Columbia Crisis -- General Description and Selection Policy

In few instances has a revolutionary spirit swept the globe with such intensity and swiftness as that which drove the chaotic events of 1968. In countries throughout the world, insurgencies erupted against the dominant political order. The majority of these revolutionary movements were driven by the efforts of university students. In Paris, students inspired both national student and labor strikes. Strikes were also occurring in cities from Rome to Madrid, and West Berlin to Tokyo. Mexico City’s student population propelled the bloodiest and most repressive protest of the year, resulting in the massacre of hundreds who shut down their universities in opposition to earlier acts of oppression. Though American university students had not created nor witnessed events of such a dramatic or deadly manner, their revolutionary spirit was undeniably strong throughout the year, leading to a number of internationally recognized protests. The uprisings proved chaotic and further deteriorated the ties between university administrations and their student bodies, teachers and their students, parents and their children.

Columbia University was viewed by many as a center for student activism, due to its well-known, controversial student protests in the mid-to late 1960s. The student-driven rebellions of 1967 and early 1968 were particularly compelling, frequently drawing the attention of the nation to Columbia’s campus. The main event of this watershed year, highly influenced by the results of previous protests, was the eight-day strike from April 23 to April 30. During the intense standoff between students and the university’s administration, hundreds of students occupied five university buildings, effectively shutting down classes and all school activities. Within the “liberated” buildings, protestors conducted meetings, held passionate discussions and debates, made inspired music and art, ransacked the President’s office, and released written statements to the outside factions.

They pressed demands on the administration, primarily focused on abolishing what they viewed as “segregationist” plans for the design of a Morningside Park Gymnasium, which laid out separate facilities for the Columbia community and the neighboring community in Harlem. They also pushed the University to sever its ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis, an institution that conducted research for the Department of Defense. Although the strike is often referred to as an "anti-war protest," and while it was certainly a protest of American foreign policy, the events of April 1968 were also set against the backdrop of other volatile issues. The students were confronting the seemingly racist and elitist administration of Columbia University, who sought to mold the school as Ivy League breeding grounds, ignoring its status as an urban university that bordered one of the largest ghettos in America.

Columbia students felt that their administrators were out of touch with mainstream society and their generation's mindset. They felt that classes were dry, boring, and irrelevant. They believed that the university was designed to shield them from the surrounding city for four years, only to push them into corporate America immediately after. This generation of Columbia students felt a strong social consciousness that they could not ignore, and a certain responsibility to help those in less fortunate situations in nearby communities. They had a vision of the university as both an academic and social institution. It was from an intense disconnect from the older generations who ran their school, and a disillusionment with the university as an institution, that their anti-war and civil rights protests were built into the whirlwind of April 23-30, 1968.

I seek to use the records of the Columbia University Archives to investigate the events of these eight days, ultimately compiling my research into a digital exhibit. The Archives’ Student Activism and Protest Collection provides an incredibly rich selection of documents and photographs that provide insight into the perspectives of participants. I acknowledge that there were multiple factions heavily involved in the Columbia Crisis of 1968, but due to the more limited scope of this project, I have chosen to specifically focus on the perspectives of the students. I will mainly work with the boxes attributed to individual students and the primary student organizations of the event – the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Students for a Reconstructed University (SRU), the Strike Coordinating Committee (SCC), and the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS). I will choose documents of varying types – including correspondence, pamphlets, organizational newsletters, flyers, and personal reflections – to illustrate the mindset of those who chose to participate in this protest.

My purpose in focusing on the students’ viewpoint is to hopefully confront misconceptions about these individuals. There was quite a lack of understanding of young protestors at the time, by the school administrators, adults, and the “Silent Majority” who watched their protests turn violent on televisions across America. Most adults in the late 1960s viewed these young people as animals – uncontrollable, irrational, and dead-set on destructing law and order.

I also feel that some young people today may feel disconnected from this earlier generation of students, and find difficulty in understanding why they took such radical, life-threatening measures to get their point across. They slept in classrooms and offices for days without showers or proper nutrition. They traveled miles and risked their academic futures to stand up for communities of people in Southeast Asia, and in Harlem, who they didn’t even know. I want to discover where this drive came from, and illustrate it within a narrative of this eight-day strike.

There is only one noteworthy online exhibit which has been devoted to the events at Columbia in 1968. It was created as part of the Barnard College Electronic Archive, and focuses on Barnard students' involvement in the protests. It provides a timeline, a few narratives, a small number of transcribed documents, scanned photographs, and a list of participants — however, some of the sections which are linked were never completed. The site makes use of some materials from the University Archives, though the only items they digitized were photographs. My digital exhibit will bring to the fore a varied selection of digitized written documents, and a far more in-depth look at student viewpoints.

With regards to copyright issues, all materials that I will use from the University’s Archives are the property of Columbia University, including the photographs and student organization papers. I have been granted permission by the University Archivist, Susan G. Hamson, to use them.

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