Up Against the Ivy Wall: the Columbia Insurrection at 50

Photo by Mike Steele | CC BY 2.0

Eve Rosahn was a seventeen-year Barnard student when the revolt at Columbia University erupted in the spring of 1968. Like hundreds of other undergraduates, and some radicals from off-campus, including Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, she occupied a building, was arrested and experienced a profound personal transformation. “My plan was to major in English and become a professor,” she writes in an essay titled “Stopping the Machine” that’s collected in A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68, a new 438-page book (Columbia, $35) which is edited by filmmaker Paul Cronin. Rosahn explains that at the start of the protests, she was a “leftish Democrat” and that in the course of the rebellion she became “a devoted student radical.”

Indeed, in 1970 she withdrew from Barnard—the undergraduate women’s college at Columbia—rallied white radicals to support the Black Panther Party, came out as a lesbian, later became a lawyer, and served sixteen-months in jail in 1981 for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the botched robbery of a Brinks Armored truck in Nyack, New York that resulted in the death of two police officers. David Gilbert, a Columbia student in 1968, took part in the “Brink’s job.” He’s still serving a prison term; Rosahn still remembers him. He was a legendary organizer.

Rosahn says that her memories of the 1968 protest are “clear as day,” though she also allows that she has “little trust in my memories or in those of others—not from intentional dishonesty but rather emotional necessity.” I remember her from an apartment of West 111th Street in Manhattan where I caroused and conspired.

In many ways, Rosahn is a representative figure from Columbia 1968, though no two of the sixty-three contributors to this volume are cut from the same cloth. Nor do they see the Columbia protest though the same lens. Then, too, no two contributors have ended up in the same place, though many would probably echo Rosahn when she says that has rejected the “dualist dogma” that she embraced for years and that she has adopted a “more nuanced view of society.”

A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68 is an excellent source book and will no doubt be of great value to future historians of the Sixties, though it also suggests that memories are unreliable, and that to understand what happened on the campus that Spring one needs a sense of critical detachment and the ability to synthesize competing and even contradictory narratives by the participants themselves.

Nancy Biberman, who was also a Barnard student in 1968, argues in her essay, “Children of the New Age,” that the Columbia protests were “pre-feminist,” that women were excluded from the decision-making process and that their roles were “ arginalized.” Of the sixty-three contributors to this volume, only 9 are women. Perhaps women are still marginalized. Tom Hurwitz, a Columbia SDS member, remembers that “women did not chair the meetings, but they spoke at them,” and that while “equality, even as an ideal, was blurry at best…we were in it together.” Blurry indeed.

A Time to Sir is long on personal narratives and personal transformations, and short on analysis and theory. Still, there are some attempts at theory and analysis. Hurwitz writes that “in insurrectionary events, there is a kind of mass personality disorder” and that moods move back and forth from “ecstasy” to “abject fear and despair.” Hurwitz saw both the ups and the downs at Columbia in 1968 and forty-three years later in Tahrir Square in Cairo “during the failed revolution” of 2011.

In the Foreword to the volume, Paul Berman—one of the few genuine intellectuals to emerge from Columbia in 1968—argues that there’s a basic human “impulse to rebel” and that Columbia was “an explosion of anger.” He adds that, “young people ought to rebel.”

I can certainly understand and appreciate both the impulse to rebel and the explosion of anger. In 1968, I was already a professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and half-a-decade older than most of the undergraduates. I was also married, with an apartment, a car and a retirement plan. Still, I took part in the protests on campus, and was arrested and jailed. I had a sense of deep-seated anger toward Columbia that had roots in my days as an undergraduate at the college from 1959 to 1963, and later as a graduate student.

I experienced the Columbia faculty as anti-radical and anti-Marxist. It may sound exaggerated, but I felt persecuted because of my own political beliefs and actions, though I also had myself to blame. I protested against nuclear testing and segregation. I also adopted a Marxist perspective in papers and essays I wrote in literature and in history classes. In 1962, during an interview for admission to a seminar on literature and revolution, I was asked if I knew any communists. Daniel Bell, the author of The End of Ideology, asked me the question.

In 1962, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was still in operation and the anti-communist crusade was alive and well. I was outraged by Bell’s question. Like many of the Columbia students in 1968, I was an anti-war activist and a supporter of the Black Panther Party, but I also had my own ideological axe to grind. I wanted to thumb my nose at my Columbia professors and at what seems to me to be the institution’s fake intellectualism.

Like Eve Rosahn, I had wanted to “live the life of the mind.” And like her and hundreds of others at Columbia in 1968, I was radicalized. Indeed, my life was turned upside down and inside out. In 1969 and 1970, I became a campus radical at Stony Brook, joined the Yippies and took part in guerrilla theater actions in the streets and on campus, which led to more arrests.

There were some Yippie actions at Columbia in 1968. In March, one protester threw a lemon meringue pie in the face of Colonel Akst, the director of the New York City headquarters of the Selective Service. That action mobilized students.

“It seemed perfect to me,” Rosahn writes. “A humorous challenge to authority and a clear statement that the US military was not welcome at Columbia.” There was something of the Yippie in Mark Rudd, whom the mass media selected and magnified as the leader of the rebellion. Hilton Obenzinger observes in his essay, “Already Dead: Inside Low Library Commune,” that Rudd was “only a schlemiel like the rest of us,” and that “we laughed and played but were on no panty raid.” A Time to Stir acknowledges the presence on campus of Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists and Trotskyists, but it downplays the Yippie elements of the protest and it largely ignores the leading role played by students who were Jews, including Mark Rudd, Obenzinger, Roshan, and Susan Slyomovics, the daughter of Czechoslovakian Jews who fled from the Nazis and then the Communists.

When Susan Slyomovics’s mother asked her lawyer, Bill Kunstler, where she had gone wrong as a parent, Kunstler replied, “Your daughter was a hero. They are all heroes. You should be proud.” Kunstler was not the only one on the far side of the generation gap who supported the students, but he was one of the most outspoken supporters. History Professor James Shenton was one of the rare faculty members who understood the protesters. He also served as a mentor to at least two generations of Columbia students. At Columbia there were always exceptions to the rule.

If Paul Berman’s effusive Foreword reflects the upside of 1968 then Juan Gonzales’s sober Afterword reflects the downside. “We on the left made a terrible mistake: we turned against each other in a mad scramble for political purity,” he writes. He adds, that the left was “helped along by “the government’s secret counterintelligence machination.”

Rosahn spent a good chunk of her life educating the public about that secret, ignominious program that poisoned American public life.

Several of the essays by black students are memorable, including J. Plunky Branch who remembers the racism on the Columbia football and basketball teams, and another essay by Bill Sales who writes that when journalist Joanne Grant complained about the “male chauvinism” of the black leadership on campus, “we did not understand what she was talking about.”

Michael Locker, one of the founders of the North American Congress on Latin America  (NACLA), is very good on “the university-military-complex.”

Not all of the contributors have positive memories of 1968. Philip Lopate complains about the student “naivete,” posturing and “play-acting.”

Michael Neumann insists that, “the 1968 Columbia ‘student revolt’ doesn’t rate as history,” but rather serves as “one episode in Leftism’s rush to insignificance.”

If A Time to Stir suggests any one single thing it’s that Columbia 1968 does rate as history, and that as Paul Berman argues it takes its place in a global uprising that spread from Paris, Berlin and Prague to New York, Chicago, Mexico City and Tokyo.

If you want nostalgia you can find it here. If it’s humor, that’s here, too. And if you want to know where the rebels are today there are capsule biographies at the end of each essay that bring the story up-to-date. Not surprisingly, many of the undergraduates became lawyers, teachers and something called “consulting strategists.” With a few notable exceptions, most of them made adjustments and came to terms with the middle class backgrounds from which they had come and aimed to reject. Teddy Gold, a stellar Columbia activist, blew himself up in an explosion that leveled a townhouse in Manhattan in 1970. He and his co-conspirators were making an anti-personnel bomb. His fellow SDS member, David Gilbert, is still serving time for his part in the botched Brinks robbery that left two police officers dead.

Mark Rudd has never forgiven himself or the members of the Weather Underground for what happened to Gold and Gilbert. “All our ultra-radical, ultra-military self-expression—bombings, communiqués, underground infrastructure‑came to naught,” he writes in his essay, “What it Takes to Build a Movement.”

Like Rudd, many others who were totally sure of themselves in 1968, now have doubts and questions. “Who gets to decide when to disrupt the institutions and daily lives of others,” Rosahn asks. “Who votes on whether Black Lives Matter or climate change activists get to gum up an institution, or even the traffic?” She ends her essay with lines from a Judy Collins song: “It isn’t nice to block the doorway/ It isn’t nice to go to jail/ There are nicer ways to do it/ But the nice ways always fail.” Well, not always, but all-too often.

Before 1968, I was to a large extent a scholar and a gentleman. Afterwards and I was a troublemaker, a pamphleteer, and, though I went back to academia in 1981 after a long absence and then taught for the next thirty years, I never renounced my role as a protester, or my affiliation with rebels and dissidents. Thanks, Columbia: you gave me two educations, one in the classroom, and the other in the liberated buildings and in the Tombs, the New York jail, where for the first time I understood the meaning of freedom. And thanks, Eve Rosahn for your memories and your candor.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.