Tony Guida's NY: Columbia University Protest of 1968

hello I'm Tony guida this is my New York 50 years ago this month an uprising inflamed this city and spread around the world Columbia University students stirred by the fires of 1968 took over their campus and closed the school Life magazine called 1968 the year that changed the world Martin Luther King was assassinated attempting to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis his death sparked riots in many cities protests against the Vietnam War turned white huh everywhere on April 23rd anti-war fever mixed with outrage over Columbia's plan to build a gym in Morningside Park sparks students to take over the administration building Hamilton Hall for seven days Columbia was paralyzed as the world watched more than 60 participants and witnesses to the uprising offer their perspectives in a new book of time to stir Columbia 68 it includes essays for members of the white students for a Democratic Society the students afro-american Society students who oppose the takeover and more I spoke with two of the protesters author Phillip low-paid a leader of alumni supporting the takeover an attorney Raymond Brown instrumental among black students who took over Hamilton Hall Brown says that was the pivotal act of the uprising first philip low-paid I had gone to a Columbia that was much more staid and reserved and this looked like a lot of fun frankly and I was very much against the war in Vietnam and was participating in all kinds of demonstrations and at this point I was living about ten blocks away from Columbia and I thought well it'd be nice to check out I'd had a certain weariness and skepticism about Columbia's an institution because I could see that they were doing a lot of land grabs and stuff like that so I I went down there and and I I wanted to be part of these young whatever you want to call it the Fiesta of radicalism I myself did not think of myself as a revolutionary but basically I was on the left and sympathetic to any kind of anti-war manifestation you could say it was a opportunism voyeurism desire for adventure but also linking up politically with people who basically want my son you you mentioned the two issues that underpin the protest the Vietnam War and Columbia's intention at the time to put a gym in Morningside Park which was perceived in many quarters as a land grab and that's you do you see it that way I don't see it that way now no in Florida you're you're a professor at Columbia I think co-opted in fact you know part of the problem with the gym was that and it it had an entrance for the community that was below the entrance that the students would enter into and in the back and in the back of this was this was basically for logistical reasons because if you know Morningside Park it's a very steep Park and so it made it made a certain sense but it was perceived as a snub or treating the the community as tradesmen or having to go in the servants quarters or something like that in retrospect you know I don't think it would have been terrible to built a gym in in Morningside Park and was not very well used as a park it was very scruffy and it could have helped you know to get some more foot traffic but you know it was seized upon and in many ways all the demands were symbolic rather than rather than real the the the you know Columbia was not engaged in fighting the war in Vietnam and the Institute for Defense analysis did not really have any working contracts at that point but it it became a rallying cry against the war in other words this was this was part of a politicization of a whole generation and and they had to find some way of protesting Columbia the students were there right and so it was convenient to to go up against Colombia was Columbia really the villain that they will put training as I doubt it mark Ruud the leader of the SDS students and a big you know charismatic figure charismatic figured later yeah was quoted as saying that the SDS his organization manufactured the issue said the quotas I da is nothing the gym is ball yeah exactly he knew that it was bull but it became a way to be militant he wanted there to be a a big set to there was this whole idea at the time of sharpen the contradictions you know you have to demonstrate the inherent violence in a capitalist society so you've got to provoke them and then the cops will come in and there'll be bloodshed and everybody will say oh you know they're killing our children you know but he he had he had this idea this that you could say this fantasy that it would spread from being a university demonstration to something much larger and that actually did happen in France let's face it the demonstrations in Paris started out basically at the university level and then ended up spreading to the factories and spreading to later and brought down the goal I brought down the goal so so it wasn't completely crazy but France is not the US it's a much smaller landmass you know and even in New York you know what I saw was that ten blocks away nobody really knew what was happening it wasn't a big deal you know and in fact the demands were basically met there were three demands fever there was the u.s. there was the Columbia had two severed ties from the Institute of Defense analysis they had to scrap the gym and they had to give amnesty to the demonstrators who would occupy the buildings so in retrospect all three of these demands were met but it didn't really make any difference in in the larger picture of the anti-war movement or or the anti-racism what did you make of the demands at the time you know in retrospect I wonder why I didn't think about them more I just went along with it I was a foot soldier essentially and this was a big demonstration so I I as an alumnus on the left we we kind of got together and formed this group alumni for new Columbia and we were backing the students basically right and and and to some degree we were riding piggyback on their adventure but I got swept into it you know and I became a spokesman for for the students and for the alumni because it was a regular alumni and they were all saying how horrible all these long hairs will bring the university to a halt and you know they don't even take baths and so on