News Archives

1968: Student Activism

May 20, 2019

During assembly on Monday, May 20, Chris Front (director of academics, history teacher, college counselor) spoke about the rise and power of student activism in the 1960s ~ especially with regard to civil rights and the Vietnam War. His prepared remarks follow:

Students everywhere. Shouting. Cheering. Conflict. Violence. Blood. Rule breaking. Punishment. Victory. Field Day, 2019, you ask? No, student activism in the 1960s.

But before I begin, I want to thank everyone who was involved in the planning our year-long exploration of 1968. In particular, I want to give a special shout out to Ms. Dodson-Ching, who came up with the idea and was the driving force behind the efforts. Let’s give her a hand.

Since last spring, we’ve been exploring the tumultuous, tragic and transformative year of 1968. For me, this year is so important because it was the culmination of all of the forces that shaped the 1960s, one of the most important, interesting, and impactful decades in our history. But one aspect makes this period stand out from all those that preceded it: it was a period of massive activism, but unlike previous periods dominated by protest movements, the most important movements of this period were led by young people. In other words, while we often think about leaders like John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King single-handedly pushing through the changes of this era through oratory brilliance and force of will, I would argue that it was young people, college students and high school students, some barely, if at all, older than the people sitting in this room, who took the lead and pushed their elders to take the bold steps for change we remember them for. Think about that for a second: the young people of the 60s profoundly changed the world.

So, as I tell you a little more about student activism in the US in the 1960s, I want you to try very hard to imagine yourself in these activists’ shoes: what it would have been like to do what they did, to have the bravery, passion, resilience, and commitment necessary to overcome the obstacles in their way? How would you have reacted to the often vicious and brutal resistance they endured? And as you learn about the causes that propelled them to action, ask yourself, what things matter so much to you, that you’d be willing to take great risks to make them happen?

I’d like to begin our journey at noon, on April 23, 1968, on the campus of Columbia University, in New York City. Times were different. Simply expressing a political viewpoint on a college campus could get you in serious disciplinary trouble. At Columbia, for example, indoor political protests could get you suspended or expelled. More to the point, students’ political views were considered irrelevant by adults. And keep in mind, you had to be 21 years old before you could vote in 1968. One administrator at Columbia went so far as to say, “Whether students vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a given issue means as much to me as if they were to tell me they like strawberries.”

On that day in April, 500 students gathered to make their views known. Specifically, they were there to protest the University’s support for military research and its decision to build a new gymnasium in a public park that abutted campus. The park in question sits at the base of cliffs just to the east of Columbia’s campus. On the other side of the park lies West Harlem, which at the time, was an overwhelmingly African-American community that suffered disproportionately from poverty and unemployment. That the University had strong-armed the city into giving it park land in one of the few parks in Harlem enraged residents and student activists alike. But worse yet, the university’s plans for the gymnasium required community residents, who were overwhelmingly black, to enter the gym through a separate basement entrance and only gave them access to the lowest level of the complex. The plan smacked of segregation. The students gathered to stop what they called Columbia’s racist “gym crow” plan.

After the crowd failed to gain entrance to the main administrative building, about 300 of the students marched to gym’s construction site and began tearing down the fence around its perimeter. The New York City police arrived, arresting one student and dispersing the rest of the students, who proceeded back to campus to rejoin the main demonstration.

After a few speeches, Mark Rudd, one of the student leaders, made a spontaneous decision, telling the crowd, “Let’s go to Hamilton Hall,” and several hundred students moved to Hamilton Hall, home to the deans’ offices and began a sit-in. They occupied the building, and in the process, effectively held one dean hostage for 26 hours. Funny story, while the dean was trapped in his office, he was able to signal someone outside the window of his office, who purchased an ice cream cone and snuck it to him through the window. The students refused to leave the building until the university met their demands. The demanded that the university stop participating in military research, that it abandon the construction of the gym, and that the administration grant amnesty to the all protesters. The university responded quickly and firmly: “We will discuss anything, but we will not act under coercion. There will, and necessarily must be, punishments, or we will be torn apart by a willful minority that will have its way no matter what.” In other words, the powers that be would not, under any circumstances, forfeit their right to punish students who violated school policies, even those engaged in peaceful, nonviolent protests. The stage for conflict was set.

