastily scrapped. President Kirk resigned. Alumni donations disappeared and applications to Columbia decreased by 20 percent. The $200 million capital campaign came up $20 million short, and the next couple of years would be defined by a nearly lethal budget crisis that closed Columbia’s School of Pharmaceutical Studies at the time.

But out of that came inspiration. 1968 became a beacon for activists trying to make change at Columbia, and from the protests came the formation of the University Senate and the Student Governing Board, both of which try to channel student input through cooperation and self-governance, respectively. 50 years later, Butler Library proudly exhibits relics from the tumultuous era, as Columbia has recovered and surpassed its 20th century limitations.

Some might ask, though, at what cost.

Politicizing the Campus 

It is April 1968, and Mark Rudd, CC ’EXPELLED, a New Jersey native and a third year, is running “headlong into a mob of pissed-off right-wing jocks” before occupying Hamilton and then Low, almost immediately becoming the face of the entire protest.

After three years of organizing, Rudd, who was recently elected chairman of Columbia’s Students for a Democratic Society Society (SDS) chapter, is planning victory. On the front page of the SDS published newspaper Up Against the Wall, Rudd wrote an open letter to Columbia’s President, Grayson Kirk. “You are quite right in feeling that the situation is ‘potentially dangerous,’” he wrote. “For if we win, we will take control of your world, your corporation, your university and attempt to mold a world in which we and others can live as human beings.”

The culmination of events leading up to the April protests—the Vietnam War and civil rights movement with more recent events like the plan to school’s plan to build a gym in Morningside Park, Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement both that he would not seek re-election and that he would substantially reduce the U.S. presence in Vietnam on March 31st, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4—were well established, but to say that the occupation of buildings was due simply to these events is simplifying matters too much. The Blue and White spoke to Rudd recently over email, and he said the role of black students, specifically in their occupation of Hamilton, was an integral part of the protest’s success. Columbia’s Student Afro-American Society (SAS), who Rudd cited as being voices to Harlem’s opposition to the planned gym, entered into “ad hoc coalition” with SDS on April 23, 1968.

“I believe that the CC Class of 1969 had a much larger number of black students than previously. Columbia was basically a white institution. The new larger black cohort found their presence on campus an extremely unhappy and uncomfortable experience,” says Rudd.

Rudd and other members of SDS broke into President Kirk’s office, the broken glass a manifestation of their opposition. But shortly after the Low occupation began, Rudd resigned as chairman. The SDS wanted to lead discussions to increase their base, while Rudd advocated to take another building, capitalizing on their success. Rudd’s proposal was voted down 70-3. This didn’t matter though, his name was already synonymous with SDS and the protests.

As the occupation continued in late April, both opposition and support grew. Despite Rudd’s resignation as SDS chairman, he was still involved in coordinating and planning action. By the time the police raided campus on April 30h, beating and arresting students, five buildings were occupied. The day after the raids, Rudd met thousands supporters on campus to inform them, “We won’t let them turn us around!” Despite calls for non-violence throughout the entirety of the protests, specifically from a group called the Green Armbands, the violence exploded that afternoon. Police charged a line of organizers who were yelling, “Cops must go!” and then, as Rudd describes it, “a melee broke out.” Police and students punched and kicked, leaving one another bloodied and injured, both trying to ensure justice for their side.

In a talk given at Drew University in 2007, Rudd states: “In retrospect, [saying, ‘Up against the wall, motherfucker!’] was one of my few regrets about Columbia, since it muddied the waters concerning the non-violent nature of our protest. Verbal violence is still violence, I’ve come to understand. We weren’t too clear about our non-violence at the time. But we were essentially nonviolent in our actions, and that created our moral and political strength: it was Columbia that resorted to violence, in its racism, its support for the war, and its using the cops against us.”

