Photo: Students during protests at Columbia University in April 1968. Credit: Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times

Additional coverage around the Columbia 1968 fiftieth anniversary:
• See RAT underground newspaper’s 1968 coverage of the rebellion at Columbia via this link to a pdf of the paper.
• Leadership of Black students during the 1968 strike against militarism and racism at Columbia University is covered in this 4/23/2018 Democracy Now! segment.
• Eric Mann writes about the historic 1968 struggle against Columbia University in this 4/18/2018 CounterPunch post.

The following op-ed originally appeared at on April 22, 2018.

By Mark Rudd

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.

By April 1968, S.D.S. had joined in a loose alliance with the Student Afro-American Society, comprising the more politicized of the few black students at Columbia. On April 23, both organizations found ourselves occupying Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate classroom building. For a time, we even held the dean of the college hostage in his office.

There was a difference between us, though. We white kids were ragtag, messy, arguing constantly with each other. We were unsure of what to do once we had occupied Hamilton. But the black students, inspired by the civil rights movement in the South and by their own parents’ lifelong struggles, were certain that they had to barricade the building as their own disciplined statement.

They saw themselves as representatives of the Harlem community. Local political leaders, black activists and revolutionaries, and elders bearing hot food all trekked to Hamilton in support. Their occupation, much more than anything we white students did, was “the pivotal act” of the Columbia protest, as Raymond M. Brown, a leader of the Student Afro-American Society, aptly termed it in a recent essay.

Because of their stand, hundreds and then thousands of students and local residents rallied to the cause, and within two days three more buildings were occupied. Thousands of other people stood vigil outside. “We can’t abandon the black students in Hamilton Hall!” was the universal battlecry.

The Columbia administration was terrified of what Harlem might do if the police were called. Administrators waited a week as the occupations and support demonstrations grew, and Columbia became worldwide news. Eventually, the police moved in, arresting the black students without violence. But at the other buildings they indiscriminately and brutally attacked not only the occupiers, but students, professors and even journalists who were outside protesting the police busts. In response most of the student body went out on strike, closing the university for the rest of the semester.

The central role played by the Student Afro-American Society has never been acknowledged in accounts of Columbia ’68. The story has been about the white kids of the New Left, the S.D.S. and myself, as a singular protest leader. Ray Brown called the media’s erasure of the black students’ role “strategic blindness.”

Ten years ago, about 50 former students who had occupied Hamilton Hall joined with 250 other strike veterans for a 40th reunion at Columbia. Alford J. Dempsey Jr., now a judge in Atlanta, stunned the white people in the audience when he said, “The time I spent here just about destroyed me.” The only thing worse than the alienation he felt as a black student on the overwhelmingly white campus “was watching my wife die of breast cancer.” The tears in our eyes attested to how little we had understood the lives of our black classmates.

Women were similarly written out of the history of the protests. Nancy Biberman, another S.D.S. strike veteran, recently wrote that of about 700 people arrested on April 30, about 200 were women. They provided leadership at crucial actions, in the occupied buildings and in the overall strike committee.

The events at Columbia became a symbol and a model of student rebellion for the next two years. I often run into people who tell me that Columbia ’68 changed their lives. As for myself, after a rocky few years pursuing the fantasy of anti-imperialist and socialist revolution, I settled into a lifetime of teaching and organizing. Most of us have spent our lives in professions committed to the common good such as health care, the law, education, social work and labor and community organizing.

I do not regret what we did that spring; I hope that young people today can draw inspiration as they design protests around gun control, mass incarceration, racist policing and climate change. But in doing so, it’s imperative that they learn from our mistakes as well.

Mark Rudd, a leader of the campus protests at Columbia University in April 1968, is an educator and community organizer.