Early the next morning, the African-American students asked white protesters to leave Hamilton Hall, and the white students agreed to move to another building where they seized the University President’s office. Rudd, who had initiated the sit-in, called his father from the President’s phone, and told him: “Dad, we took over a building.” His dad replied, “Well, give it back.” Needless to say, they didn’t.

Over the next 5 days, students occupied 3 more campus buildings, 5 in total. Counter protests erupted, as did sympathetic ones. 200 African-American high school students marched to Columbia to show solidarity for the black students, and community leaders from Harlem sympathetically protested at the gates of the University. National civil rights leaders traveled to campus to offer support. And, amazingly, Chairman Mao, leader of Communist China, telegrammed to express his encouragement.

Negotiations with the university went nowhere. While students convinced the school to temporarily halt construction on the gym, they could not secure amnesty for the protesters or a firm commitment to end war-related research at Columbia. To end the stalemate, the university turned to the New York City police department’s Tactical Patrol Force, which had been tensely waiting on the edge of campus for days. The NYPD first peacefully cleared the African-American occupants from Hamilton Hall. But when they turned to clear the four other occupied buildings, violence erupted. Over 1,000 police officers, armed with nightsticks, many wearing riot helmets, stormed the buildings. They grabbed protesters and roughly passed them along a fire-line of officers, aggressively punching, kicking, and clubbing students as they passed them on. Violence between the police and students continued into the following day, as students armed with sticks battled officers, some of whom were on horseback. 132 students, 4 faculty members and 12 police officers were seriously injured in the fight that ensued. 712 protesters were arrested.

The excessive violence triggered a massive student strike, which shut down the university. The police brutality conducted at the request of the administration, convinced thousands of students who had sat on the sidelines to join the strike. All classes were canceled for the rest of the semester. Ultimately, the students achieved most of their goals: while over 30 student leaders of the protest were suspended for their actions, the university agreed to abandon the plans for the gym, military research was ended, the military and CIA were no longer invited to recruit on campus, and a student senate was created to allow students to formally give input on university policies. In addition, students on campuses across the nation were inspired by the Columbia revolt to stage their own protests.

This wasn’t the first time that students had taken over a campus building at an American college, nor was it the first protest that shut down a university. But because the Columbia protest was so large, it lasted so long, and the police reaction was so brutal and bloody, and because it took place at an Ivy League institution that just happened to be in the media capital of the world, the event received national and international attention. For our purposes, it is important because it captures the spirit of student activism in 1968. Additionally, like so much that happened in 1968, it didn’t emerge out of nowhere; the uprising at Columbia was a product of nearly a decade of groundbreaking civil rights and antiwar activism by students.

It is impossible to understand the student activism that characterized Columbia in 1968, in American and around the world, without going back in time to 1960, to the origin of 60s student activism. Our story begins on February 1,1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. On that day, four college freshmen from North Carolina A&T entered a Woolworths department store. Each made a purchase, toothpaste or other small items. This wasn’t peculiar. African Americans often shopped at this Woolworths, and, for that matter, at department stores all over the south. These stores were happy to allow black customers to spend their hard-earned money. What African Americans weren’t allowed to do was eat at the lunch counters located in those stores. Jim Crow laws were still in full force throughout the south. Even though the Supreme Court had declared segregation in schools unconstitutional and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had desegregated busing in that city, in the south, nearly all public spaces and services, and many businesses, were either segregated or African Americans were completely barred.

