Exploring the Underground with Mark Rudd ’69
By Elizabeth King Humphrey ’88
In 1968, according to Mark Rudd ’69, Columbia experienced “one of the longest and strongest student strikes in U.S. history.” While some have applauded the actions that ultimately shut down the University for weeks, others view the activities as having done irreparable harm to the University and forever altering the relationships among faculty, administration and students. Rudd, as the student leader of the Columbia branch of Students for a Democratic Society, was in part responsible for the direction the protests took and was an intimate of those who went on to stage underground guerrilla warfare against the United States. After Rudd was expelled from Columbia, he became a fugitive from justice for several years.
More than 40 years later, Rudd still is asking people to engage in mass movements to make change, which he says is one of the reasons why he wrote Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (William Morrow, 2009). Nowadays, Rudd is looking for people to come together to fight against the high costs of higher education, the need for universal health care and environmental issues. Rudd says Underground demonstrates important lessons for young people about what are the good and bad attempts at organizing for change.
Columbia has a pivotal role in the book as the backdrop to Rudd’s actions in 1968, which were key in the demonstrations that shut down the University, and sparked similar student protests around the country and globe the following year.
This memoir recounts Rudd’s distancing himself from his Maplewood, N.J., roots as he embarked on his political coming of age and, upon joining the Columbia branch of Students for a Democratic Society, learned techniques of organizing a community. Rudd also details the downward and deadly spiral taken by SDS and the Weathermen, a later faction of the SDS, as they indoctrinated themselves into guerrilla warfare.
Rudd arrived on the Columbia campus in fall 1965. He reports in his book that when he refused to wear the then-traditional first-year beanie, his mother turned to his father and said, “We’re in for trouble.”
Underground dissects the 12 years Rudd engaged in antagonistic relationships with authority: the University administration, the U.S. government and, finally, the increasingly splintering and militant Weathermen. In 1970, a federal grand jury indicted 12 leaders of the Weathermen on felony charges to incite riots tied to the fall 1969 Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago. Rudd also faced charges of criminal trespass based on the occupation of Columbia buildings during the 1968 protests.
A third of the book details 1965–68, which were the years Rudd attended Columbia. Here he describes his indoctrination in protest organizing, centering on Vietnam War politics and Morningside Heights activism. Rudd writes of his transformation from a politically naïve suburban teenager into the leader of the campus SDS and a savvy political organizer.
“Young people don’t know how mass movements were organized,” Rudd says. “This book, the first part of the book, is about good organizing; the second part of the book is about bad organizing.”
Robert Friedman ’69, the former editor-in-chief of Spectator who came to know Rudd, says, “Mark was a product of 1968 and what was an amazing year. It’s hard to get your head around it.” Friedman covered the campus occupation in 1968 and says it was an “intense moment. American cities were burning.”
According to Friedman, at that time Rudd was “just right in terms of when to be confrontational and in leading an increasing number of people to follow him and understanding the media and the news and the organizational issues surrounding building a protest movement. Then it went to his head.”
The Columbia SDS protested the war, University ties with the Pentagon through research programs and a proposed gymnasium in Morningside Park. “I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of claiming to be ‘value-neutral’ while at the same time doing research for the war in Vietnam; also, I couldn’t stand the elite white nature of the place,” Rudd says.
Friedman, now an editor-at-large at Bloomberg News, says that there was a “growing sense of upheaval that pervaded the atmosphere at Columbia College … The world was blowing up outside our doors. [Rudd] stepped out and up.”
The Columbia protests, Rudd says, did not happen spontaneously but centered upon base building and coalition building, much as the civil or labor rights movements had been established. Since 2003, Rudd writes in Underground, when he addresses students, they are amazed that the Spring ’68 protests “were the product of more than six years of concerted, focused, and unrelenting organizing, going all the way back to the Columbia chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1962.”
In Underground, Rudd gives great detail to the issues the Columbia SDS were protesting, how the protests increased — as did the rhetoric — and how the April 23 protest, which would force the hand of the University over a rule barring indoor demonstrations, moved from its intended target of a locked Low Library to the gymnasium construction site to the takeover of Hamilton Hall. The SDS, Rudd writes, made decisions through consensus or group meetings. Rudd admits, during the protest, “I had only the vaguest idea of what we were doing. I knew we wanted to disrupt Columbia’s normal functioning in order to provoke further confrontation with the administration.”
As the protest grew, Rudd addressed the crowd and suggested taking a hostage. Initially, Rudd writes, he had meant a building, but then the protesters decided upon Henry Coleman ’46, then-acting Dean of the College, and Proctor William Kahn. Next, the SDS members developed a list of demands, which included stopping the construction of the gym, cutting ties to a Pentagon organization, allowing indoor demonstrations and dropping disciplinary penalties (or, in some cases, criminal charges) against those involved in the protests.
