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1968 Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

The Terrible Year Begins

In March a strike by city garbage collectors had brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis, Tennessee, where he hoped to lead the union’s action against the city government; on April 4, as he stood talking in the early evening with his friends on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the great civil rights campaigner was killed by a small-time holdup man and criminal bumbler named James Earl Ray. Ray, who had checked into Bessie Brewer’s rooming house nearby as “John Willard” and who was remembered by her only for his dark suit and “silly smile,” fired one 30.06-caliber shot from a bathroom window, 205 feet from King’s motel. By evening King was dead, Ray had slipped town for Canada, and riots burned from one end of the country to the other.

James Earl Ray had tried and failed as an Army man, bank robber, burglar, and forger; he had dropped his wallet in one holdup and rolled out of his getaway car in another. His only previous success at anything seemed to be escaping from the Missouri State Prison in April of 1967. But at the time of his jailbreak the idea of Ray at large evidently had not terrified local law enforcement; they had put fifty dollars on his head.

Despite his previous failures, Ray made a successful escape this time to Toronto, but not without leaving behind his rifle, binoculars, some clothes, and a fingerprinted beer can. He stayed a month in Toronto, then, as “Mr. Sneyd,” traveled to London on a Canadian passport he had bought for eight dollars, before visiting Lisbon, where he stayed five days at the Hotel Portugal. Ray returned to London and lived in a series of hotels before the police were tipped off by some unusual phone inquiries he made to newspapers about finding work as an African mercenary. On June 8 Scotland Yard detectives seized him just as he was stepping onto a Heathrow flight to Brussels.

“Gym Crow Must Go!”

Even as Dr. King’s leadership tragically ended, his tactics were being adopted by college students across the country for a host of purposes. An April 23-30 sit-in at Columbia University was the most visible of more than two hundred sizable college demonstrations held between January and mid-June. The Vietnam War had come to dominate the campuses, where buildings were defaced, occupied, even bombed. Fellow students could be rated on how far they would go: sit in, lie in, chain themselves to things.

Columbia University planned to build a new gymnasium on two acres of Morningside Heights Park that it leased from the city. Residents of the Harlem neighborhood nearby would be able to use the ground-floor pool and basketball court of the proposed gym, while the upper floors were to be devoted to student athletics. Some student and local leaders saw the deal as a “land grab” offering “separate but unequal” facilities. Mark Rudd, firebrand of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), having failed to achieve much with a petition drive earlier in April urging Columbia to disengage itself from the Pentagon-connected Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), saw a more promising target in the gym. He led a ceremonial march on the construction site, to the student chant “Gym Crow must go!” Rudd’s Columbia SDS chapter denounced the university, which owned $230 million in Manhattan properties, as a slumlord needing to be stopped. The university’s president, Grayson Kirk, took an equally intractable stand. Their demands unmet, the students seized Hamilton Hall on April 23 and shut in three college officials for more than twenty-four hours.

During the resulting stand-off, Rudd and other white student leaders were evicted by sixty of their black fellow students who objected to their leadership and may have had other plans for the siege. Rudd and company moved to Low Library, which included the president’s office, on April 24. The students claimed that Kirk had made himself a war criminal by allying the university with the IDA, and they treated his office accordingly. Fayerweather Hall, the social sciences building, fell next, followed by two more. President Kirk’s offer to cease the gym construction did not satisfy the more than 700 occupiers. When Kirk ordered the buildings cleared on April 30, the black students holding Hamilton Hall surrendered it rather easily. Those holding the other buildings weren’t so malleable, however. According to the report of the incident’s investigator, Archibald Cox, the New York City police struck next with “violence on a harrowing scale,” subduing a sympathetic crowd that blocked them and arresting 698 students to end the strike.

Rudd was one of seventy-three students who received one-year suspensions for their part in the takeover. Grayson Kirk resigned later that year. The Columbia siege, along with demonstrations at Berkeley, would serve as models for stagy campus protests over the next generation.

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