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Columbia University strikes, 1968 and more: the Daniel Pope interview [part two].

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Here is the second fascinating part of my interview with University of Oregon history professor Daniel Pope! In part one Dr. Pope talked about being radical in the ’60s, what it was like to study at Columbia University and his connection to Jake Gyllenhaal. (Yes, it’s really in there!) Here’s some even more interesting stuff, about the famous 1968 strikes themselves!

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Professor Pope in 2012.

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Tell us about the famous strikes of April 1968 at Columbia. What most people remember about this was that students occupied the administration building. Were you involved? What did you see of this?

We actually occupied five buildings, not just Low Library, the central administration building. I spent a few days in Fayerweather Hall, home to the History Department, but I left a day before the administration called in the police to clear out the buildings. Why did I leave? I was having a hard time stomaching a lot of the over-the-top revolutionary fantasizing and absurd left-wing faction-fighting going on in Fayerweather. As I was leaving, I ran into a rather distraught professor I knew. He asked me what was happening in the occupied buildings and I must have given him the impression that the protesters were weakening and dividing. He grabbed me by the arm and led me into the basement of Low Library, to an office where the University Provost (David Truman, a famous political scientist in those days) was running a sort of administration war room. We ended up having a little debate about pluralist theory (Truman’s specialty) and Columbia’s complicity with the Vietnam War, institutional racism and the like. Then Truman had to go off to manage a crisis and my professor acquaintance and I came outside and parted ways. It was all quite surreal.

When the police came to clear out and arrest the occupiers, I was among those sitting in front of one of the buildings. As I recall, a couple of cops picked me up and tossed me unceremoniously into the bushes on the side as they charged in, breaking my glasses in the process. No major harm done, and I wasn’t among those arrested.

On a personal level, the most important result of the Columbia student strike (which shut the university down after the police busts) was meeting my wife, Barbara Corrado Pope. Grad students formed departmental groups to press for change in university and department policies. Barbara, who was studying French history, knew that French Revolutionaries had met in the crypts of churches and found a meeting place for History grad students in the basement of the gigantic Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine near campus. That’s where we met, now 45 years ago. With five hundred History Department grad students, Americanists like myself and Europeanists like Barbara didn’t often get to know each other until the strike.

1968 was an incredibly traumatic time for America, possibly the most traumatic time in our history since the Civil War. There were the assassinations of MLK and RFK, riots, the Democratic Convention debacle, and Nixon’s election. What was it really like to live through all this, at the center of it? Did you feel like America was coming apart or that you were passing through a pivotal era in history?

It was traumatic but it was also exciting and inspiring in important ways. If you add to the list of major events the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, LBJ’s withdrawal from the Presidential race in the face of Eugene McCarthy’s challenge, and the astounding protests in France, Czechoslovakia and much of the rest of the world, you can see how young radicals in the United States could convince themselves that we were embarking on a revolution. I’m temperamentally cautious and, as an historian, not prone to that kind of thinking, but I’ll admit that for a brief while that spring I harbored such notions—which both thrilled and scared me. In retrospect, I’d argue that the United States faced nothing approaching a revolutionary situation in 1968, but it nevertheless was a moment of intense drama and conflict.

One of the traditional “narratives” of the ‘60s is a narrative of optimism and idealism (student activists, action against the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy, civil rights, Woodstock, the moon shot etc.) which is brought to an abrupt halt by a series of epic downers (assassinations, Nixon, Watergate, Charlie Manson, Altamont, Kent State, etc.). I’m not sure I buy this narrative 100%, but what’s your feeling on it? Was this the way it seemed at the time?

For decades now, historians have been portraying the history of the sixties and of the New Left in particular as a declension narrative, as you note. Often it’s coupled with the notion that the movements of the sixties destroyed themselves by turning to dogmatic ideology, apocalyptic fantasy and destructive violence. For about as long, there have been other historians objecting to this portrayal. They point out, for instance, that some of the largest protests occurred in the seventies and that many of the most important movements for social change—feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, environmentalism and others—continued to develop well beyond the sixties.

For myself, I recognize the validity of the critiques of the story of decline but living through the transition from the sixties to the seventies was, as the story implies, a pretty dispiriting experience. I think the Weather Underground did untold damage to the New Left and that those who veered off into Marxist sects curtailed the creativity that radicalism had brought to social movements in the sixties (though many of them ended up doing valuable and courageous work in the labor movement). So, despite my intellectual doubts, I find the declension narrative hard to reject entirely.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the show Mad Men, which is about the New York advertising world in the ‘60s. The show tends to emphasize both the cynicism of advertising culture, but also its curious innocence—maybe that’s a bad way to describe it. (I mean, as ugly as I’m sure it was, ad agencies of that era gave us classics like the Campbell’s Soup kids, the Life Cereal thing with Mikey, etc.). The show also emphasizes executives’ heavy drinking, stress on their marriages, sexist attitudes in the workplace, and generational conflict. Do you think these are accurate reflections of advertising culture in the 60s?

My own research on advertising history was primarily about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. I think the major features of American advertising as a business institution were largely in place by about 1920, though of course the cultural forms it took could and did change drastically with the times. I do watch Mad Men avidly and I try to keep an eye on its portrayal of the industry. I’m not an expert on advertising in the sixties, but the show rings true with what I know. As it’s advanced through the decade, it’s shown some of the big changes of the decade. Perhaps because it’s not exactly the best visual material, though, I haven’t seen Mad Men deal with what I consider to be the most important single development of that era—the decline of mass marketing and the rise of targeting, niche marketing, market segmentation. These strategies were both reflections of a more diverse society and efforts to mold that diversity in profitable ways for advertisers.

Take us back in time a moment. It’s a Friday night in New York City in 1968. Where do you go? What do you do? Can you give us sort of a snapshot of what that time might be like if we were to see it through your eyes?

Revolution notwithstanding, I wasn’t likely to be doing anything very remarkable on a Friday night in New York—a Chinese restaurant, a movie, maybe cards with friends, maybe reading a history book. Life went on against that backdrop and my life has generally been conducted at a pretty mundane level.

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Thanks again to Professor Pope for spending some time talking about the tumultuous ’60s. There will be a third and final part consisting of some concluding remarks. This has turned out to be one of the most fascinating interviews I’ve ever done on this blog. If you like it, please share it!

To Be Concluded!

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2 Comments

  1. bringitovahear

    good questions

  2. What perhaps should also be mentioned, is that following MLK’s assassination in April 1968, the revolutionary nationalist Black Panther Party in the United States attracted such mass support that 125,000 copies of its newspaper were being sold around the USA prior to the May 1970 Kent State/Jackson State massacres and subsequent student strikes in USA that shut down many U.S. university campuses for most of May 1970. In addition, following the conviction of the Chicago 8 in the spring of 1970, large numbers of people were in the streets demanding revolutionary change in the USA. And were it not for the success of COINTELPRO in preventing BPP activists from being able to continue their above-ground organizing during the 1970s and the post-Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial and post-May 1970 denial of daily mass media/tv news show access to white revolutionary New Left and revolutionary nationalist African-American activists, it’s not certain that an anti-imperialist youth-led or African-American revolution that radically democratized U.S. society during the 1970s would not have soon developed.

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