Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories–Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (i)
A few days before Columbia SDS was to hold its March 1968 elections for its 1968-1969 officers and steering committee members, there was a knock on my dorm room door in Furnald Hall. It was Ted. Ted hadn’t visited me before in the dormitory that spring, so I asked him what was up.

“Some of us have been talking about next week’s chapter elections. And we feel that of the juniors in SDS, you’d make the best chairman.”

I laughed in disbelief and replied: “Are you kidding? Mark would make the best chairman. He’s a great speaker.”

Ted scowled. “Mark’s a good speaker. But he can’t be trusted politically. His political arguments in debate with liberals are often incoherent and unpersuasive. And he doesn’t seem able to work collectively or get along with chapter people as well as you do. We want you to run against Mark for chairman.”

I shook my head. “No. I have no desire to be Columbia SDS chairman. I’m not even sure we should have a chairman and a vice-chairman, since it reduces the collective power of the steering committee. And it creates a hierarchy of power in the chapter that may be unhealthy.”

Ted looked disappointed. “Well, if you feel you don’t want to run for chairman, how about running for vice-chairman?”

I shook my head again. “No. I have no desire to be vice-chairman. Why not ask Nancy to run for vice-chairman? She’s a junior, also.”

“We can’t have a woman speaking from the sundial. The campus isn’t ready to accept a woman as vice-chairman.”

Personally, I felt that Nancy deserved to be the new vice-chairman of Columbia SDS. But I didn’t argue with Ted over this subconscious capitulation to 1960s Ivy League male chauvinism.

We spoke for a few more minutes. And when I suggested that Brian might also make a good vice-chairman, Ted replied that Brian wasn’t charismatic enough to be effective, although he was a hard worker and a decent guy. Shortly afterwards, Ted left the dorm room. The Praxis-Axis faction he represented decided it would have to accept Mark as chairman but would back a sophomore named Nick as vice-chairman—because I didn’t want the post and Nancy couldn’t have the post because of her sex.

The next week, after Mark had returned from Cuba, Columbia SDS chapter elections were held one evening. Mark was elected chairman, Nick was elected vice-chairman and I received more chapter votes than either of them, after somebody renominated me for the steering committee. I seemed to be politically popular with the New Left members of Columbia SDS, whether praxis-axis or action faction, with PL cadre within Columbia SDS, and with Barnard women students in Columbia SDS.

The new Columbia SDS vice-chairman, Nick, was a tall guy with long hair and a mustache, who was from Long Island. In his freshman year, and the early part of his sophomore year, he had spent most of his time working as a Columbia Citizenship Council bureaucrat and a P.A.C.T. organizer. But in early 1968, he had started to spend less time with Citizenship Council and more time working on Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee. By the time of his election as Columbia SDS vice-chairman, Nick seemed to be defining himself as a Columbia SDS New Left radical activist, primarily, and not as a Citizenship Council bureaucrat.

On the night Mark and Nick were elected to head the chapter, the sophomores in Columbia SDS seemed much more enthusiastic than before. Robby, Stu and other sophomores—like Joel, Sokolow and Fitzgerald—were jumping with excitement, as if a dead weight had been lifted from their shoulders. There was a sense of expectation among them that Mark was, indeed, going to return Columbia SDS to a more confrontational style of campus political activism.

To try to channel student anti-draft sentiment away from involvement in Columbia SDS, the Columbia Administration met with a few of its student bureaucrat puppets and organized a “draft moratorium” around this time. For one day in March 1968, all classes were suspended by the Administration and students heard a variety of speakers in the McMillan Theatre talk about the immorality of the Viet Nam War draft.

In response, Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee adopted my proposal that we hold an “anti-complicity fast” to begin when the draft moratorium ended; in order to protest Columbia’s continued ties to IDA. My main argument in favor of holding this fast was that it was a good way to generate publicity for our anti-IDA campaign when people would be in a more receptive political mood because of the anti-draft moratorium.

At this IDA Committee meeting, Teddy and Nancy were not too enthusiastic about Columbia SDS sponsoring an “anti-complicity fast” because it seemed “too apolitical” and “too churchie.” And after the committee had finished planning the fast and the meeting was breaking up, Teddy said to me in a condescending way: “Are you trying to imitate our `fast for peace’ of last year?” Nancy laughed at Teddy’s remark in a condescending way.

“This fast is completely different. It’s just a publicity device to raise consciousness,” I answered.

About 20 Barnard and Columbia SDS people participated in the fast. And we were able to generate a news article in bothSpectator and the Columbia School of General Studies’ student newspaper, The Owl. And some of the students involved in the 3-day fast became more deeply committed to radical politics as a result of hanging around the Columbia SDS table, while fasting on Low Plaza. Yet militant non-violent confrontational action, not more fasting, was what would be most effective in stirring up students that spring about the need to institutionally resist the war machine.

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