The Causes and the Protest of 1968

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The Causes and the Protest of 1968

In the 1960s, the great decade of social change, the civil rights movement alongside student movements worked together to bring about a momentous change in society. In 1968, the New Left continued to take on thousands of members as it developed a more radical approach in its opposition to racism and the Vietnam War. Practically synonymous with the New Left, Student’s for a Democratic Society (SDS) argued that militant tactics showed young people that actions could make a difference. SDS stated: "we can make a difference, we can hope to change the system, and also that life within the radical movement can be liberated, fulfilling, and meaningful." Student unrest passed from "protest to confrontation to resistance and to outright obstruction; even more startling, the university as a general institution, itself, was now regarded as the enemy, the target for disruption."

On April 23, 1968, this American Student movement culminated at Columbia University. Students on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus gathered to oppose an institution they viewed as racist, imperialistic, and authoritarian; the school represented the old order of society that still dominated American institutions. Students angry with Columbia’s connection to the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), its aggressive, even racist expansion techniques, and the administration’s authoritarian rule, launched a demonstration in protest. What was initially a non-confrontational protest quickly escalated. Columbia students, angry and tired of being neglected by the administration, fought to be heard; students raided Hamilton Hall and refused to leave until their six demands were met. Ulitimately the SDS led protest, initially centered around speeches at the center of campus, evolved into a hostile student takeover of five university buildings. These frustrated students lashed out against the establishment—and the nearest target was their own Columbia. However, Klaus Mehnert observed that the "campus problems as such did not stand in the foreground of the conflict…The true enemy was society…the university simply being that segment of society with which the students happened to be confronted." Although superficially centered around three specific issues, these demands were only symbolic of the far broader issues of racism, imperialism, and authoritarianism, presently ailing society. The revolution was ultimately a power struggle between the New Left and the old order; a battle between liberal students and Columbia’s archaic administration for a voice in society.

In April 1968, Columbia University’s appearance was like that of any other college around the nation.
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