Barnard Townhall on ’68

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In which Bwog succumbs to a terrible case of false nostalgia. 

Par for the course of other Barnard Townhalls, the lasanga, coffee and white tablecloths came out in full force for tonight’s discussion about student activism at Columbia in 1968.

After a brief introduction by two SGA representatives announcing tonight’s speakers—Dean of the College Dorothy Denburg, BC ’70, and Karla Spurlock-Evans, BC ’71—the members of the Townhall were shown an 11 minute video clip. The clip was part of a larger documentary entitled Remembering ’68, and featured interviews with a number of Barnard and Columbia professors and students about the spring of said historic year. Bwog would normally, of course, be happy to share with you what interviewees said, but because the documentary-maker—in a curious move indicative of some sort of activist-y universality or sheer forgetfulness—didn’t think to provide the names of the people who were speaking as they were on camera.

However, Bwog happened to be sitting next to a member of the Barnard faculty who whispered the names of some of the people who appeared on screen, one of whom was BC French professor Serge Gavronsky, (or as Denburg would later refer to him as “one of the youngest, sexiest members of the faculty”). Gavronsky, along with several other mysteriously unidentified interviewees in the documentary, described a protest in the spring of ’68 in which students and professors stood in rings around Low Library. Gavronsky remembers student activist David Schapiro leaning out of the CU President Grayson Kirk‘s office smoking one of the President’s cigars. “‘If you’re really involved,'” Gavronsky recalls Schapiro shouting to him, “‘you’ll come with us inside the President’s office and smoke his cigars.'” Possibility for totally iconic Freudian vanquishing of the “father” non-withstanding, Gavroksky politely declined. The image of Schapiro leaning out of the window of the office would later make the cover of Time magazine.

Other stars of the documentary described cavalrymen charging up Low Steps: “The sight of the Columbia campus and the police in front of Low Library was profoundly frightening,” recalled one activist. “But it was proof that whoever we were, both faculty and students, that we were doing the right thing.”

After the documentary, Dean Denburg took the podium. She described the rallying cries for amnesty for the student strikers and the environment of unrest across the street. Apparently, there was a Townhall held to discuss the issue of amnesty for the students in the very room this Townhall was in. The babyboomers at Bwog’s table looked around, taking in their current environs with stoicism and a gleam of nostalgia. “They should show that documentary to every incoming first year student,” remarked one Barnard professor to Bwog’s left.

Karla Spurlock-Evans, who is the current Dean of Multicultural Affairs at Trinity, spoke next. Spurlock-Evans discussed growing up black at the peak of the civil rights movement and how watching events like the integration of a high school in Little Rock, Ak. and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X allowed her to “live vicariously” through people she admired. “My armchair education was complete, and off I went to New York City.” The most interesting segment of the discussion came when Spurlock-Evans discussed her experience as one of about 100 students to lock themselves in Hamilton for 8 days in the spring of 1968. Apparently, Spurlock-Evans had gone to the building because SDS had advertised that a band called Soul Syndicate (who, according to Spurlock-Evans, “sounded like Smokey Robinson”) would be playing. Instead, SDS locked the doors behind the audience. “I was a reluctant activist,” she said.

Spurlock-Evans’ humility and humor were a welcome surprise to the discussion, as so many conversations about the late 60s with babyboomers of a certain age often deteriorate into meaningless self-aggrandizing and false nostalgia. The Townhall as a whole was an extremely fascinating affair, and Bwog immediately returned home to sigh wistfully as she watched videos of the Grateful Dead performing on the steps of Hamilton.


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  1. speakingositty8  

    anyone else see that movie "across the universe"? they had the cu campus takeover as the climax of the film and also showed a bunch of cu militant socialists brainwashing the sheltered girl whose name escapes me (that's how memorable this movie was).

    • anonymous

      Sigh - and CU has been going downhill ever since.

      Maybe if we bulldoze half of Harlem so they can build some decent condos up there, we'll be able to attract a higher quality of student.

  2. a southerner  

    AK = Alaksa
    AR = Arkansas

    It's just not that difficult.

  3. Carl Hauser

    For those who were there, there will be a 40th anniversary celebration of the 1968 takeover of the Columbia University Dean's office on the week of April 23-27, 2008. Many of the original participants from SDS etc (if they're still alive and mentating) will show. This will culminate in a Saturday night (4/26) reunion at the old West End Bar (now called Havana Central!!) hosted by the mighty Druids of Stonehenge, my old band. We played rock and roll then on the Columbia campus, often playing to raise bail for "The 111th Street Six" or whoever was in the hoosgow that week. Now we will ride again.
    Interesting that then we were chipping away at the pillars of society... now we mostly ARE pillars of society - how depressing! People who were there are invited to come hang out and remember what its like to have BEEN a revolutionary...

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