Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Prague Spring: Student Revolts in The Soviet Bloc and The West

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. In this passage, I discuss student revolts in 1968 in Prague and at Columbia University.

Like the unstable subatomic particles studied by physicists, in 1968 political disputes over topics ranging from the seemingly trivial (the construction of a gymnasium), to the essential (the Vietnam War), to the existential (how one could find meaning in a life under depersonalized industrial capitalism), set off chain reactions that at times appeared to shake the very foundations of Western society.

Nowhere was this more the case than on college campuses around the world. There, revolution seemingly joined reading and “’ritin’’ and “’rithmetic” as one of the four “R’s.” The year 1968 saw student rebellions at Columbia University in New York; in Paris, France; and in Mexico as that nation prepared to host the summer Olympics that aimed for greater academic freedom, genuine democracy, socialism, and an end to imperialist wars.

The worldwide student rebellions began in October 1967 in Prague, capital of the communist nation of Czechoslovakia, when 2,000 students attending the city’s Polytechnical University and angered by the lack of reliable lights and heat in their cold dormitory rooms marched to the Presidential Palace. The Czech government sent in riot police who beat the demonstrators with clubs and fired tear gas into the crowds. The students continued their bold protests throughout the winter, persuading the Communist Party leadership to dump the conservative First Secretary Antonin Novotný and replace him with the smiling, cheerful reformer Alexander Dubček who ushered in a period of political idealism that spring and summer.

The non-violent revolution, in which Dubček tried to open up the totalitarian government’s decision-making process and to allow a broad range of artistic freedoms, displeased the Soviet Union, which had dominated Czechoslovakia since the end of World War II. A curious American student from Radcliffe, Martha Ritter, traveled to Czechoslovakia to witness history. In the capital city, she said, people acted “as if they’d been let out of a closet after thirty years.” Everywhere in Prague, Ritter thought, “people were debating; in restaurants, on soapboxes, like Hyde Park [in London] – just telling the world their views.”

On August 20-21, 1968, the Soviet Union sent its troops, along with soldiers from other communist Warsaw Pact countries, to crush what amounted to a Czech independence movement. The Soviets arrested Dubček and his allies and installed a more subservient, and more oppressive, pro-USSR government. “The invasion was a singularly depressing event,” Charles Kaiser wrote. “Americans had fallen in love with the Czechoslovak experiment . . . It was . . . said that America’s position in Vietnam had made it easier for the Soviets to crush a reform movement within one of its neighboring countries.”


A student revolt at Columbia University in New York City captured 1968 in a microcosm. Instead of rebelling against a rigid communist state, there the students protested against capitalism, the Vietnam War, the university’s involvement in developing war technology, and institutional racism. Mostly affluent and overwhelmingly white, most of the students at the school didn’t care that the university had broken ground for a new gymnasium that would intrude on the mostly African American and poor Harlem neighborhood next to the campus. Morningside Park, an undeveloped 30-acre plot on the eastern side of the campus, had always served as the border between Columbia and Harlem. Planned since 1959, the gym would cost $8.4 million ($52.6 million in 2010 dollars) and Columbia promised to construct public facilities, including a swimming pool, open to Harlem residents.

Proposed spending on the gym, however, outstripped planned university spending on the local community by five to one. By the time of its groundbreaking in February 1968, the project had become a target of discontent for Black Power advocates in Harlem, who derided it as “Gym Crow.” White anti-war activists attending Columbia took a longer time to notice the dispute.

Student activism focused on the on-campus recruitment conducted by Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Napalm-B (the cancer-causing, flammable chemical agent used to burn communist troops and destroy villages in South Vietnam) and the Central Intelligence Agency. The campus chapter of the leftist Students for a Democratic Society also objected to Columbia University’s participation in the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which developed weapons and “counter-insurgency” strategies against guerrilla forces such as the Vietcong. Military research and weapons development constituted about 46 percent of Columbia’s total budget by 1968. Finally, campus SDS leader Mark Rudd and other members of the anti-war group objected to a campus-wide prohibition on indoor demonstrations as a violation of free speech.

In 1968, Columbia had a tiny number of African American students. An on-campus group, the Students’ Afro-American Society, according to historian Charles Kaiser, acted more like a book club and a debating society than a locus of political activism. That changed with the election of Black Nationalist Cicero Wilson as SAS president in the spring semester of 1968. Wilson grew up in the African American ghetto of Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Wilson was the first member of the SAS who had lived “on the streets.” As one SDS member put it, he was “a tough, city black kid. He really was crucial, for while he was not flamboyant, he exerted a kind of moral force on the other guys. He wasn’t a ‘Negro’; he was the equivalent of Malcolm X.”

Unlike Malcolm, Wilson quickly showed a willingness to work with white activists on campus. He found a kindred spirit in SDS leader Rudd. A Jewish kid with relatives who survived the Holocaust, Rudd knew the dangers of failing to oppose evil. Already a self-described radical, Rudd believed that the Vietnam War was evil, as were the “liberals” who supported it. “They [liberals] can rationalize anything,” Rudd later said. “There will always be slums, they say, there will always be wars . . . a radical doesn’t accept that.”

