We entered Barnard and Columbia in the mid-1960s optimistic, eager to learn and proud of our new schools. By the end of May 1968, almost a thousand of us had been arrested, beaten or expelled (as I was) by our beloved university. Beginning on April 23, 1968, in an act of protest against the university’s role in the war effort and its plans to expand into nearby Harlem, we had occupied five classroom buildings. The administration, after a week’s hesitation, called in hundreds of police officers, clubs and blackjacks swinging, including the dreaded Tactical Patrol Force, to forcibly remove us; they did it a second time three weeks later.
In popular memory, the Columbia protests were a high point of the campus movement against the Vietnam War, and a mile marker in its radicalization. But this history, which privileges the actions and concerns of white students like myself, is incomplete, and it misrepresents what made the protests so powerful — the leadership of the black students.
I arrived on campus in 1965 and immediately fell in with a group of campus radicals, who eventually formed the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. For years we organized against the war as being unjust and illegal, a war of choice, and fought racism on campus in the form of the university’s refusal to allow mostly black and Latino cafeteria workers to organize a union. In late 1967 we learned that Columbia was affiliated with a military think tank; the university was also moving ahead with plans to build a gymnasium in the city-owned Morningside Park that would have segregated the (mostly white) students from the (mostly black) local residents who would have access.
We had grown up in the wake of World War II and watched the civil rights movement take shape in the South, and the university’s support for the war and its institutional racism shook us to our core. We had often wondered whether we would have been “good Germans” under Nazism, or whether we had the moral courage of the civil rights protesters, many of whom were black students our own age.
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