The Unrest Spread Nationwide

Twenty-five years ago, college students across the country cheered "The Graduate's" Benjamin Braddock as he broke the shackles of tradition, brandishing a broken cross as a weapon on the altar, knocking to the ground the jacket-and-tie-clad establishment.

Benjamin's protest in the movie spotlighted the discontent building in the nation's youth and foreshadowed a year of protest at colleges throughout the nation.

The most dramatic headlines came in late April from Columbia University, where 200 students seized five major buildings, occupied and vandalized the office of Columbia President Grayson Kirk, held the college dean captive for 24 hours, and brought classes to a halt for six days.

"There was a sense that you were leaping onto the stage of history," said Robert Friedman, an editor of The Columbia Spectator who reported on the events that year.

The issues at stake were not always clear--at Columbia the protest was sparked by two factors: the university's plans to build a new gymnasium in a public park in Harlem, and the university's participation in the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Pentagon consortium.


"You had the confluence of two great social movements in 1968, the civil rights and anti-war movements," said Friedman, who is now Special Projects Editor at New York Newsday.

Campus demonstrations in support of both movements grew larger as groups like Students for Democratic Society (SDS) recruited and organized members.

At Colgate University, 500 students and faculty held a sit-in at an administration building for almost five days until the administration agreed to reform fraternity policies which discriminated against Black students.

At Boston University, 125 Black students took over an administration building for 12 hours until the president. Arland Christ-Janer, agreed to recruit more Black students and faculty.

At Duke, 1,500 students sat peacefully in rows on the main campus quad until trustees agreed to raise hourly wages for non-academic employees from $1.15 to $1.45.

By the spring of 1968, college students at more than 100 campuses had taken part in demonstrations, according to Newsweek. Though the National Students Association estimated that only about three percent of the nation's undergraduates had actually protested, it was those activists who set the tone on campuses.

With the sudden assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy '48 and Martin Luther King Jr., that tone grew more frustrated and more insistent, erupting at Columbia and later at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"The level of hypocrisy became more noticeable after King's assassination," said Friedman.

By late summer, tensions were high across the nation. More than 8,000 college students travelled to Grant Park and Michigan Avenue in Chicago to protest at the Democratic National Convention. As Eugene McCarthy and his supporters clamored for an open convention, Mayor Richard Daley called in troops from the National Guard for what was to be a violent clash.

Amidst the post-convention soul-searching, Newsweek printed an examination of campus activism titled, "Campus Rebels: Who, Why, What." To some, student activists like SDS leader Mark Rudd symbolized the spirit of necessary change; to others, Abbie Hoffman's yippies and other activists were dangerous radicals.

In "The Graduate," Benjamin was evicted by a landlord suspicious of activists in Berkeley, California. "Those outside agitators," the landlord called them. Though many in 1968 may have sympathized with the landlord, college students protested with Benjamin.