By Nancy Biberman
We were an optimistic and righteous generation, many of us conceived and raised by men and women who had survived World War II. My dad was an Army combat vet who fought in the South Pacific and trained GIs on the use of top-secret proximity fuse weaponry. My four refugee grandparents fled persecution in Russian shtetls, arrived in America penniless, and spoke Yiddish and Russian at home. They were hopeful yet wary, with “one foot in the suitcase” in case they had to go back. Despite their caution, I blossomed into a high school liberal activist in the sheltered suburbs of Philadelphia.
From my father and television I learned about the world. My dad, an engineer, built an early version of a TV; we were the first in the neighborhood to get one. From that box in the corner of our tiny living room I found out about civil rights and the intimidation and murder of Southern blacks for attempting to register to vote. I saw Sheriff Bull Connor unleash his dogs and fire hoses on young blacks, many no older than me. By the time I was a high school senior the Vietnam War, this nation’s first televised war, filled my home with images of napalmed children and burning villages, as people ran from American cluster bombs, their bodies charred black by my country’s lethal chemical warfare. I watched generals on TV talking about “the enemy” in words that made no sense.
I decided I wanted to go to college at Barnard mainly because it was located in New York City, teeming with the diversity I craved as a Philly teenager. By the time I arrived on campus, my new friends and I all knew of high school classmates who had returned from Vietnam in body bags. Learning about and organizing against the war was what I did with my time outside of classes. The early months of 1968 unfolded: the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. followed by black rebellion in cities across the country. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had a strong presence on college campuses, and, in today’s parlance, became the thought-leader of the antiwar movement, holding rallies and teach-ins. At Columbia, the SDS chapter published critiques of the university for its affiliation with US Defense Department contractors. SDS also paid attention to how the university related to its largely African American neighborhood. When it became known that Columbia was planning to build a private gym for its students in a public park that separated the university from Harlem, the antiwar and civil rights movements converged.
On April 23, 1968, hundreds of students, including me, stormed into and ‘occupied’ a university building. Within a matter of days, four more buildings were being occupied and barricaded by hundreds of students. I was eventually charged with criminal trespass, spent a night in jail, and was released the following morning. (Columbia later dropped all charges against its students, and my graduation ceremony a year later took place at virtually the same spot where I had been arrested.)
Life inside Columbia’s occupied buildings was intense, intoxicating, and profoundly pre-feminist. We believed we were making history by shutting down the university, but even at the time I and many other women felt that our views were not being heard and that we were somehow being excluded from real decision-making meetings – from leadership.
Columbia strike alums have come together on most decade anniversaries of the student rebellion to reflect on what happened, and what it meant. On the anniversary of the first decade, my recollections were laced with anger and I decided not to go. Ten years after that, in 1988, I was asked to speak on a panel of “strike leaders.” I was taken aback at the notion I had been any kind of a leader, but agreed to participate. In preparation for the panel I reread Up Against the Ivy Wall, published in 1969 by a group of student journalists who had reported daily on strike activities for the university newspaper. Rereading the book as history was a revelation. It makes no mention that of the more than seven hundred students arrested, almost two hundred—graduate students and undergrads from Barnard— were women. Only once in three hundred pages is a woman mentioned by name, and she is the mother of one of the male strikers. Barnard students are called only “girls” or “coeds,” never simply “students.” The book’s appendix is a cast of characters listed by name, which includes seventeen students, seven administrators, twenty-five faculty, and ten community leaders and city officials. Not one is a woman.
When describing the events of one of the mass arrests, Up Against the Ivy Wall records “one girl, speaking from the floor” who “gave a tearful, angry appeal for staying.” It is the only use of the word “tearful” in the entire book. In a description of the communal cohesion inside the buildings, the authors write that students “formed and joined task forces to serve the needs of the other occupants; some stood guard at points of contact with the outside, some kept up communications via phone and walkie-talkie with friendly buildings, and others—mostly girls—managed food and housekeeping details.” As the campus flooded with police in full riot gear, there is this observation: “‘It’s beautiful,’ one girl sighed as she watched students perched high on the barricade screaming obscenities at the cops.”
Being expunged from the pages of our own history reflects our devaluation by our brothers and lovers in this movement for social change. We pre-feminists felt demeaned and angry that our contributions to the Columbia strike were marginalized. We doubted ourselves, and too many people apparently doubted that women could be reliable witnesses to our own lives. In the years since, I and other women I know from those times have, in one way or another, fought for the right to have ideas, to be in possession of facts, to be acknowledged.
In hindsight, I better understand how unsettled we felt. After all, we grew up in egalitarian families that took our intellects as seriously as those of our brothers. I certainly believed that my engagement with the New Left was no different from any guy I knew. We all believed in the inseparability of ends and means, of participatory democracy, of integrating politics into our personal lives. Yet, as I look back on 1968, the sense of euphoria that was emblematic of the Columbia strike is tempered by uneasy feelings. As Todd Gitlin put it in his book The Sixties, movement men sought women out, recruited us, took us seriously, and honored our intelligence, yet demoted us to girlfriends, wives, note-takers, and coffee-makers. We cherished our personal relationships with guys, at least in part because without them we could not have participated in the endless, informal, high-level meetings taking place. Yet quietly we resented being there on male sufferance, or if our consciousness had not yet clarified those amorphous feelings into resentment, we were at the very least confused.
