Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lewis Cole's `Legacy of 1968 Columbia Student Strike' Speech

“And so the legacy is something that we create. And it is our job here to create the thing that we give to the future. That’s what matters.”—Lewis Cole on April 26, 2008

Former Columbia SDS activist and 1968 Columbia Student Strike leader Lewis Cole died from complications due to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (a/k/a/ Lou Gehrig’s disease) on October 10, 2008, at the age of 62. Nearly six months before he died, he spoke about “The Legacy of the Student Movement”—while sitting in a wheelchair and using a breathing tube—at the 40th anniversary commemoration of the 1968 Columbia Student Strike event that was held at Columbia University’s Journalism School on April 26, 2008. To listen to an audio version of this speech and audio versions of other presentations that were made at the 40th anniversary commemoration, you can check out the following website link:

“A couple of things that I just want to clean up before I say quick things about “legacy.”

“First of all, when we’re going through the horrors of the New York Times, it’s important also to recognize the young reporters—and especially one of them—who tried to tell the story true. He is sitting in the front row. He is probably the greatest witness to revolutionary movements throughout the world in the latter half of the twentieth-century. And I just want to take my hat off to John Kifner. I’d call up the Times and say `Where’s Kifner? And they’d say: `He’s in Pakistan.’ You knew something was happening there.

“The second thing I want to say is one of the real problems of the radical Movement was its sense of its own importance. And it is interesting to me—and a little bit appalling—this argument about Nixon. Because what it neglects is the role of the Black Movement and how it is that because of the enormous challenge that the Black Liberation Movement set in America, Nixon conceived of the `Southern Strategy.’

“And then, in many respects, the election of Nixon in 1968 is an example and is a moment when America reacted reactionarily to the struggle of the African-American population for its freedom. And it set that Movement back in a certain way. It set the development of the society back in a certain way.

“So that the argument about how it is that we affected Nixon—while it may be partly true—overlooks this much greater thing which was the deliberate and conscious decision on the part of the Republicans—that aspect of the ruling-class, et cetera—to try to throttle that Movement. And try to throttle the way in which it was trying to transform the society at large.

“So, having said all that, I just want to say two other quick, little, tidying up things. One, it galls me when they talk about how we were `middle-class.’ We were not middle-class!

“The students who were involved in the Strike came largely from working-class homes. They were largely the children of first-generation Americans. Harvey Blume’s father I believe ran a dry-cleaning or a tailor establishment in Brooklyn. My parents were working-class intellectuals. Tom Hurwitz’s parents took out loans to get him to come here, for which they spent years paying off.

“So this thing about we were `middle-class kids.’ Maybe Mark [Rudd]. Maybe Mark. Because it is true that—as a kid who had grown up in New York—I was very impressed that Mark knew how to drive a car. And he was the only one.

“We used to go around late at night and he would drive up to some fancy car. And he would look out the window, get the red light. He’d turn to the guy and he’d say: `Wanna drag?’

“And that was a revelation to me. But he was the only one I knew who even knew how to drive. We were working-class kids. And that’s an important thing.

“And the second thing I wanted to just mention was that when we talk about the Black and white alliance that was so important here, et cetera. The other aspect of that was—which wasn’t, I think, underlined enough. Was that it wasn’t simply that the white students were supporting the Gym [demand].

“But, to my mind, much more importantly, it was that SAS [Student Afro-American Society] was unswerving in its demands about IDA [the Institute for Defense Analyses] and the Vietnam War. And that there were repeated attempts to get them to say `Oh, no. We’re only concerned about the Gym.’ And they never, never broke on that demand. And that was crucial.

“Now, very quickly, I just want to say something about legacies.

“Legacies are not simply something that are given. They’re something that are made. You know, like `Shakespeare.' He’s a legacy. So there were the plays. But then there was the quartos. There was the production of the plays. There was the love that went into that. And then there was the understanding of them.

“And so the legacy is something that we create. And it is our job here to create the thing that we give to the future. That’s what matters.

“And it strikes me that, you know, there are good legacies and there are bad legacies. And I think that this has been a wonderful discussion. And I thank Todd [Gitlin] for giving his point of view—which I find completely wrong. But because it opens up the discussion.

“But I just want to warn against something that I think has been true about `Columbia.’ Two ways in which a legacy is not good. And I think Maurice [Isserman] mentioned and talked about one of them in a certain way. One is the mythology of `Columbia.’

