Columbia 1968: Another Untold Story

The Alma Mater statue on the campus of Columbia University in New York, 2009 (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Student protests shut the campus down 50 years ago, as nationwide the New Left displaced the Old Left and ditched working-class whites.

Fifty years ago this week, Columbia students riding the combined wave of the civil-rights and anti-war movements went on strike, occupied buildings across campus, and shut the university down. As you revisit that episode of the larger drama that was the annus horribilis 1968, bear in mind that the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

All that has changed about the culture-war conflict that Morris Dickstein describes in the following discussion of “the bust” (the protesters’ term, not Dickstein’s) by the New York City Police Department is that the side represented by the cops has promoted itself from the fringe to the vanguard of the Right in American politics:

To the students the police, the agents of repressive authority, became dehumanized into “pigs,” while the police in many celebrated instances took their revenge in the flesh with their billy clubs. This happened most dramatically during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, but the same had occurred on a smaller scale a few months earlier when police were finally called in to remove the Columbia students from the buildings they occupied. While handling the black students in Hamilton Hall with precision and restraint, elsewhere they let loose with wanton brutality and a good deal of damage to the university itself. . . . Why did the cops behave this way? Though personal frustration and resentment obviously played their part, there was clearly an explosion of class anger at the whole elite institution and at frivolous middle-class kids who were squandering an educational opportunity that they and their children would never have.

Cops as well as students and faculty were injured in the mob violence, so Dickstein’s characterization of the “wanton brutality” could probably stand to be better balanced, but that would be a different article. For the purpose of this one, pay attention to how much of the bloody free-for-all was driven by enmity between social classes. The self-segregation of protesters along racial lines — black students who occupied Hamilton Hall had asked their white counterparts to leave — meant that much of the class tension that marked the bust was isolated from racial tensions and brought into sharp relief. Clear battle lines formed between the white upper middle class, represented by Columbia undergraduates affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society, and the white lower middle class, represented by white officers of the NYPD. A tactical squad of black officers ushered the black students from Hamilton without incident.

In 1968, no one with a microphone or a byline was paying too much attention to class conflict among whites. Where it couldn’t be ignored, opinion-makers were wont to change the subject, as if white working-class “backlash” could never be understood on its own terms but only in reference to one of the two social movements that dominated the political scene nationally and, as it happened, supplied the themes for the uprising at Columbia.

Mark Rudd in the New York Times argues that “in popular memory” Columbia 1968 is a picture of the protest movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War but that the lion’s share of the glory should go instead to the black students who led the charge against the university’s plan to expand into neighboring Harlem, the distinguished though, at the time, blighted and beleaguered capital of African-American culture. As the chairman of the Columbia chapter of SDS, Rudd became the face of the student revolt, gracing the cover of Newsweek and inspiring the Doonesbury character Megaphone Mark. A modicum of fame still clings to him a half century later. His fresh tribute to the other, allied army in the battle of Morningside Heights is a gracious and no doubt sincere gesture.

Not that he was always a saint. In 1969, he joined other members of the SDS national committee in forming the Weather Underground, a revolutionary cadre dedicated to violent overthrow of the U.S. government — for good underlying causes, mind you: to end war, racism, and social injustice. He later recanted, explaining that he had come to see that political violence was ultimately ineffective and, more to the point, wrong. “There is no way to peace” is the first half of the famous aphorism attributed to A. J. Muste (1885–1967), the Protestant clergyman and pacifist. The punchline: “Peace is the way.”

Meanwhile, in the world outside the iron gates at Broadway and 116th Street, George Wallace was running for president.

For their part, the Columbia protesters who were with the Student Afro-American Society identified with the Black Power movement, which was to Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil-rights struggle approximately what the Weathermen were to Eugene McCarthy and the peace movement of Muste and likeminded, theologically inclined activists. The SAS students were supported by Black Power icons Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who paid them the honor of visiting their occupation of Hamilton Hall. But one reason that the SAS protesters separated from their SDS peers is that the former did not trust the latter to forgo fisticuffs and destruction of property, tactics that would have played into a racial stereotype that the black students reasoned they could not afford, so give them that much: They tempered their insurrection with a commitment to at least some definition of non-violence. Rudd describes them as disciplined.