and so forth I did take bath but I had long hair I see well I'm glad to know that all gone you know what could I say that maybe with the kids today call TM on it yeah what did you make of the the black students yes kicking everybody out of Hamilton hall saying this is this is our demonstration and the white kids you have to go somewhere else they go over other buildings are you making that well it didn't bother me I saw a certain logic in it as has been pointed out them the black students did have ties in the community and they did see themselves as part of the civil rights movement in a way your arm so they could call in people like basil Patterson who or Charles Rangel who were representing the community and so they they this is a this is a curious question I mean you could say the same thing about the feminist movement I remember going to events around feminism and then they say men had to leave you know so of course it feels like a sting at the moment you know but if this is what's necessary to create a coherent a cohesive movement then okay it didn't bother me at all and they also thought rightly or wrongly that that a lot of the student the white student activists were were were immature and slightly crazy you know the the white students is an SDS got into this idea we've got to be stubborn we've got to be rigid we can't bend on anything you know we've got to take it to the man what do you think is the legacy of those seven days in April 68 you know I think that there were I think that there were good things that came out of it and bad things that came out of it it it did give aid and comfort to radicals all over the world and in in Czechoslovakia and Mexico and France you know there was this kind of global link of uprisings on the part of youth and and so we we felt proud that we were part of this this this movement in a way we were more connected to two other countries and we were to the rest of New York City in the US and Colombia made little moves that they might have made any way towards including students more and decision-making toward changing the curriculum to be more diverse and and so that what they would do it you know the president was out the president Grayson Kirk was out there which was definitely a good thing he was really a fuddy-duddy but I would say that business as usual continued at Columbia with slightly cosmetic changes another good result I think is that every little bit helped in terms of bringing the war to an end you had to do something you had to try that's how I got involved with it basically you know like well the aggregation yeah protests right we're instrumental eventually and then absolutely and you know what happened in various other campuses you know across the country and of course some of it was really tragic like Kent State you know but but you know so there had to be this rolling effect of protests you know and I think that that that eventually it did have a good result what were the bad results we got to see that self-indulgent a militancy could only take you so far so basically one of the problems with the logic of militancy of revolutionary militancy is that you keep having to go further and further get more and more extreme so essentially I think that 68 in a way mark the marked the end of that dream of a kind of Popular Front there are going to be demonstrations you know black lives matter or things against our things for gun control or against the the eternal wars in the Middle East I think we we have to be smarter we've got to organize in many many different ways yeah it's relevant to the to the gun issue with the kids yeah exactly and they are demonstrating and protesting but they insist they're gonna follow up with the kind of action voting for instance that's what mark what came to the conclusion that that that them that the the core of it needs to be organizing not not not creating these kind of Armageddon situations is Columbia a better place today because of 68 or would visit the University would have become anyway it's the same place but it's one of the great institutions one of the great universities of the world so perhaps the biggest change has been in the curriculum where there's been more of an effort to not just involve be the West but involve other cultures you know and and and to involve more women in the curriculum Raymond Brown reflects much sharper disagreement with Columbia recalling that the University mid-60s did not begin to understand it's black students tell me what was your role in the 68 protest well the most important role I played was being one of the students in Hamilton Hall but I was on the steering committee there were four of us so you could say I was in a leadership position at the time I think we had a growing consciousness that we were in a sense the children of brown meaning Brown versus Board of Education I arrived in 1964 the first class that had more than 20 blacks in it it was ten years after Brown and I think it was a self conscious effort by the leaders of Columbia to bring some black students into the university the mistake they made if a mistake you can call it was they assumed we would just be white students with brown faces and not understand that we had a whole set of political cultures and political realities to deal with though there was a lot of propaganda if you will that this was the revolution the black students didn't see it that way the black students didn't see this as a revolution because a lot of us had had experience with demonstrations before and we knew the difference we knew the consequences of facing a superior force that is the police from a static position many of us had participated in civil rights demonstrations in the north and a few in the South we had also been involved in the anti-war movement so we knew it wasn't the revolution also we had a broad spectrum of political opinion among the black students they were very conservative students there were students who were more radical in their perspective and so nobody wanted to hear rhetoric about revolution we were there for some very specific purposes yet you heard from a very renowned revolutionary Oh Mao Zedong sent us a telegram by all say know how Saito sent Jewish care of the People's Republic