Rudd was arrested several times, suspended, and later expelled, but not before the press got to him. Rudd states in our interview, “We really didn’t consider our impact at all past Columbia. Our original aim was to ‘build the movement’ by ‘politicizing the campus.’ To SDS, this was much more important even than the demands around IDA and the gym.” Through the actions on campus and the reporting surrounding them, Rudd was able to accomplish just that. When asked about the legacy of 1968, Rudd responds humbly: “The movement is everything. Still is.”

And so it makes sense that Rudd, today, doesn’t claim to have an understanding of the climate on Columbia’s campus. Despite his absence, and given the prominence of the protests and his notoriety afterwards, having later organized with radical leftist group the Weather Underground and serving jail time, it would make sense that Rudd’s impact would still be felt on campus, however, Columbia’s Harlem expansion is not something that can be protested away; it is a reality that exists nearly ten blocks away from the buildings that the activists once occupied.

When asked about Columbia’s current place in New York City, Rudd states that he thinks it is “standard New York City institutional segregation.”

“Columbia is and always has been white and corporate and upper middle-class to ruling class. So why should they take into account poor black people’s needs? That’s not New York or any other city in this country.”

The realization of Manhattanville is the antithesis of the goals of the ’68 protests. “Student power was exerted only through the anti-war and anti-institutionalized racism protests of 1968. Then it was back to normal,” Rudd remarks. Despite having a cause to rally around, the modern culture of Columbia did not react to Manhattanville the same way it did 50 years ago. This time, the administration claimed a mostly quiet victory.

What could be done now? Rudd shares his advice: “Link up with the larger social movements of the city. That’s what made the ’68 protests powerful. Go beyond the university.”

Mutually Exclusive Ideologies 

It is spring 1968, and John Philip Hesslein, CC ’69, School of Architecture ’73, is as torn as the rest of Columbia’s campus. The most climactic events of the school’s protests are about to occur right in the middle of his eight years on campus. Hesslein was a member of the track team as an undergraduate, but he neither matched the team’s primarily conservative mindset, nor associated with the radical politics on campus, which placed him in a uniquely conflicted position that pulled him at both ends. While he was never involved with the SDS and their protests that lead to the police raid on April 30th, Hesslein was not completely opposed to their civil rights and anti-war attitudes. This differentiated him from a significant portion of his friends, many of whom were fellow student-athletes involved with the counter protest movement the Majority Coalition.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

When asked in a recent interview with The Blue and White what factors might have contributed to the tension on campus and in the community, Hesslein recalls one of his earliest interactions with the school, “I had a very good teacher in high school, when I applied to Columbia he wrote a recommendation for me, and he told me, ‘When you take the train down there, look across at Columbia. Doesn’t it look like the medieval castle sitting above the rest of the city?’ That’s just an image, and that was there for a whole lot of other reasons, I mean that’s just the landscape, but it could be interpreted that way [as a fortress].”

Hesslein remained in tune with the power of this imagery in his college career, an image that surely fueled student outrage at the proposed gym in Morningside Heights. That same imagery compounded with the inequality in Harlem residents’ limited access to the proposed Morningside Gym, made the community entrance through a basement “back door” seem all the more atrocious to many Columbia students.

When discussing other factors that lead up to April 30th, Hesslein cites all the well-known influences like the war, racism and the civil rights movement, the SDS, and more. But Hesslein also offered another image: “A big part of it was Grayson Kirk, who was the president then. He’s relatively short, dumpy-looking, and always had a three-piece suit with a chain on his watch in his pocket. A lot of the faculty were much more progressive, and I think that was a real part of it as well.”

The conflict was as much ideological as it was aesthetically driven, according to Hesslein. “There was an antagonism between the extreme leftists who were dressed more like hippies,” he says. “These guys, the football team, they went out in jackets and ties. We were talking about the image of the medieval castle; this is a similar symbolic issue. There’s also a history of this. There were two bars on Broadway, one was the West End Bar and Grill, South of 114th street, and down Broadway few blocks was the Gold Rail. The Gold Rail was the jock bar, and the West End Bar and Grill had been the place where Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg would hang out, that was all in that place. You already had that division, to some extent, in the student body.”