On March 27, students protested against Columbia’s contribution to war technology by occupying part of Low Library, the location of university administration offices, in open defiance of the ban against indoor demonstrations. Students occupied the building and demanded to meet Columbia President Grayson L. Kirk, who sat on the board of the IDA. Kirk’s reign as campus president bordered on autocratic.


On April 23, about 400 students gathered at a sundial on the southern side of the campus. Speakers representing the SDS and the SAS denounced the construction of the gym, the IDA, the Vietnam War and the college discipline policies. The crowd reached an emotional crescendo when SAS leader Wilson spoke. Wilson suggested that oppressed residents of Harlem might join student radicals in reclaiming the land Columbia University sat on. “You people had better realize that you condone Grayson Kirk with his rough riding over the black community. But do you realize that when you come back, there may not be a Columbia University? Do you think that this white citadel will be bypassed if an insurrection occurs this summer?”

Students tried to break the locks on the doors of the Low Library and, thwarted, charged toward the gym construction site. Tearing down the fence surrounding the dig, the protestors tangled with police. A student occupation of Hamilton Hall, and of Columbia University, began. Henry Coleman, the Columbia College acting dean, went to his office in Hamilton and promptly became a hostage of the protestors.

According to some witnesses, African American protestors soon decided that they wanted to control Hamilton Hall on their own. Other witnesses say the whites left the scene because they objected to black demands to re-lock the building to prevent classes from being held there. In either case, whites soon broke into the Low Library and occupied President Kirk’s office, where one student wearing sunglasses was photographed sitting at the administrator’s desk, smoking the president’s cigars. The photograph became one of the iconic images of campus protests that year.

“To liberals and conservatives alike, this was the enduring symbol of radical youth run amuck in American in 1968,” wrote Kaiser. Warned that city authorities might charge them with kidnapping, the students released Coleman after 26 hours. By the fourth day, demonstrators controlled five buildings. Students decorated the occupied buildings with pictures of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and the late Black Nationalist Malcolm X.

The Harlem chapter for the Congress of Racial Equality, an African American civil rights group, provided the occupiers food, bandages, aspirin, and other essential supplies. Students set fire to one professor’s research files. Meanwhile, a student-operated radio station, WKCR, asked if one of its listeners was a minister, because two protestors wanted to marry. With William Starr presiding, a young man dressed in a Nehru jacket and love beads pledged eternal love to a student bride wearing a white turtleneck sweater. Starr dubbed the husband and wife “children of the new age.”

The university suspended construction of the new gymnasium, which was never completed at the Morningside Park site. A different one would eventually be built inside the campus. The students made five other demands before they would leave the buildings they controlled: the end of Columbia’s affiliation with the IDA; the reversal of the ban on indoor demonstrations; the dropping of criminal charges against the student demonstrators; the release of six prisoners already arrested for protests against the IDA; and amnesty from suspensions and other discipline for the protest participants. The university rejected amnesty for the protestors and on April 30, the New York City police gathered in military formation and stormed the occupied buildings, ejecting the protestors.

“Policemen who might have dreamed of sending their sons to such a prestigious place waded into the crowds of privileged Ivy League students to create the closest thing to class warfare ever witnessed on the Columbia campus,” Kaiser noted. Pacifists wearing green armbands tried to stand between the police and the protestors but were beaten with nightsticks and blackjacks. Police forced one group of protestors to run a gauntlet, with officers raining down blows with clubs and other weapons.

“Some of the students inside Avery and Mathematics halls were dragged facedown over marble steps leading to police vans waiting on Amsterdam Avenue,” Kaiser said. Faculty members, innocent bystanders, a New York Times reporter, and even members of the pro-administration conservative students suffered beatings by the police. Several hundred were injured and police reported that 720 had been arrested.

In response, a general strike paralyzed the campus. The administration summoned Rudd and four other student protest leaders to the dean’s office on May 21 to face disciplinary actions. The four refused to attend the hearing. About 350 students once again occupied Hamilton Hall. Events unfolded as they had on April 30, with 68 students injured and 177 arrested.

Nevertheless, the protesting students got most of what they wanted. Columbia University ended its affiliation with IDA and the prohibition against indoor demonstrations was reversed. The university dropped trespassing charges against most of the students and loosened campus rules restricting the access of women to male students on campus. Rudd would be charged with riot, incitement to riot and trespass. Columbia suspended him, making him eligible for the military draft, but he sought an occupational deferment on the grounds that he was a “professional revolutionist.” Rudd ended up flunking his Army physical.

Admitting that he authorized a fire to be set at Hamilton Hall, Rudd later said the campus occupation for him served as a crossing of a philosophical Rubicon. “Caught up in ‘total war’ mode, beyond rage and without limits anymore . . . I had crossed over the line of nonviolent protest.” The next year Rudd would form the Weather Underground, an offshoot of the SDS that dedicated itself to “bringing the war home” and using terrorism, including the bombing of buildings and bank robberies, to overthrow the American government.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.

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