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

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (viii)
Over the spring vacation, on April Fool’s Day, the IDA Board of Trustees, meanwhile, had met in order to re-organize IDA’s organizational structure to make it appear that universities like Columbia were not still institutionally-affiliated to IDA as institutional members. As a result of its “April Fool’s Resolution,” Columbia President Kirk and Columbia Trustee Burden were no longer officially serving as “institutional representatives” of Columbia on IDA’s board of trustees and executive committee, but were just sitting there “as individuals.” Because nothing had actually concretely changed regarding Columbia’s ties to IDA, except a shift in the language used to describe this institutional relationship, Columbia SDS people ridiculed this “April Fool’s Resolution” and vowed to continue their anti-IDA campaign until Kirk and Burden formally resigned their seats on IDA’s board of trustees and executive committee.

A Columbia trustees’ meeting was held in early April in the Engineering School building during the late afternoon and Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee organized a picket of about 50 students, which was led by Nick, the Columbia SDS vice-chairman. Entertaining the picket line were Dave and Ted, who sang anti-capitalist lyrics to the tune of a song called “Playin’ With Fire,” that the Rolling Stones used to sing. Both Ted and Dave sang in a very spirited and humorous way.

While Kirk was walking towards the site of the trustees’ meeting, I handed him a Columbia SDS leaflet on Low Plaza that called upon him to resign his seat on IDA’s board of trustees and executive committee. Kirk took the leaflet, glanced at it, reddened in anger, gave me a hostile look and then ripped up the leaflet. Other Columbia SDS people started chanting “IDA must go! IDA must go!” while behind Kirk, as he scurried with his entourage to the Engineering School building. After Kirk ripped up the leaflet, I began to feel that SDS had finally psyched him out somewhat with its anti-IDA agitation and that he was beginning to crack psychologically. Instead of offering to negotiate directly about IDA with us before our political conflict escalated and attempting to relate to us in a friendly way, Columbia President Kirk was neurotically ignoring the lessons of the Berkeley Student Revolt and relating to his radical student constituency in an autocratic, anti-democratic, corporate fascist-like way, in order to please the corporate board circles he moved around in.

To more clearly define Columbia SDS’s position on the liberal McCarthy presidential campaign, a general assembly debate was held one night around this time in Hamilton Hall. Paul argued vehemently in opposition to any SDS people supporting McCarthy. Paul had become more politically radical and more Marxist and anti-imperialist in his thinking between 1967 and 1968, as a result of his reading and his Gadfly editorial and literary work. He still appeared to be the best white radical orator around Columbia, with the exception of Mark. But Paul still didn’t appear to be interested in working collectively within Columbia SDS steering committee circles.

“As radicals, we must reject all forms of savior politics. Imperialism will not end just because a liberal savior like McCarthy or Kennedy gets into the White House as a result of an election. In 1960, the liberal savior Kennedy was elected. He brought us the Bay of Pigs and sent more advisors to Viet Nam. In 1964, another liberal savior, LBJ, ran as a peace candidate and promised `no wider war.’ We all know what he did,” argued Paul. “In 1968, we can’t fall into the same old trap of relying on another savior to change imperialism, who will once again double-cross us after the election—as all good liberals do.

“We must rely on ourselves. And work to build a radical mass movement to end imperialism. The election of neither McCarthy nor Kennedy will save us from the moral degeneracy of U.S. imperialism.”

Most Columbia SDS people agreed with Paul about the need to avoid getting bogged down in the “savior politics” of the 1968 presidential primary campaign and to continue to build a mass-based radical movement to end imperialism, not just to end the Viet Nam War. Perhaps if either Kennedy or McCarthy had called for an immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam and an immediate end to the draft, more support for them would have existed among Columbia SDS rank-and-file people. But neither McCarthy nor Kennedy was willing to match National SDS and Columbia SDS’s historically advanced 1968 positions on a whole range of political issues. So the New Left remained a more attractive political option at Columbia for most left-oriented students in April 1968 than the Kennedy or McCarthy campaigns.

The student-sponsored meeting in Wollman Auditorium to pay tribute to Martin Luther King following his assassination was packed with about 200 Columbia and Barnard students, most of whom were white. A panel of four students spoke about the need to do something about ending racism. No one from Columbia SDS was on the panel, but Juan represented Citizenship Council and he gave the first political speech I had ever heard him make at Columbia.

“When Martin Luther King was alive I believed the best way to work for change was to work within the System. Now I’m not so sure. And people like myself, who want to see change, may end up having to become radicals and change the System by working outside the System,” said Juan.

Prior to this speech, I had written Juan off as a good-natured, well-meaning, fun-loving guy who would always be just an apolitical, left-liberal, social worker-type; and always more interested in just having romances with Barnard students and doing concrete community service work than engaging in theoretical political discussion and building a mass-based New Left student movement. He had shown no real interest, previously, in either Puerto Rican nationalism or Columbia SDS politics when he was pouring all his organizing effort and skill into the P.A.C.T. and Columbia Citizenship Council liberal “band-aid” programs.

True, Juan had engaged in non-violent civil disobedience at one of the anti-gym construction demos. But Juan appeared to have had no interest in speaking at campus political rallies or trying to radicalize the consciousness of Columbia and Barnard students. Compared to Teddy, Ted, Lew, Harvey, Josh, John, Dave, Mark and the other SDS men I became close to as I drifted from P.A.C.T. to Columbia’s New Left circles, Juan had seemed less intellectually and politically aware, less morally outraged and politically passionate, and less psychologically alienated from the System.

Yet Juan’s response to the King assassination seemed to indicate that he was beginning to finally feel the same personal hostility towards the whole racist system that SDS people felt. I was also surprised to see that Juan was able to give such a coherent speech before such a large group of people.

The other significant thing I remember about the post-King assassination meeting in Wollman Auditorium was that there was a new mood of mass anger expressed over Columbia’s “Jim Crow” gym construction project. White left-liberal Columbia and Barnard students who had previously been apathetic about Columbia sending its bulldozers into Morningside Park were now talking about why the gym should not be built. African-American students at Columbia and Barnard appeared to be more eager to go public in their opposition to the Jim Crow gym construction plan. The subjective effect of the King assassination seemed to be that large numbers of Columbia and Barnard students felt a special need to fight racism harder and were looking for the most convenient and concrete manifestation of institutional racism around, to be the target of their anti-racist anger. And it became clear in early April that the target was going to be Columbia’s “Jim Crow” gymnasium.

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