These divisions and the rising tension on campus created the famous occupations that occurred in the Spring of 1968, and what Hesslein remembers ranges from the playfully resistant, to the gruesome results of an attempted uprising. Hesslein recalls, “Hamilton Hall got taken over. Hamilton Hall was all covered in ivy, and this was in Spring so at some point people started pelting eggs. So all the eggs stuck to the ivy, and of course it faces South, so the sun’s beating on it all day and started to smell. For four weeks … it was awful.”

When asked about the night of the police raid, Hesslein only has a sad chaotic picture to paint. “I was outside but I tried to stay away from police. That night the students were picking up the bricks in front of them and throwing them at police. All the paving was picked up and thrown and the police were going after people with nightsticks. They were all in masks and helmets and all. I saw one of the students, in order to avoid getting hit with the nightstick, jump through a plate-glass window. It was pretty brutal.”

The aftermath of the protests forced the University into a changing of the guard. They replaced the president and changed the structure of the administration, “They set up a congressional kind of system where they had representatives from the different schools that met, and as most of these things in my opinion it ended up a big fraud. It was better than what was there before but in the end, government is only as good as the people in it.” The problem of racism and careless disregard for the community that was present in the past administration was carried on in the people who were not forced out.

Hesslein observed this persistent attitude but in another vital authority on campus, the athletic coaches. He described the two types of coaching mindsets of the transitional era: “Coach Wooden is an example of somebody who figured out how the world was changing, how the students were changing, how basketball is changing, and he realized that he had to go along with that. When I was on the track team we had a coach named Edgar ‘Dick’ Mason, and he was the opposite of that, because he couldn’t understand the changes that had taken place.”

One cannot help but think that Dick Mason’s mindset played a role in the attitude of the student-athletes. Certain manifestations seem merely frustrating, like Mason refusing to let certain students compete if they had unacceptably long hair, but other more serious experiences might further explain the conflict between the student-athletes and the politically radical on campus at the time. Hesslein explained the story of a fellow student, who set school records freshman year only to quit the team after joining SAS. The idea of these two activities as mutually exclusive is representative of the ideological divide between the athletes on campus and the political left at the time.

Hesslein now lives in a beautiful Chelsea apartment that he designed himself. The crafty design skill is all his own, earned over decades of engineering and design experience in his career, but Hesslein’s architectural skill and mindset began at Columbia.

That mindset and experience influences Hesslein’s view of Manhattanville. “The success of Columbia now and over the last many years has been due to the Columbia President that we have. I think he worked very hard to make this new campus come into being. He was very political in the way he dealt with it. He also hired Renzo Piano, the Italian architect—he did the New York Times building. Look, they weren’t taking down very much housing, it was mostly factory buildings and truck garage space that had no use anymore. If Columbia invests there, they create a lot of jobs, then that’s good for the community; it’s just a question of how you do it … I can’t see how what they [Columbia] did there [in Manhattanville] was bad, they just handled it in a very very different way.”

Superficial Activism 

It is 1968, and Todd Gitlin is an editor at the San Francisco Express Times, an underground, counterculture newspaper covering radical politics and progressive culture in the Bay Area.

Gitlin’s activist career began in 1960 when he joined Tocsin, a Harvard political activist group that protested against the use of nuclear weapons. Soon thereafter, Gitlin became the third national president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963, and then coordinator of the SDS Peace Research and Education Project from 1964 to 1965. Gitlin organized a number of protests, including the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965, which drew around 25,000 participants, and the first demonstration against American support of South African apartheid. While Gitlin was not present at Columbia during the 1968 protests, he was closely watching as the events unfolded.

“The two issues of 1968 at Columbia had something at their core in common,” Gitlin says. “What was really driving the protests and occupations began with an understanding of the depth of racism and the Vietnam War. Both of these were rightly seen as unbearable. The success of that movement in ’68 was based on the ability to find places where those surrounding evils touched the university, where the university was—to use a word very commonly used at that time—complicit in those evils and complicit through the gym and complicit to the IDS.”

