Black Power at Columbia, 1968
In April 1968, soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a temporary, largely uncoordinated alliance of graduate and undergraduate students shut down operations at Columbia University and occupied its administrative offices and classroom buildings for almost a month. This generalized protest came to include virtually all segments of the university community, each with a different motivation and a different sense of the principal issues at stake (ranging from international to local), but one thing is certain: what made the shutdown possible initially was an extremely short-lived convergence between a group of black students and a cadre of white students associated with Students for a Democratic Society. The emergence of a neighborhood racial conflict at an extremely volatile moment effectively immobilized the university administration, prolonging the occupation, intensifying resistance on all sides, and making a violent outcome more-or-less inevitable.
Stephen Donadio is the Fulton Professor of Humanities and director of the Program in Literary Studies at Middlebury College, and a longtime member of the faculty of the Bread Loaf School of English. He has written on a wide variety of cultural topics and for 20 years served as editor of the New England Review. In 1968, he was an instructor at Columbia, where he witnessed at first hand the developments that brought the university to a standstill, and at that time, published personal interviews with leaders representing principal groups involved in the general protest.