of China the Communist Party sent us a telegram congratulating the black students of Hamilton Hall we all thought that was tremendously funny and I wish we had saved that telegram let's talk about your role of the black students taking over Hamilton all what was how important was that it was pivotal now keep in mind this had all begun on that day as a spontaneous demonstration involving all kinds of students and as students went from one place to another unable to really get a perch a mixture of students occupied Hamilton Hall white students black students graduate students undergraduates but it became apparent as the hours went on that in order to make a point we had to seize the building the black students had a meeting at Great Lengths and decided we were going to hold this building and we knew we couldn't hold it if we had a mixture of people who didn't share our view who didn't share our level of discipline and we didn't have because we had such a mix of students it wouldn't been comfortable being cheek-by-jowl with people who were far left in their philosophy all right other ideologies but you said there was there was a wide divergence of feeling and philosophy even among the blacks – absolutely and I think that's what makes it remarkable that we were able to you'll notice that from that we have statements that we made at the time and they were all very focused on the gymnasium and the issue for defense analysis and amnesty we did not talk about the revolution we didn't expect Grayson Kurt to end the war we were very careful in part because that was required when you have such a mixture of Aidid ideas and attitudes and ideologies among black students reflecting the rich mix of ideas that have always been part of the black I guess I'm not fully understanding why do you think occupying Hamilton Hall was the pivotal act it became apparent that among the white students and it's a terrible generalization there was a debate some of them wanted to just have the building be open and have a mixed flow and a teachin as people came in and out we knew that to make a statement against the university that had been intransigent and unwilling to shift its position or talk to us seriously about issues we had to do something that would catch their attention and so we said we have to hold the building and what was it that you wanted to state about Columbia well the demands we made were that they should stop having a relationship to the ID a which was a a war related Institute at the University so as anti-vietnam young but the first issue was stop building a gym in Harlem in other words this was public land Morningside Park which was being taken by the University to build its own gymnasiums the community itself had agitated against this for years we'd been part of those with that movement and agitation and so it was an issue that was very important to us paramount we thought of it perhaps rhetorically strongly as a genocide alack that act of saying we take valuable resources that are held in common and we're going to use it for ourselves because we're a powerful institution now keep in mind the backdrop to this is we were students who everyday had our had to use passes that is I would go into in the university with you and they would stop me and these are you not me not you because you're white that is the concept this is sort of unconscious racism so underpinning the issue of the gym and and what you say is Columbia is arrogance about the community and taking public lands right I get the sense there's you felt that there was an arrogance toward the students a black student absolutely we met with them hundreds of times to talk about the curriculum there were no black Studies program there were no black history programs there were very few black professors no black administrators and we were on a routine basis and it may seem small but every time we walked on campus the minority security guards would ask us for our passes or our student IDs why because in their minds we didn't belong and so the center said earlier that Columbia was active in reaching out to black high school students to come to Columbia listen you were a young man so you don't remember this but up till 1954 white supremacy was the official doctrine of American government Brown which didn't do much to desegregate schools which was ostensibly purpose that decision it did announce the end of white supremacy as a doctrine so you had guys like Truman who were Kennedy people who had been raised under white supremacy saying let's strike a blow by bringing these folks in that was as far as their consciousness ran it didn't include absorbing these people into the community thinking about what they needed when we would say why do you have a Western civilization program but nothing about Black Studies nothing about African civilization why are we not exposing everybody to a broader context so as a bunch of students especially those of us who'd been there for four years by 68 you had people who had time and time again tried to engage in serious discourse with the leadership of this university and really had been ignored and patronized so that built some of the fuel created some sense of cohesion among black students who had been batting our heads up against this wall so when an issue like the gym that affected the black community at large came up we were ready to embrace it also keep in mind this is the civil rights movement the decision to ask white students to get out of Hamilton Hall right we're gonna black students we're gonna keep this ourselves you go somewhere else right I was surprised to read in your essay that even 40 years later that wasn't particularly understood it wasn't I didn't come to a lot of the commemorations and commemorative events until the 40th and the conversation was about the profound sense of hurt that many of the white students and I don't mean to patronize him had carried for 40 years I was shocked and there were a couple of things that emerged one was that we saw that as a tactical decision when tactical and what's at the time that we wanted to occupy the building we knew what we wanted and we were pretty solid the white students were still debating what they should do we didn't have time for