The Student Afro-American Society, participating in the protest, took over the Hamilton occupation that first night, leaving the white students to retreat to Low. Throughout the next several days, hundreds of protesters occupied five campus buildings. After nearly a week of negotiations, Rudd writes that he received information that on April 30, the University administration would call in the police to remove the protesters. Police peacefully removed 81 black students from Hamilton Hall, an action which, according to Rudd, was handled differently from the other occupations. Rudd writes, “No one from the police or the city or the Columbia administration ever approached me or any other members of the Strike Coordinating Committee to work out a deal for the peaceful surrender of any of the other four buildings.” The removal of the protesters from the other buildings was violent, with the April 30 “bust” making national headlines. The protesters’ demands were not met, so organizers led a strike for another month, until the end of the school year. Some classes were held as scheduled, others were canceled, still others met in off-campus locations.
According to Underground, by May 21, Rudd and three other SDS leaders had been suspended from the University. Another protest ensued and more violence erupted as protesters again clashed with the police. Rudd and others sought to continue the protests into the fall 1968 semester, but without much success. However, writes Rudd, the gym construction had been halted in April and the University ties with the Pentagon were severed during the summer.
Rudd opines that the actions at Columbia “would feed a more extreme tendency in SDS,” leading to the creation of the Weatherman faction. The middle third of the book, covering 1968–70, explains his involvement with the national SDS organization and, after its fracture, the Weathermen. This section describes how the group Rudd belonged to marginalized his leadership. At the same time, according to Rudd, it became “too militant and there was too much self-expression and less politics and engagement with people.”
In January 1970, the Weathermen essentially shuttered what was left of SDS. The thinking became that a clandestine guerrilla group would be better than the above-ground organization. In March, an accidental explosion of a bomb being manufactured in a Greenwich Village townhouse for the purpose of murdering noncommissioned officers at Fort Dix, N.J., killed three members of the guerrilla organization that had moved underground and turned to violence.
The final third of the book tackles 1970–77, during which Rudd lived underground with his then-wife, Sue LeGrand. One course short of graduating from Barnard in 1968, LeGrand, who met Rudd while in college, spent a year traveling before returning to the U.S. The couple renewed ties when they both were living in California. In 1981, LeGrand received her degree from Barnard.
The couple had one child while living as fugitives and another shortly after they returned above ground. While living underground, Rudd, who worked a series of manual labor jobs in California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New York, moved several times.
Rudd, who separated from the Weathermen in late 1970, writes that living underground was a fruitless time for him in terms of community organizing and protesting. He also details his growing estrangement from others involved as the Weather Underground Organization, as it became known in 1973, “had publicly taken credit for 24 bombings.”
In late 1976, Rudd and his wife started preparing to return above ground because, he writes, “The organization no longer existed, and a mass inversion [bringing everyone out of hiding as a unit] seemed unlikely. The effort had degenerated into mindless Stalinism, cruelty and betrayal. Even if I had to do time in prison, I thought, it would be better than this madness.” Rudd secretly met with his lawyer and arranged to surface in September 1977. He rode the subway to the courthouse and was released on his own recognizance. Rudd writes that some charges had been dropped in 1973; others were reduced, and, while he faced probation, he was not incarcerated.
Although Rudd never received his degree from Columbia, he earned his bachelor’s in education from the University of New Mexico in 1980 and taught remedial math in a community college for 26 years. Now retired, he is married to Marla Painter, a community and political organizer.
The book’s epilogue is an emotional homecoming for Rudd. He writes that while he had visited Columbia through the years, in April 2008, during a reunion and commemoration of the campus protests, “It was the first time, too, in 40 years, in which I felt physically comfortable on the Columbia campus.” This final section tidies some of the loose threads and regrets from previous sections, including Rudd’s admitting “I did bear some responsibility” for the direction the movement had taken, including the 1981 attempted robbery of a Brink’s armored car by three-former SDS members during which a guard and two police officers were killed. The epilogue also summarizes what Rudd says he learned about campus racism and the dismissal of the white SDS students from Hamilton Hall by black protestors during the 1968 shutdown, which Rudd writes he had misunderstood for 40 years.
Rudd also writes about speaking to “young student activists around the country about the differences between the Vietnam antiwar movement and the present antiwar movement.” In an interview, Rudd speaks of a need to “build mass movements” to oppose the “entrenched interests” still found in Washington, D.C., today. He suggests that lessons he learned — and relates— in Underground “might prove useful to young people who are fighting the current war.” And it is for them to understand, he says, that “This is not a heroic story; if anything, it is antiheroic.”
Rudd writes that in relaying the story of his actions, “I hope my story helps them figure out what they can do to build a more just and peaceful world. At the very least, it might show some serious pitfalls to avoid.”