Now, Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, as well as the chair of the Ph. D. program in communications at Columbia University. While parallels have also been drawn between the much disputed gym from 1968 and Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, Gitlin considers these two situations markedly different.

“The gym was an insult,” Gitlin says. “It was perceived as an insult. In fact, I think there were many people in Harlem who wished the gym had been built, but the setting of 1968 made it offensive, especially with the ‘back door’ component,” which was the proposed entrance for Harlem residents located at a ground floor back door of the gym.

The difference, for Gitlin, lies in the demographics of the land Manhattanville is on: “As I understand it, Manhattanville was largely uninhabited, many of the businesses were absent. You can make an argument that for years Columbia has dominated and warped local real estate. But to me, Manhattanville is not a problem.”

Despite the resurgence of activism in recent years, Gitlin views the protests of the ’60s as strikingly different from activism on campus in recent years. “As somebody who came through these movements, which were generated by a morally serious and intellectually serious approach to the larger operations of the world, to see how superficial our so called ‘campus left’ is fills with me dismay,” Gitlin says. “The last place I would look for useful activism in America is a campus.”

Illustration by Sahra Denner

Gitlin’s concerns over contemporary student activism derive from his belief that students are ignoring the bigger picture and disregarding enduring problems, both locally and nationally, in favor of more fleeting controversy. “There are so many issues in the city that call for citizen engagement—affordable housing is a central issue, thousands of people living on the streets—if you actually care about the conditions of people in New York City, there are plenty of points of entry for engagement,” Gitlin says. “There’s no shortage of opportunities. But I don’t know if anybody’s looking.”

Gitlin attributes the dissolution of activism on college campuses to a lack of methodical and continual coordination among activists. “There needs to be a critical mass of people who understand themselves as organizers,” he says. “An organizer faces variations in the state of commitment. There are peaks, there are valleys. The job of the organizer is to work with the existing atmosphere and further it.”

Although Gitlin does not view college campuses as the wellspring for activism they once were, Gitlin acknowledges the grassroots efforts of citizens all over the country, citing their motivation brought on by Trump’s election in November 2016. More specifically, Gitlin recognizes their organizational efforts to affect change in local elections, as well as the upcoming midterms. “A wonderful thing has happened, starting with the Women’s March,” he says. “A lot of people understood the need to build enduring organizations. Those organizations have been surprisingly robust. They’re the ones who are doing the work towards midterm elections. It’s not coming out of the student left, but it is coming out of these citizen groups, many of whom have not been involved in politics before.”

According to Gitlin, the use of social media in activism today has created brief moments of overwhelming political involvement, but these spikes in participation should not be misperceived as a movement. Although social media may facilitate an easier way for individuals to connect with one another, Gitlin accredits stronger and more reliable organizational methods to authentic relationships built on mutual responsibility and open communication.

Gitlin associates the success of the protests from the civil rights movement to the dedication of its participants and the connections made as a result of their commitment. “What made the Montgomery Bus Boycott great was that once they decided to boycott the buses over segregation, there was a group of women who met every night in the church basement,” Gitlin says. “They became the infrastructure of that movement. It’s the infrastructure that’s been lacking.

Moving forward, Gitlin encourages student activists to be more fully aware of their surroundings, rather than cherry picking issues that may receive the most attention. “Open your eyes,” he says. “Look around the corner. Take off your blinders.”

1968’s Failure 

It is 1968, and Tom Kappner is fighting for his home. After graduating from Columbia College in 1966, Kappner moved into an apartment on West 122nd street with his wife, Augusta. After only a year living there, Kappner and his wife were pressured to leave. Columbia University’s Teachers College, located on 120th street, intended to expand its campus northward.