debate we had a couple of hours in which to decide whether to barricade the building and force the issue we were ready to act they were not so it was clear that they had to leave it was the right decision at the time nobody really quarrels with that but what is the subject of some unhappiness is that we seem to have a sense of solidarity and discipline that they didn't have and that we had a way of communicating for ourselves that led to perhaps a more positive inclusive experience within our community and other folks felt excluded on grounds of race what do you think is the legacy of Columbia 68 its number one there was a sense of belonging that we had taken a stand as a group even though we'd had many arguments you know amongst ourselves over the years there was a sense of learning the lesson I will never sit facing a superior force and wait for them to come to me again I think in a broader sense Columbia never built that gymnasium in Morningside Park they had to build it somewhere else the I da ties were severed we actually won and among the black students we took no physical casualties and all charges were eventually dismissed so I would say it was successful I wouldn't do it quite that way again in the modern era but I think the lesson is that there has to be resistance you have to understand the levers of power look at what these kids from the school in Florida have done the first thing they did was to reach out to kids from interstate and the demonstrations about gun violence in United States reflect sophistication that far surpasses anything we thought about they've targeted specific legislative objectives they fought back against media personalities have insulted them in very artful ways so you have to change tactics with time nobody had done what we had done before and so we were pioneers in terms of those tactics and strategy and remember kids at Orangeburg and Claflin state and other schools were killed for engaging in demonstrations during this very same era so that's a tactic that has high risks associated with it and I guess you have to learn to adapt and change in terms of success was Columbia itself as a university changed I believe the university spends more time engaging with the community before it embarks on new projects and I think the curriculum has changed the faculty has changed it wasn't all due to what we did but certainly it was an eye-opening experience for administrators there and around the country what about the end of the protests having the police come in and there was a certain violence about that it was inevitable we were very disciplined as I we had actually had communications through bill booths there were tunnels under the universities so they promised they wouldn't use tear gas they promised they wouldn't come through the tunnels and they promised a cheap wait who we knew who was a West Indian a black man would lead the police well he led the police they did come through the tunnels and there was some J gas but not a lot we had trained to deal with that but we were very disciplined and one of our concerns was that none of our people got hurt now with respect to the white students many of them were less disciplined and less protected by other elements in the community it was wild and you know one white cop told me I don't think I've ever said this before he was booking me and he said you know I can't understand you black kids complaining about stuff but these white kids have the opportunity of a lifetime to go to an elite University so think to the extent that white students had legitimate grievances didn't always articulate them well or managed to let the NLF flags and their demand that grace and Kirke stopped the war overshadow more subtle and nuanced ways they could have presented themselves Marc Rudd he and I have become friendly he's been one of the first to acknowledge that without black students this wouldn't have lasted as long as it did they waited for seven days because they didn't know what would happened if they arrested us there were lots of nuances that I think weren't exported to some extent the Fourth Estate was pretty irresponsible it's easier to cover NLF flags than it is to try to dig into the granular experience that students are having at this elite school and wonder why they would take a risk with the silly to education an important means of upward mobility for many families when this opportunity yawn and the question is why and what did the University need to learn from that experience look one of the funny things about having a conversation with you is at the time we were very just one what we said I didn't say anything that everybody didn't agree with so now 50 years later I'm telling you my historical sense of what happened there maybe 80 other stories in Hamilton Hall about what people thought but I do think it was an important event it was important for me because many of us had fought really hard internally to argue about these issues and to educate ourselves and to try to engage with this wonderful place there was a vibrant intellectual life going on in this place and yet at the same time the people who ran the institution were incapable for maybe historical reasons of understanding that what we brought to this campus was a new perspective a new way of looking at the American experience a new way of looking at pedagogy and a new way that university should relate to the community surrounded in the early hours of April 30th the seventh day of the protest police stormed the campus ending the takeover they drove white students from the buildings they occupied violently more than a hundred thirty students suffered injuries they reported being blackjack pummeled and kicked in the groin 12 police officers were also injured but the judicious preparations by black students including having attorneys witness their arrests resulted in no injuries when Hamilton all was clear if you'd like further perspective on the uprising at Columbia fifty years ago I recommend the book a time to stir Columbia 68 and my special thanks to Jocelyn Wilk the archivist of Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript library for the archival photos that you saw thank you for watching the program we'll see you next time you