In the famously long, hot summer of 1968, when Columbia University was coming apart like the rest of America, the historian Richard Hofstadter seemed like the one person who could hold the fraying school together. Anti-war militants were demanding that Columbia end its cozy relationship with the Pentagon. Other activists decried the university’s haughty disregard for its Harlem neighbors, most visible in the proposed building of a gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park—dubbed Gym Crow and leading to accusations of segregation because it would have separate entrances for Columbia students and the community in Harlem and unequal access to its facilities. After months of butting heads with Columbia’s administration, students occupied campus buildings, and the school threatened to call in the cops, which is what university president Grayson Kirk did that spring, resulting in more than 700 arrests and nearly 400 police brutality complaints.
With graduation on the horizon, it was unthinkable that the universally despised Kirk would deliver the commencement address, so university officials turned to Hofstadter, asking him to give it in a ceremony hosted off campus at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Hofstadter was uniquely respected on campus by conservatives, liberals, and many (though not all) radicals. To the conservatives and liberals, he was a pillar of scholarship and service to the school. To the radicals, he was the rare professor who listened to their complaints—so much so that after students occupied Hamilton Hall, they left him a note saying, “The Forces of Liberation have, at great length, decided to spare your office (because you are not one of them).” The hope was that Hofstadter’s address would bring some peace and resolution to the spring’s turbulence.
Facing his colleagues and the students shifting uneasily in their pews, Hofstadter mostly succeeded in this, striking a fittingly pious note for the occasion. Holding up Columbia as a time-tested haven of rational discourse, he also acknowledged the justness of the students’ grievances and called for “conciliation” as well as “stability, peace, mutual confidence.” Diana Trilling, who was in the audience, cried during the speech, and many of Hofstadter’s colleagues were also moved by his sonorous rhetoric. But not everyone felt that way: A large group of students walked out in the middle of his address and organized a countercommencement on campus. There they were joined by Old Left radicals like Erich Fromm and Dwight Macdonald, who gave speeches decrying the failure of the existing liberal order. These were times, Fromm asserted, when if you weren’t out of your mind, it meant you didn’t have one. He wasn’t entirely wrong, either: Hours after Hofstadter’s speech, the news came from California that Robert F. Kennedy had been shot.
Hofstadter himself had a tragically truncated life. He was felled by cancer two years later, at age 54. Yet his life, much like RFK’s, helped chart the ups and downs of 20th century liberalism in the United States. Born in 1916, Hofstadter came of age during the Great Depression and the era’s surge of labor radicalism and social democratic programs and bore witness to the movements that pushed for equality in the workplace and challenged white supremacy. Struggling with his fears of the revanchist right during the early Cold War, he found himself helpless as the centrist liberalism he came to embrace fell under attack.