November 15, 2018
By: Lexi Echelman (GSAS ’19)
With the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the election of Richard Nixon, college campuses across the nation became the center of the youth protest movement of 1968. New York University was no exception.
Some of the first protests at NYU demonstrated students’ commitment to de-escalating the Vietnam War. On March 6, 1968, hundreds of students protested Dow Chemical Company’s recruitment center at the corner of Mercer and West Third Streets for the company’s production of napalm. According to The Washington Square Journal, the students held their protest but did allow Allan M. Cartter, the University Chancellor, to speak on the administration’s behalf. The result of this protest was the establishment of a new recruitment system, where a faculty member and student from each NYU school selected recruiters, which the University Senate would then confirm.
In the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, the student body, particularly students of color (but also other student activist organizations), called for the University to address the needs of African American and Latino students. And, indeed, NYU officials took an unprecedented step for the University: they hired a student-backed former public school teacher named John F. Hatchett to lead the new Afro-American Student Center. Hatchett’s appointment, however, soon caused tension. It was revealed that Hatchett had criticized the predominantly Jewish teachers union. Despite heated calls for his removal from alumni and Jewish organizations, it was only after Hatchett criticized public figures like Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and the United Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker that he was terminated from his position at NYU. His supporters were quick to claim that Hatchett’s remarks were simply used as a convenient excuse to remove the controversial figure. Students soon occupied Hester’s office in response to the dismissal and the center was subsequently made independent of the University.
Concurrently with the Hatchett protests, the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon continued to inspire activist students to become more confrontational with the school’s administration. In December of 1968, the permanent observer for South Vietnam to the United Nations, Nguyen Huu Chi, spoke at New York University’s Loeb Student Center. Members of the NYU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) disrupted Chi’s speech and forced him to leave the stage. The protestors then decided to disrupt New York Times Executive Editor James Reston, who was also speaking in the building that evening, due to his support for former president Johnson’s war policy in Vietnam. These demonstrations became known as the Chi-Reston Affair. NYU president James M. Hester called these demonstrations an “extraordinary discourtesy” to the institution’s guests and labelled these protests as “barbaric.” One student was ultimately suspended for his role in the protests.
These are just a selection of the protests that erupted during a tumultuous year at NYU. It should also be noted that the student body on the whole was not always supportive of these events, especially the increasingly antagonistic protests organized by various activist organizations. And there were major divisions within the community of student activists as well. Still, the 1968 protests laid the groundwork for future activism for a variety of marginalized student groups in the years to come.