Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (iv)
After the pie-throwing incident and the steering committee meeting in which he skillfully outdebated all his Praxis-Axis critics, Mark was clearly in control of the chapter’s direction and was able to lead in a freewheeling, charismatic way, with the enthusiastic support of the bulk of Columbia SDS’s hard core. The next evidence of Mark’s dynamic leadership and willingness to return Columbia SDS to its pre-Praxis-Axis confrontational style of politics was the March 27, 1967 demonstration inside Low Library. Two hundred of us playfully defied Columbia President Kirk’s ban on indoor anti-war demonstrations at Columbia at this time.
The initial goal of the March 27th march into Low Library was to deliver more petitions to Kirk which called for an end to Columbia’s institutional sponsorship of IDA. But—like in December, when Kirk was down in Virginia attending an IDA executive committee meeting—Kirk was not in his office when we entered the Columbia Administration building.
So chanting “IDA must go! IDA must go!,” we marched into the offices of other administrators, including the office of a guy named McGooey, who was your typical mid-50s, suit-and-tie-wearing administration bureaucrat. We asked him to justify Columbia’s ties to IDA and, naturally, McGooey didn’t know anything about them. But he seemed uncomfortable having to face a jeering Columbia SDS crowd led by Mark, Dave and Ted, each of whom shouted questions at him in a derisive, humorous way. Although Ted was hurt by the outcome of the post-pie-throwing meeting, after a few days he put his personal feelings aside and continued to be willing to do chapter agitational work at rallies under Mark’s leadership. After about a half-hour of confrontation and defiant marching inside Low Library, we left the building.
By March 27, 1968, most Columbia SDS people were so frustrated with the Columbia Administration’s failure to cut its ties to IDA that we were ready to sit-in immediately, once we had enough people. We no longer had any faith that the Columbia Administration would resign from IDA because of rational persuasion. We realized that only by showing Kirk that continued ties with IDA meant disruption of business as usual at Columbia would we be able to persuade Kirk to get Columbia’s trustees to pull out of IDA. Our hope was that by defying Kirk’s ban on indoor demonstrations in a confrontational way we would encourage the mass of apathetic anti-war students who had mobilized behind us in the April 1967 confrontation with the Marines to go into political action again. Everyone in Columbia SDS felt “up” after the March 27th demo inside Low Library.
A day or two after the March 27th indoor demonstration in Low Library, spring vacation began. During the spring break, most of Columbia SDS’s hard-core of 30 activists ended up traveling out to Lexington, Kentucky for what was to be a well-attended SDS National Council meeting. At first I wasn’t going to attend. It seemed like too much of a hassle to find a ride in a car going from the Upper West Side, when I only half-believed that National SDS meetings were of relevance to local SDS chapter activity. But after I spent a day back with my parents in Queens, I thought to myself: “What am I doing here? Why don’t I splurge a little and combine a trip to the SDS National Council meeting in Kentucky with a visit to my sister at Indiana University?”
I telephoned my sister (who was now finishing up her BA work at IU), looked at my collection of road maps, telephoned an airline company at LaGuardia Airport, took out some money from my bank account, packed a sleeping bag and some clothes in a knapsack, said goodbye to my mother and took a few local buses to LaGuardia. For the first time in 10 years, I got on a plane—a jet that was bound for Cincinnati. I could only afford a one-way ticket to Cincinnati. So my plan was to land in Cincinnati and hitch to the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington. After the National Council meeting ended, I then hoped to get a ride, or hitch, to Bloomington, Indiana, where I would crash with my sister for a week, before getting a ride back to New York City from Bloomington.
Although I had never hitched before on a highway, I had read through enough Woody Guthrie books and listened to enough Dylan to feel quite eager about starting to do a little hitching in the U.S. My 1968 hitch-hiking from Cincinnati to Lexington was my first time “on the road” hitching.
After the jet landed in Cincinnati in the early afternoon of a hot spring day, I soon found myself on a highway on the outskirts of the city. Within five minutes, a young guy who was a student at Xavier College picked me up and drove me from the airport to the southern outskirts of the city. Five minutes after he dropped me off, two poor whites from a mountain town in Tennessee, who were heading back home, picked me up. I sat in the backseat of their beaten-down jalopy during the hour or two that it took to reach the highway exit for Lexington. After being dropped off, I walked into the town and followed the signs that directed cars to the University of Kentucky campus.
The road from the highway through the town passed through the impoverished African-American section of Lexington, and I walked through this section towards Main Street and the center of town. In the center of town, I made a left and walked by many stores of the downtown shopping section, then up a hill to the University of Kentucky’s campus. As I walked up the hill and saw more of the university buildings, I felt more and more as if I was in a campus town. In the late afternoon, I found the building where the SDS National Council meeting was being held.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
10 years ago