(The following 1998 interview first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Z magazine. See parts 1-4 below. To see the current issue of Z magazine, you can check out its web site at
Where were you and what were your first thoughts when you heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated? You had some personal contact with Martin Luther King, hadn’t you?
Bernardine Dohrn [BD]: When Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] came to Chicago in 1965, I was a law student. I went to work for them on the West Side of Chicago, helping to organize a city-wide rent strike against slumlords. People put their rent into escrow accounts and fixed up their own buildings. SCLC organized marches for open housing into exclusively white neighborhoods every weekend.
So my life was transformed. My understanding of society was deepened through practical legal work with King and his civil rights organizers in Chicago that Winter and Spring of 1965-1966.
I was attending a meeting at the Guild offices to plan the Democratic National Convention protest legal support when somebody ran in saying that King had been assassinated in Memphis. We didn’t know what to do, but we all went downstairs—this was on Beekman Street—and got on the subway and went to Times Square. Which apparently tens of thousands of other people were doing. I don’t even know why we went there.
King’s open opposition to the War in Vietnam and his determination to move toward the labor movement, toward support of Black labor, those two forces were pushing him to connect issues. And that connection of issues, I think, is what pushed students, pushed me, pushed the Black movement into revolutionary consciousness. In a way, part of what was going on that Spring of 1968 was the recognition that the issues we cared about were not separate. That it was part of one system. And it was that understanding which became explosive.
Martin Luther King was a victim of COINTELPRO. Other people who have been victims of COINTELPRO are still locked up in the 1990s [and currently]. In terms of Columbia SDS, you have Dave Gilbert still locked up. In other countries they give amnesty to political prisoners. In the U.S. that doesn’t happen. Why do you think the establishment’s so reluctant to release some of the activists from the 1960s? And, in terms of the Columbia Revolt and student activism, what was Dave Gilbert’s role?
BD: I met David in 1967 when I spoke at Columbia Law School to organize a Guild chapter there. Then saw him during the November 1967 anti-war Rusk demonstration. I met Teddy Gold both of those times, too. Teddy, who died in March 1970 in an explosion at a New York townhouse, was an activist and a leader of the SDS chapter at Columbia.
David, you know, is one of those brilliant figures who was a real intellectual. A classic Columbia student. A political economist, who loved to talk theory. Who, if it hadn’t been 1968, would surely have become a professor and an academic and written books. Who was and is a gentle person.
But David and Teddy, like all of us, were thrown into this, were lucky enough, really, to be offered the opportunity to step into this cauldron. We felt the world didn’t have to be like this.
David remains both an intellectual and a determined freedom fighter in prison. I think the other Columbia alums think about him and acknowledge his determination and his clarity of vision in a very special way.
There’s no question that it’s important to the government to pretend that the political activists of that period were “violent”, “criminal” and “crazy”. I think the authorities remain reluctant to put that period behind us with justice, rather than propaganda wars. Amnesty should be granted not just to draft resisters, which was done in the late 1970s, but to all prisoners of conscience from that period. We criminalize so much behavior in this society, it is essential for the government to pretend that these were not acts of social commitment, but “crimes”. (end of part 5)
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