The Columbia Protests Made the Same Mistake the Civil Rights Movement Did

Last week I wrote about the protests that had come to dominate my professional home, Columbia University, and make headlines across the country. I said that though I did not believe the participants were motivated by antisemitism, the volume, fury and duration of their protest left many Jewish students feeling under siege for their Jewishness. That assessment has turned out to be one of the more polarizing things I have ever written, in part because some readers interpreted my position as opposing student protest overall.

I had no objection when the protests began last fall, but since that time, they escalated significantly. After students occupied the university’s storied Hamilton Hall — and police officers in riot gear conducted over 100 arrests — the administration closed the campus, moved all classes online and recommended that we professors either trim or eliminate final examinations in our classes. The mood is as grim now as when Covid forced the spring semester of 2020 to end with a desolate groan.

What happened this week was not just a rise in the temperature. The protests took a wrong turn, of a kind I have seen too many other activist movements take. It’s the same wrong turn that the civil rights movement took in the late 1960s.

After the concrete victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, a conflict arose within the movement between those who sought to keep the focus on changing laws and institutions and those who cherished more symbolic confrontations as a chance to speak truth to power.

The conflict played out most visibly in what became of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC began with grass-roots activism in the form of sit-ins and voter registration, but in 1966 John Lewis, a veteran of the Selma demonstrations who spoke at the March on Washington, was replaced as the group’s leader by Stokely Carmichael, who spoke charismatically of Black Power but whose political plans tended to be fuzzy at best. The term “Black Power” often seemed to mean something different to each person espousing it. It was, in essence, a slogan rather than a program.

This new idea — that gesture and performance were, in themselves, a form of action — worried the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who regarded some of the group’s demonstrations as “expressions of rivalry and rage, without constructive purpose,” according to the historian Taylor Branch.

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