“I haven’t spent my whole life here. I came to school here. I left. I didn’t get a degree. I worked for many years outside. Then twenty years ago, somebody called me up and said: `You want to be an adjunct teacher?’ I said: `Yes.’ Then, you know, I married.

“So…But I’ve been to a number of the, you know, the fifth thing. The fifth anniversary, the tenth, the twentieth. And now the fortieth. It’s a little bit getting long. And the thing is that the mythology of `Columbia’ can become, in a way, a dead weight on people. It can become something that they’re always trying to measure up to. It’s like a standard. And then it becomes like `Well, we didn’t quite do it. It wasn’t enough.’

“It becomes a measurement which you can never fulfill. And that needs to be stopped in some way. People have to be told: `You know, you do what you do. And that is the way. The way you make your “Columbia,” is the way you make “Columbia.” Not the repetition. Not the imitation of what it is that we did.’

“And the second thing is the nature of argument about what it is that happened. Now, you know, some of the thing of going over what it is that happened. It’s always fun to tell `war stories.’

“What I found really fascinating about last night was the contribution of the SAS members and the talk about how painful it was to be a Black student on this campus. That was really revelatory to me and I think it’s an important piece of information. What’s not important is to have endless arguments about, you know, what it is that should have been done…You know, what could have been.

“And, in this regard, I think back when I was a young man--to the arguments that we used to have about the Spanish Civil War. By the way, in 1968 the Spanish Civil War—which seemed to us ancient history—was 30 years ago. And now, by the way, `Columbia’ is 40 years ago. So, think about that.

“But these things, like creating a mythology, arguing so much about what should or shouldn’t have happened, can be a way of controlling the past. It’s having power over it. And, of course, we want that. But, you know, brothers and sisters. It’s also time to let it go. To give it over to our children.

“And I think that one of the things for me that’s very important—Sorry, I get emotional—is the incandescent moment of `Columbia’. That, for a variety of reasons—and a lot of these we have not got into--`Columbia’ mattered not just because of what we did. It mattered because of what we believed. That this was a moment of real internationalism. The Blacks and the whites getting together was a moment of international solidarity. Our saying that we would stand with the Vietnamese people was a moment of international solidarity.

“There was one moment—I’ll be brief, Juan [Gonzalez], I’ll get off in a moment…There was one moment when, during the strike, the Administration came up with the bright idea of having a referendum on IDA. And everybody would `vote.’ The students would `vote:’ `Did we want to have IDA? Did we want to have the Gym? Did we not?’

“And we were thrown. Were were in a tizzy. `What happens if…?’ We were going to lose the `vote.’ And then we decided: `You know what? We didn’t care about “the vote.”’ The right of the students here to say that programs should be created in which Vietnamese local leaders were targeted and killed. We didn’t have the right as students to say that that should happen. We did not have the right to say that the Gym should be built.

“So we said: `Have your referendum. We’re staying in the buildings!’ Internationalism.

“And that, along with participatory democracy, created a lot of what was the Strike. It created the incandescent moment of it. Not simply that we were taking power. But that we were taking power for certain things. And that moment needs to be acknowledged by us. `Cause every generation wants to have a moment in which they feel they are making the world.

“So it matters that we say to them: `This is how you really do make the world. These ideals really do give you power.’

“One last note about that. I am quite sick as you see. And I am facing an end which we’re all gonna face. But in my case it’s probably going to come a lot sooner. And a lot more predictably than in your case. And I read a lot.

“One of the things I read was about the Spanish Civil War, which played such an important, romantic part in my head when I was young. Yet the history of the Spanish Civil War now is very different than the one that I knew when I was growing up. But the thing that at the end it says to you is that, in the face of inexorable evil, people stood up. And that gives you strength. It gives you strength to go on.

“I brought my son—who’s in the audience—to the film [about the 1968 strike] two nights ago. And afterwards, we were walking home and…You know, except for the birth of my children, there’s no event in my mind as pure as the Strike.

“And we were walking home and I said: `What did you think of the film?’

“`Well, it was too long, blah, blah…’ And then he said: `You know, there was that guy saying, you know, “they were so romantic”.’

“He looked at me. He’s very tall, my son. I looked at him and I said: `You know, hey! Sometimes, you gotta be romantic. What’s wrong with that?’

“He said: `You know, they say “Oh, they emulated romantic heroes.” You know, there was this romantic emulation of heroes.’

“I said: `Sometimes that’s what you need to do.’

“And to me, you were all heroes. And that’s another part of the legacy. Thank you.”