Meanwhile, in the world outside the iron gates at Broadway and 116th Street, George Wallace was running for president. In polite circles, his campaign was accurately seen as a snarling statement against racial desegregation in the South, but he ran strong also among blue-collar workers up north, in the Rust Belt (as we now call it), because he gave voice to whites who recognized that the Old Left — in America, that was primarily the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and organized labor — was giving way to the New Left, which looked like the Columbia protesters and had no use for hardhats.

“What I do not quite understand about some New-Left writers is why they cling so mightily to ‘the working class’ of the advanced capitalist societies as the historic agency, or even as the most important agency, in the face of the really historical evidence that now stands against this expectation.” That was C. Wright Mills, a Columbia sociologist, in “Letter to the New Left,” published in a British journal in 1960. The “historic agency” of the working class had “collapsed,” he maintained. Its successor? Intellectuals, “students and young professionals and writers.” He meant “people like us.” He continued:

Of course we can’t “write off the working class.” But we must study all that, and freshly. Where labour exists as an agency, of course we must work with it, but we must not treat it as The Necessary Lever — as nice old Labour Gentlemen in your country and elsewhere used to do. . . .

Who is it that is getting fed up? . . . Who is it that is thinking and acting in radical ways? All over the world — in the [Soviet] bloc, outside the bloc and in between — the answer’s the same: it is the young intelligentsia.

Translation: Organized labor had improved the economic condition of its constituents to the point that they had ascended, for all practical purposes, into the lower middle class. Consequently, they lacked their grandfathers’ passion for “radical ways.” Instead they sought to secure what they had, having assimilated into the conservative petite bourgeoisie.

Toward the end of his life, Lionel Trilling wrote in a letter that he had come to find Mills’s “judgment of things wrong and rather coarse.” The word “coarse” is a synonym for “blunt,” which is a synonym for “direct.” In style, Mills’s “Letter to the New Left” was anything but — it was layer upon layer of circumlocution and Marxist jargon. Underneath, however, was the clear thought that his peers in the New Left seldom hinted at in public and perhaps chose not to acknowledge even in their private meditations: In this new era of meritocracy in elite universities and the culture at large, the stock of those of us with talent though without pedigree is rising. Those working stiffs are beneath us, let’s lose them and go off on our own.

Working-class African Americans and members of other minorities might be admitted to the club on the basis of their racial identity. If you have to inhabit a social stratum below the professional upper middle class, have the good taste, would you, at least not to be white. Tom Wolfe captured the absurdity in Radical Chic (1970), his account of a fundraising party for the Black Panthers hosted by Leonard Bernstein and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, in their Park Avenue duplex.

With their notorious cover (1967) featuring a diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail, the editors of The New York Review of Books epitomized the new idea that revolutionary violence was a status symbol that an intellectual in Manhattan might want to check out — and that a cop from Staten Island could never afford. His job was to go up to Morningside Heights and stop the excitement. Inevitably, his betters critiquing his performance would pronounce it indelicate.

As the Left redefined itself, it began to shun its original constituency.

Trilling called the campus protest “modernism in the streets,” a wicked turn of phrase, implying the sense in which the drama was the creation of students acting out notions they had inhaled in the course of their pricey education. It was an entertainment in which the only actors with whom white Americans on the lower half of the social ladder could identify were cast as the villains. The New Left despised them, and the Democratic party was moving in its direction. Finding themselves politically exiled, they sought refuge. Enter Wallace.

Wallace ran as a third-party candidate, leaving the Democratic party, like most of the voters he appealed to. As they saw it, of course, the Democratic party was leaving them. Wallace may not have appealed to their better angels, but at least the worse angels he appealed to were theirs. Its echo in Trump and his base all these years later would be hard to ignore. “The style of politics and the working-class audience are largely the same,” Rich Lowry has noted, “albeit refracted through the passage of five decades and the different livelihoods and personalities of the real-estate mogul and the Alabama governor.”

The anti-war and civil-rights causes of the 1960s were honorable in themselves, though you may disagree about the prudence of the former. Both were joined by serious, peaceable men and women of goodwill. As the Left redefined itself in their terms, however, it began to shun its original constituency, with political consequences that have exploded in the past couple of years. For Mark Rudd, the black students occupying Hamilton Hall were the untold story of the 1968 Columbia protests. Tell their story, by all means, but also that of the police and the disparaged lower middle class whom they represented. For the most part we never did, and we’re still paying the price.


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