By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
The year 1968 could be considered a watershed in history. The war in Vietnam was accelerating, and with it, the number of young American men drafted into military service. This led to demonstrations, sit-ins, and student occupations of administration buildings on university campuses from coast to coast. And then, in April 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. unleashed riots across America.
New Year’s Offensive
New Year’s Day 1968 had begun with a cease-fire in Vietnam. The commander of American combat forces, General William Westmoreland, stated confidently the end of the war was coming. But in the early morning hours of January 31, as the lunar new year began, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces from the north breached the outer walls of the US Embassy in Saigon. The Tết (or New Year’s) Offensive had just begun.
The American people watched images of the bullet-riddled US Embassy flash across their TV screens. Five American soldiers were killed. And though US and South Vietnamese forces reversed their initial losses and delivered a punishing counter-offensive in the days and weeks ahead, government assurances that the end of the war was in sight now seemed badly overstated.
Polls showed general pessimism about the war. And President Lyndon Johnson announced at the end of March that he would not accept his party’s nomination to seek re-election. Some 20,000 American soldiers had already been killed. US intervention in Vietnam was increasingly unpopular and had begun to be characterized as an unpopular imperialist project.
Since the end of World War II, nationalist movements from Asia to Africa had sought independence from European dominance in a process known as decolonization. The emphasis on the decolonization of overturning systems of power resonated with young people, even in the colonizing states.
For many young Americans, this struggle—along with the conflict in Vietnam—seemed to be painful evidence of Western hypocrisy. Empathy for the independence movement, along with intensified concerns about nuclear weapons on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, fostered increased activism on university campuses.
The Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley and sit-ins organized by groups like Students for a Democratic Society became political hotbeds. Within weeks of the Tet Offensive, hundreds of thousands of students around the world marched, demonstrated, and even went on hunger strikes to protest the American war in Vietnam.
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The King Is Dead
Then, on April 4, a giant fell. Martin Luther King was assassinated on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, where he’d come to support striking sanitation workers. More than 100 US cities dissolved into violence. Cities burned. Lives were lost, arrests made, and tens of millions of dollars of property damage were left behind like a fresh wound.
Tensions had already been brewing at Columbia University in New York City. The university had issued a plan to build a new gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park. It was the latest example of the university’s expansion into the neighboring and largely Black neighborhood of Harlem. Such initiatives had resulted in the evictions of many Harlem residents.
With students already outraged by what they’d seen or heard about Algeria, Vietnam, and the Jim Crow South, this seemed to be another case of opportunism at the expense of poorer, Black neighbors.
Riots Across America
On April 23, 1968, some 300 students gathered at the center of campus to rally against the gym. The group tried to enter Low Library, where university President Grayson Kirk maintained his office, to present him with a list of demands. But the building was locked and surrounded by anti-demonstrators. Refusing to cower, the protesters converged on the Morningside Gym construction site.
Police tried to dispel the crowd. This inflamed the students. Making their way back to campus, they rushed the university’s administrative offices in Hamilton Hall and occupied the building. As university administrators debated how to respond, several hundred students prevented three deans from leaving and settled down for the night.
Inside, the predominantly white Students for a Democratic Society group prioritized an anti-war agenda, while the Student Afro-American society wanted to focus on the proposed gym. The next morning, the Black students renamed the building Malcolm X Liberation College and ordered the white students out. They moved onto Low Library and occupied the president’s suite.
By the end of the week, five campus buildings were occupied. Opposing groups of students and faculty formed. Some, calling themselves the Majority Coalition, were against the student protest. They formed a ring to bar additional students from joining the protesters or passing provisions to them. But others were there to support the protestors.
Against the Status Quo
The university administration hesitated to call on police to dispel the students, fearing that doing so would ignite riots. But after a week, the police moved in. Hundreds were arrested. Protesters organized another demonstration, and the university shut down for the rest of the semester. Columbia also abandoned its plans for the Morningside gym. In this way, the protest achieved its aims. But even more significantly, the Columbia demonstrations became an international story.
In 1968, students in the United States rebelled against the status quo because they believed that their democratic state was failing to fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens. When local authorities and the government’s anti-riot forces attacked their freedom of speech and assembly with authoritarian-style repression, they joined arms and raised their voices in protest.
Common Questions about the War in Vietnam and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination
Decolonization was the process through which nationalist movements throughout Asia and Africa would seek independence from European powers after World War II.
After Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s assassination, there were riots in over 100 cities across America. Many lives were lost along with tens of millions of property damage. Many people were also arrested.
After the students had taken control of some buildings, Columbia University administrators were still hesitant to call the police, fearing that it would ignite riots like the rioting across America the same year. After a week, the police moved in and arrested hundreds. The university shut down for the rest of the semester, and its plans for the Morningside gym were canceled.