1968 Revisited - An Introduction by Peter Braunstein
When we first came up with the idea for a 1968 historical retrospective at NYU back in 1993, the culture was in the midst of the ‘60s nostalgia wave that crested in about ‘92. It was actually legitimate back then to say "groovy," wear love beads sold at the Gap, and appear grungy — it was like being a less fashion-conscious, but more self-conscious, hippie. That lasted five minutes, and on its heels came the ‘70s nostalgia that gave ‘90s upward-mobility culture the Valium it needed.
Back in 1968, NYU was a completely different place. Not that I would know personally, having been born in ‘64, but because of all the in-house research I did while working at the NYU Archives. In the top-10 moments of ‘60s campus radicalism, NYU doesn’t usually pop up — it seems eclipsed by events at Columbia and Berkeley. But NYU during the 1960s was an important site of student radicalism. Apart from the routine trashing of ROTC offices, bookstore sit-ins and demonstrations, NYU produced some revolutionary protest groups — SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Peace and Freedom Party, and the Independent Radicals. Notable protest moments include the so-called Chi-Reston affair of 1968, in which the South Vietnamese observer to the UN was pelted with eggs and draped in a swastika by members of NYU SDS while giving a speech in Loeb Student Center. The next year the Hog Farm Commune, a kind of rustic-hippie mobile collective, came to NYU. At the ensuing Happening, lots of people threw themselves into a thousand pounds of pudding unloaded into Loeb Student Center, while nude men and women showered the audience with gallons of water during a light show. It was almost as if Loeb Center, to compensate for the fact that it was the plainest building ever erected in downtown Manhattan, became ground zero for the Revolution.
But my favorite NYU radical group of all was the Transcendental Students (TS), an anarchist group bent on cultural revolution who took to occupying floors of Main Building, blaring rock music, drinking jugs of wine and smoking pot. When NYU dispatched Assistant Chancellor Harold Whiteman to try and keep TS in line, the radicals adopted him as a renegade member of their own band -- sort of their own Tinky Winky. When Harold would try to eject them from various occupied premises all over campus, they would tell him to "stop pimping for the administration." It was all in jest, but deadly serious at the same time, because by 1969-70 even cultural revolutionary groups like TS were fast losing their sense of levity.
So, NYU in 1968 was a hotbed of radicalism, and when we attempted to reconvene some of the more interesting people from that period for the 25-year anniversary we found that much of the anger, passion, and denial of the ‘60s lived on. John Hatchett, head of the University’s first Afro-American Studies Center, was fired in 1968 in an event that set off a media controversy as well as a prolonged student strike at NYU. Since it’s really impossible to describe Hatchett’s "payback speech" in brief, suffice it to say that he arrived at the retrospective with a lot to say about his side of the story. Meanwhile, Chancellor Whiteman (aka "Harold") sat next to two former members of Transcendental Students, his former nemesis. It was like the Ricky Lake Show, with audience members who graduated NYU in like, 1971, attacking long-lost NYU officials with some kind of cathartic, pent-up rage. It made you want to take them aside and say, "Let it go, man. I mean, it’s a private university in the public service, and sometimes things go wrong. Let’s start the healing now."