So, when the four black African American students sat down at the lunch counter and demanded equal service with white people, they were told no, and asked to leave. Yet, the young men refused to leave. Understand what was at stake. African-Americans had been attacked and even lynched for less. Only a few years earlier, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was pulled from bed in the middle of the night, tortured and lynched in Mississippi simply for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

So why then did these students take the risk? One of them later recalled, “We constantly heard about all the evils that are occurring and how blacks are mistreated and nobody was doing anything about it. We used to question, ‘why is it that you have to sit in the balcony [of a movie theater]? Why do you have to ride in the back of the bus?” If marches and petitions that the older activists relied upon weren’t changing things, then segregation needed to be directly challenged through confrontational, nonviolent action, and these 17- and 18-year-olds decided that they needed to take matters into their own hands.

It was at this moment that students took over the Civil Rights Movement and ignited a decade of student activism. The next day, after the first sit-in, the four students returned with 21 classmates. They were heckled and refused service, but they remained steadfast and refused to leave until the store closed. The next day their numbers increased to 60 students, including local high school students, who took shifts, keeping every seat filled for the entire day. Tensions increased as members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up, who taunted the protesters as they politely studied in their seats. They were denied service yet again. On the fourth day, 300 college and high school students participated, including the first white student supporters, and the protest spread to another local department store. On day five, tensions mounted as 50 white males were already seated at the counter when the activists arrived. The activists kept their cool, and simply filled the remaining seats. By the end of the day, over 300 people were present, and the police cleared the premises. Negotiations continued between the protesters and the stores to no avail. The next morning, day six of the protest, the activists’ numbers topped 1000 people. Both stores temporarily closed their lunch counters, rather than serve African Americans, so the students decided to pause sit-ins to allow the stores a chance to address their demands. But the impact was being felt. In the upcoming days, sit-ins took place in 6 other North Carolina cities and then spread to Florida, S. Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and even New York City. By the end of February, the sit-in movement had spread to 30 cities in 8 states, and by the end of March, sit-ins had been held in 55 cities in 13 states. Boycotts of the businesses were often added to pressure the stores to desegregate their lunch counters. In many instances, the activists were physically attacked. They were pushed, kicked and punched. They had mustard poured over their heads, lit cigarettes pushed into their backs. Yet, the students refused to retaliate. Imagine that! In many cases, the police arrested the demonstrators for trespassing or disturbing the peace, even though they were the ones being attacked. By August of 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in a sit-in, and over 3,000 protesters were arrested. All of this inspired by the four Greensboro students’ bold actions.

The images of nonviolent young protesters being attacked, arrested, and filling jails, day after day, simply for trying to order a cup of coffee or hamburger, transformed public opinion, and in cities across the south, lunch counters were desegregated one by one. Segregation, these young people had proven, wasn’t simply a custom voluntarily agreed to by blacks and whites alike. It was a form of oppression, enforced by an ever-present threat of violent reprisal. In other words, young people seized leadership of the civil rights movement, at great risk to themselves, through bravery and persistence. In fact, after the Nashville sit-in movement successfully convinced their mayor to support the integration of lunch counters, Martin Luther King traveled to Nashville to address the activists. In his speech, he made the importance of the students’ leadership clear. He declared, “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place here in this community.”

Their leadership continued in 1961, when the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE, sponsored the Freedom Rides, which sought to test the federal government’s willingness to enforce the desegregation of interstate travel by having two small groups of black and white individuals travel by bus from Washington DC through the south to New Orleans, Louisiana. At major stops, they would enter bus terminals, which had segregated facilities, and challenge that segregation. White students would attempt to use the “colored only” bathrooms while black riders would try to use the “whites only” bathrooms. While this might not seem that different from the sit-ins, since they were travelling into the deep south where Jim Crow was even more pervasive, the riders knew that it was indeed more dangerous. Fearing death, several of the riders actually wrote wills before leaving. Dr. King warned, “you’ll never make it through Alabama.”