Although Kappner and his wife were distressed by the threat of losing their home, they knew that their situation was not unique. Throughout the 1960s, Columbia was engaged in a massive campaign to acquire nearby real estate. Thousands of residents, many of whom were low-income, were displaced as the University bought property after property in Morningside Heights.

Kappner, who knew dozens of those evicted as friends and neighbors, believes that Columbia’s motivations were two-fold: not only to convert residential buildings into dorms and faculty housing and clear space for new academic buildings, but also to alter—and, in the University’s eyes, “improve”—the socio-economic and racial composition of the neighborhood.

“At that time, the iconic Provost, Jacques Barzun, who contributed to the founding of the Core Curriculum at Columbia, said, ‘It is the University’s mission to rid the neighborhood of ‘the undesirables,’” Kappner recalls, shaking his head. “The PR of the University was all about drug addicts and prostitutes. They did live around here in what was then known as single occupancy hotels, which is essentially low-income housing, but the majority of people here were upstanding and hardworking—just trying to make a living.”

As Columbia continued to acquire new properties, resistance efforts were organized by community residents, including Kappner himself. Kappner became the chair of the block association representing ten residential buildings in the the square block between Broadway and Amsterdam and 121st street and 122nd street. “We did everything we could legally and extralegally to oppose Columbia’s acquisition of our homes,” Kappner says. “We swore that we would not move unless they carried us out of our apartments horizontally.”

When the protests erupted in 1968, Kappner and many other community members found an outlet to voice their frustrations and oppose Columbia as an institutional power. Residents who were displaced by Columbia or faced the threat of being displaced joined and supported the protests. “You know, usually when people talk about ’68, they talk about the ‘Jim Crow Gym’ or ‘Gym Crow’ in Morningside Park, they talk about the University’s connection to the Defense Department and the War in Vietnam, but what is often left out is the community side, and that was an important element.”

In the aftermath of the occupation of campus buildings, the police crackdown, and the University-wide strike, Kappner and other community members were able to gain a slight upper hand. “1968 was very key for us because that brought a sudden halt to the University’s efforts to expand,” Kappner says. While Columbia’s expansionary project was put on hold, Kappner and other community members had time to organize a city-wide coalition of tenants who successfully appealed for legislation that would grandfather in residents who were in occupancy at the time that their buildings were bought by large institutions like Columbia. After a long and exhausting fight, Kappner and his wife were able to remain in their home.

Now, 50 years later, sitting in the living room of his and his wife’s apartment on 122nd street and Amsterdam, Kappner characterizes 1968 as a major, but temporary, victory for the Morningside Heights community. “We had stopped the expansion process in ’68, but it only lasted for a little while,” Kappner explains. “Columbia has remained the same! Buying up property again in the mid-70s and now … Manhattanville! When I heard about Manhattanville project, I immediately thought ‘Deja Vu.’ This is history repeating itself.”

In 2003, when President Lee C. Bollinger announced Columbia’s plan to build Manhattanville, a 17-acre additional campus that will span from 129th street to 134th street, Kappner and other residents who had survived the Columbia’s previous expansionary efforts came together and formed The Coalition to Preserve Community which hosted monthly meetings in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on West 126th street between Broadway and Amsterdam. In the meetings, the Coalition worked with roughly 200 Morningside Heights residents to create a community vision regarding Columbia’s expansion. “The basic premise of our proposal was to share the space,” Kappner explained. “Instead of a zero-sum game, Columbia vs. the community, our point was why don’t we integrate the community’s concerns with the University’s needs? It was a comprehensive plan. A lot of thought was put into it. But when we went before the City Planning Commission and presented our community plan, they said, ‘Oh, this looks wonderful. We endorse it, however, excluding the area that Columbia wants to develop.’ So it undid the whole point of the plan.”

Kappner thinks the outlook for the community will only get worse as the new campus stretches further and further North. “The impact of that Manhattanville expansion in the area north will be extreme,” he says. “I can predict to you that in the span of ten years that area that is mostly Latino will be entirely gentrified.”

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