Lecture Hop: What was that year again?
Written by Bwog Staff
In which Bwog correspondent Christopher Morris-Lent learns about the most over-referenced year ever at last night’s Historical Perspectives talk.
It’s 7:00 in 301 Philosophy, I’m well-fed by a catered spread, and before me sits an ensemble cast culled from the cream of the Columbia history department, each here to describe different aspects of the year 1968 that pertain to their respective fields of expertise. Given the degree to which that year is bandied about in Morningside discourse, I hoped someone would explain: what, exactly, is the big deal?
1968, as our sunny moderator informs us, was “a turbulent time marked by political protest,” a year wracked by “student activism and protest, including the Columbia strike.” She proceeds to catalogue all the juicy historical events that transpired in 1968: the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the overthrows of LBJ and Charles de Gaulle, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the protraction of the Vietnam War, etc. She introduces professors Charles Armstrong, a specialist on Korea and leader of a seminar on the Vietnam War; Manning Marable, professor at SIPA and civil rights struggle veteran; Victoria De Grazia, modern European history aficionado; Michael Merrill, history department adjunct and Columbia alumnus; and Provost Alan Brinkley, world-renowned American historian and author of my AP US History textbook.
It’s 7:15. The hostess passes the microphone to Armstrong, who prefaces his monologue by commenting jovially on the “large turnout.” In a certain sense, he’s right: the sixty or so people in the audience – of whom maybe 20 are undergrads – fill the room, making the event well-attended in the same sense as a sold-out Off-Off-Broadway play. After enumerating three obvious parallels between the Vietnam War and Iraq, Armstrong launches into a rather dry historical explication of the events leading up to his topic of the Tet Offensive: the French occupation, Dien Bien Phu, the American invasion, and so on. His analysis of the Tet Offensive is hardly more satisfying: after adopting the AP US-style thesis that (in so many words) the Tet Offensive was a Pyrrhic victory because it sapped American morale, he relates more dry facts to prop up his unfalsifiable argument.
It’s 7:28. Manning Marable introduces his topic – the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King – by relating his personal experience of the events, as a high school senior in Ohio. Accordingly, his speech is to be an extended anecdote: “I’d like to read a first person narrative, focusing on one theme, the Black liberation struggle as it emanated from the south – and how I ended up being the first person at Martin’s funeral.” Marable’s story is stirring – he opens by stating that “integration brought mixed and sometimes disturbing experiences,” citing the excision of Africa from the World Civilization syllabus and compulsory memorization of “The White Man’s Burden.” As a young activist in the midst of the civil rights movement, Marable felt as if he had no choice but to attend Dr. King’s funeral, dryly remarking, “My father consented to the operation, and purchased a one-way ticket to Atlanta – he was very cheap.” He concludes by invoking 1968 as a means for calling for the equality that his idol hoped to bring about and that he contends continues to elude us.
It’s 7:45. Victoria de Grazia is up now, “speaking as a Europeanist.” Launching into an explanation of the student riots beleaguering Europe simultaneous to the civil rights movement across the Atlantic, she makes an interesting point about the protests: they weren’t about money or economic equality, but rather a largely affluent societal group looking for something more and something to do. She relates to the attendees a “very funny slogan” about the French riots and is met with an awkward silence. “Good audience up here anyway,” she says. A story culminating in the line “I shit on Lyndon Johnson” elicits a few laughs. In 1968, de Grazia was a 20 year-old student at Smith College; travelling around Europe, she says, “I remember thinking how horrible it was that the world was ruled by the communist Soviets on one side and the fascist Americans on the other!”
It’s an eloquent evocation of the political rupture and general sense of anomie at the time, one which Michael Merrill is happy to relate to a familiar environment in his lengthy lecture on the infamous Columbia protests. In contrast with the rest of the panelists, Merrill’s lecture is filled with good humor, fluid storytelling, excellent delivery, and subtle insight. He offers a compelling take on the protests that’s both personalized and contextualized: from the point of view of a native Idahoan who worked his way through college swabbing counters in the cafeteria, whose first participation in a student-organized event was a “panty-raid” on the Barnard Quad, and whose only involvement in the protests was to throw food to his friends, the insurgency was at once unsettling and exhilarating. Merrill saw the upheaval as one small part of a mass movement, but he’s quick to describe Columbia as a prime spot for such a rebellion, as a powder keg of the tensions that made 1968 what it was: “It was a bastion of privilege,” he said, “that had opened its doors. Slightly … [for example,] the first African-American students who weren’t athletes were admitted with the classes of 1967 and 1968.”
Merrill was in the class of 1970, making him a sophomore when the demonstrations commenced on April 23, 1968. The rest of the narrative is common knowledge: the protestors conquered and occupied Hamilton and Low, the NYPD was called in, and–342 police brutality complaints and 700 arrests later–things were up and running again. But, as Merrill contends, the consequences extend far and beyond the current state of Dodge: the student body radicalized, the purpose of education changed, and the cost of higher education went through the roof as public support faltered for the first time since World War II and the GI Bill.
It’s 8:33 by the time Provost Alan Brinkley begins to speak on the topic of LBJ and the Election of 1968. His speech is as turgid as the book of his I had to read three years ago and uninspiring to boot. He finishes twenty minutes later and the floor is opened for questions, unremarkable but for a middle-aged man’s declaration that he was at Yale in ’68 with George W. Bush, followed by a story that ends with his misinterpreting anguished shrieks of “the King is dead” with some perverse mass quotation of Shakespeare.
It’s 9:06. The panel is over. I grab more sandwiches.