While the rides proceeded without major incident at first, when the first busload of freedom riders arrived in Anniston, Alabama, members of the KKK tossed a firebomb into the bus and attempted to block the escape of the riders, who narrowly escaped out the back door of the bus before the bomb exploded. The second bus of riders were then brutally attacked, but they were able to escape, and they pressed on toward Birmingham. When that bus arrived at the terminal, they were met by a vicious crowd. The freedom riders were attacked by toughs wielding key rings, fists and pipes. One activist was assaulted by 12 men, who beat and kicked him in the face until it was a bloody pulp. Another rider suffered permanent brain damage and a stroke that left him paralyzed for life. All of this happened while the police sat on the sidelines. In fact, it was coordinated with the police. The head of CORE decided to call off the ride. He had concluded it was much too dangerous to continue.

It was at this point that college students from Nashville, veterans of the sit-ins, stepped in to pick up where the adults in CORE had quit. The adults urged them not to, warning it was “suicide,” there would be a “massacre.” To the students, though, segregation was an “absolute moral invalidity” and “backing away was not an option.” The danger wasn’t the continuation of the ride, they argued; The danger was ending it. And thus, this group of students set out from Nashville for Birmingham to take over the rides, but when they arrived, they were immediately arrested. In a cruel joke, the police drove them back to the Tennessee/Alabama border, and abandoned them in the middle of the night without transportation in KKK territory. Undeterred, they were able to secure a ride and headed straight back to Birmingham. At this point, President Kennedy felt pressured to intervene, and arranged an escort to Montgomery, Alabama. But at Montgomery city limits, their escort disappeared. Again, as they left the bus, they were met by a mob. Made up of men, women and children, the mob attacked them with baseball bats, tire irons, chains and other make-shift weapons. After a tense night of negotiations, in which the Kennedy administration and leaders of the African-American community tried to dissuade the student riders from continuing, the students refused to quit. They were in control. The Freedom Rides was their protest. The next morning, they boarded a bus for Jackson, Mississippi. Upon their arrival in Jackson, they were arrested. While the riders never made it to New Orleans, by pressing on, suffering abuse, and risking death, the students captured the nation’s attention. More than 60 additional rides across the south followed that summer, inspired by the students’ bravery. They had forced a reluctant president to act on their behalf and had showed America, and indeed the world, the inherent immorality of segregation. They paved the way for other student activists to challenge segregation in their cities, most famously in the Birmingham Campaign against segregation in which high school students remained nonviolent and unwavering, even while the police unleashed German shepherds and opened fire hoses upon them. After seeing the images of these students’ bravery from Birmingham, President Kennedy, who had dragged his feet on Civil Rights for two years, finally took his first meaningful step against segregation by going on TV and morally condemning it, the first time a sitting president had taken a public moral stand against racism since the Civil War, which paved the way for the ultimate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. None of this would have been imaginable without the leadership of young people. They were the heart and soul of these efforts, they were on the front lines, taking risks, and they bore the brunt of the rage and violence. And they altered the course of history.

These student activists had a profound impact that extended well beyond civil rights. Inspired by the 1960s sit-ins and freedom rides, undergraduates on college campuses across the country became activists. At first, these students went south to work on civil rights campaigns, but they returned north energized and determined to bring about political change. When president Johnson radically deepened US involvement in Vietnam, beginning in 1964, and images of the war began to make it home, many activists turned their attention toward stopping what they believed was an unjust, imperialistic war.

While many of you may have learned that the Vietnam War was unpopular and may also know that antiwar protests took place in the 1960s, what you may not know is that it was student activists, 18, 19, 20 and 21 year-olds, who fueled the efforts to stop the war. Like the pre-sit-in civil rights movement, student activists began challenging the war with peaceful demonstrations: marches and “teach-ins,” which featured informal, open-ended public discussions and seminars seeking to inform participants about what actually was going on in Vietnam and change public opinion. While the first teach-in was organized by professors at the University of Michigan in 1965, quickly students took the lead, organizing teach-ins at campuses across the country. The largest teach-in took place at the University of California, Berkeley, where an estimated 30,000 people, mostly students, gathered for 36 hours to learn the truth about Vietnam. Later that year, students led marches in Washington DC, where 20,000 people marched, and NYC, in which 30,00 took part.

But like the students in Greensboro before them, these antiwar protesters realized that that marches and teach-ins could only do so much; if they wanted to alter the course of the war, they needed to change tactics. Instead of focusing on educating the public about the war in hope that public opinion would shift, they instead set a new goal: making it difficult or even impossible for the US to wage the war. Beginning in California, a draft resistance movement emerged which spread to college campuses across the US. For those of you who don’t know, a draft is forced enlistment into the military. At the time, all 18-year old men were required to register for the draft. The students reasoned that if the government didn’t have soldiers, it couldn’t wage the war. They aimed to deny the government those soldiers. Resistance took many forms. Some simply refused to register for the draft, while others openly burned their draft cards in defiance. At more directly confrontational protests, like “Stop the Draft Week,” which took place 1967 in Oakland, California, student activists sought to prevent draftees from entering the draft center and to completely shut the center down. They blocked the entrance and intentionally sparked a small riot, which did close the office, if only temporarily. Perhaps more effective were student efforts to stop military recruitment on their campuses and to starve the military of research by forcing their colleges and universities to stop conducting research on behalf of the military, like the protesters at the Columbia successfully did in 1968.

It is still open to debate as to the degree to which the war resistance movement limited the country’s ability to fight the war, though many experts note that in the wake of these antiwar disruptions, the head of the FBI told the president that if he kept escalating the war, FBI could not ensure domestic stability. More importantly, it is clear that the student antiwar movement played a central, unmatched role in changing public opinion about the war. In 1965, when the antiwar movement was still in its infancy, less than 25% of Americans believed that sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake; by 1968 more than half of all Americans believed so. This change in popular opinion empowered members of Congress to begin speaking out against the war and ultimately undermined President Johnson’s presidency. In 1964, Johnson had won the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate on record (over 61%), and through 1966, his approval ratings were impressively high, with between 2/3 and 3/4 of the population approving of his job performance. But beginning in 1967, more Americans disapproved of his performance than approved of it, largely because of changing attitudes towards the war in Vietnam. In 1968, surprisingly strong primary performances by antiwar candidates Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, whose candidacies were propelled by young people who opposed the war, convinced Johnson to drop out of the race for the presidency. Student activists had changed the course of history, again.

The Columbia students who fought in 1968 to stop the racist and pro-military policies of their university were simply carrying on the work of the students who transformed the civil rights movement and the students who founded the antiwar movement. And they passed those batons to students on campuses across the United States, who in turn launched their own campus protests against racism and the war in Vietnam. The result was more democratic college campuses in which political debate and activism were commonplace. Curriculums changed in response to student priorities: the first African-American studies, developing world studies, and women’s studies departments, to name a few, were founded; universities diversified their faculties and student bodies because students demanded it. In short, universities would never be the same.

The young activists did not accomplish all that they set out to. They didn’t end the war, and racism and inequality still plague us today. Some members of the student movement got carried away with their revolutionary zeal, expending energy on frivolous causes, and a few others, like Mark Rudd, the leader of the Columbia sit-in, actually became anti-government terrorists. Still, what is most important and what I hope you take away from this talk is this: 60s student activism represents the first moment in history in which young people looked carefully at their world, decided that it could be better, and willingly risked their comfort, their futures, and their lives to make it so. They made it harder to wage the war in Vietnam and turned the American public against an unjust war. They were crucial to the successful efforts to end legalized segregation. Through remarkable commitment, heart, persistence, bravery, and sacrifice, student activists of the 1960s grabbed the world’s attention and forced adults to change the world for the better. As they continue to do today.