The occupied buildings became our homes, and we lived with each other, cooked, ate, cleaned up (women were in the forefront of that effort) and talked politics into the wee hours. One couple inside occupied Fayerweather got married in a candlelit ceremony with hundreds of witnesses, as officiated by Columbia’s Episcopalian Chaplain, to to the delight of everyone delcared them “Children of the New Age.”
There were a few women who had the guts and vision to speak up back then. I will never forget a sign, hung over a typewriter inside occupied Fayerweather Hall, that read: “To all women: You are in a liberated area. You are urged to reject the traditional role of housekeeper unless, of course, you feel this is the role that allows for creative expression. Speak up. Use your brains.” I wrote in an article at the time about “male ego-trips,” and that I, like many others, were trying to create a new form of leadership, “one that recognized us as women, yet also as political people with thoughts and actions which must be communicated.”
People speak of Columbia as a transforming event, a unique time when we bonded intensely with each other, some of us total strangers. We placed our lives and futures in each other’s hands. We ate, slept, breathed, and loved our political activism. “Everybody tries to find too much emotional motivation in our protests,” I was quoted in 1968 by the New York Times as saying, trying to explain how seriously we took our political beliefs. “We’re not just alienated.”
Nearly fifty years after the Columbia strike, my husband and I flew from New York to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Spending time in this tiny country that shaped me as a young adult, consumed me from high school through law school, and nourished my morality as parent and professional, was gut-wrenching. The war, it took me five decades to learn, was vastly more destructive—in the number of bombs dropped and in the use of chemical and biological warfare—than I, aged eighteen, knew at the time. We traveled the country for a month from the Mekong Delta to the Central Highlands, north to Hanoi and mountain villages less than ten miles from the China border. We swam in the Gulf of Tonkin and saw monuments at Quang Tri and the ancient imperial city of Hue, which was leveled in 1968. We climbed through the Vinh Moc tunnels, which housed an entire rural community during the war—hundreds of families escaping the bombing—thirty meters below ground. Babies were born in the tunnels as doctors made use of an operating table fabricated from metal salvaged from a downed American plane. The day I spent at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi was when I flashed back to being a young woman at Columbia. The museum portrays women’s lives throughout Vietnamese history as a tapestry of vital roles: mother, soldier, student, all with strong and feminine qualities, all whole and essential. Vietnamese women seemed to be guilelessly self-determined agents of their own destinies, never victims.
While at the women’s museum, I finally began to grieve for what our country had done to these women and their families. Later, emerging from the claustrophobic Củ Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, in which North Vietnamese soldiers lived and which they used as a base of operations, I started sobbing. Our guide embraced me and told me not to cry, saying that it was all in the past and the Vietnamese had “moved on.” Perhaps Buddhism—its loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, equanimity—encourages this thinking. Again and again I repeated his words to myself as we visited tombs, battlefields, and museums that recalled vivid details of the war. By the time we returned from Saigon to New York, President Obama had set out for Vietnam and Laos. While in Laos he acknowledged that 270 million American bombs had been dropped in what was then a top-secret operation aimed at destroying “supply routes” along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. About a third of the bombs to hit Laos never exploded, and to this day, unexploded ordnance dropped by American bombers kills and maims hundreds of people every year.
Most of my professional life has been based in the South Bronx, long a poster child for warlike destruction masquerading as urban renewal. In 1988, I began work to redevelop twenty-three abandoned, burned-out buildings, once home to more than seven hundred families. Across the façade of one building were the words “Persistence of Memory.” That idea has animated my life and work. After all, things that are destroyed and buried can be forever forgotten. History and memory are fragile and easily manipulated, or erased.
My father never ceased talking about his wartime combat experiences—he hated the enemy he fought—even as his memory succumbed to Alzheimer’s. He fought the just war, yet supported me as I fought against an unjust one. In the hazy weeks after he died in 2015, I visited Washington, D.C., and walked through the memorials — to the Worl War II veterans, to FDR, to the American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Standing at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, I recalled a trip my husband and I had taken with two of our children, then nine and fourteen, to see the death camps at Auschwitz and later the beaches of Normandy. We wanted them to learn to recognize evil in the world and to begin their own lifelong dialogues with themselves about how a moral person acts in the face of immorality. Etched on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial are these words, from 1967: “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.”
We knew that as students we could not stop the Vietnam War, nor could we end racism. But we could do our part, which at Columbia in 1968 was to broadcast as loudly as we could that students were willing to put their lives and futures at risk to end this awful war. What we learned during those six days of the building occupation was the transformative power of individuals working together in pursuit of justice. Ho Chi Minh once said that his people were never anti-American, only against the American government, and that the war would end when the American people stopped their government from pursuing it. Perhaps we Columbia protesters can take some credit for catalyzing the student movement in the United States against the war, which in turn helped catalyze the rest of the nation. Perhaps we saved some lives. We did the best we could. In hindsight, we should have done more. But we were, like all who were fighting, so young.
Nancy Biberman began her career as a legal services lawyer representing tenants, immigrants, and women in abusive relationships, and founded WHEDco, a community development organisation in the South Bronx, US, in 1992. She pioneered a process of community-driven development grounded in preservation, memory and history by renovating old buildings or constructing new structures on vacant land to anchor and preserve neighbourhoods. She is married and the mother of three grown children.
This post appears as ‘Children of the New Age’ in Paul Cronin’s edited collection, A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68 published by Columbia University Press in January 2018. We are grateful to Nancy Biberman, Paul Cronin and Columbia University Press for giving us permission to publish it.
50 years after the tumultuous events of 1968, HWO were inundated with posts exploring aspects of that year and its legacy. The Remembering 1968 was shaped from these submissions, and includes: