NEW YORK — Todd Gitlin has passed away at the age of 79. He was a well-known anti-war and campus activist from the 1960s. He drew on his experiences and influenced many others in his role as an author, sociologist, and educator.
His sister Judy Gitlin confirmed his passing Saturday but refused to give any details other than that he was admitted at the end last year. Peter Dreier, Gitlin’s friend, posted a tribute to him on his Facebook page. He called him a “prolific author, a profound thinker and a progressive activist and a respected mentor to many generations of writers, activists, and scholars.”
Gitlin, a Manhattan native, was once president of Students for a Democratic Society, one of the most prominent campus organizations of the 1960s. He also helped organize the 1965 protests against Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. He also led an anti-apartheid protest at Chase Manhattan Bank’s Wall Street headquarters in 1965, which was a lender to South Africa’s racist regime.
Gitlin wrote that “The Sixties: Years of Hope and Days of Rage” was what most moved him about the SDS circle. It was a highly praised 1987 book that combined personal memories with history. “They were both analytically sharp and politically committed, but they also cared deeply about each other with a thousand gestures.
Gitlin’s activism dates back to the beginning of the decade when he was a Harvard University undergraduate student. He was a Harvard student who led a group against nuclear weapons. In 1962, he organized a protest in Washington. Later, he received a master’s in political science at the University of Michigan (where Tom Hayden and other helped to found the SDS), and a Ph.D. degree in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Gitlin was politically active after the ’60s but clashed with liberals at times. He was critical of academic debates about the literary canon, the predominance male-white writers and other issues in the 1990s. He wrote in 1995, “The Twilight of Common Dreams”: Why America is Wracked By Culture Wars, that the emphasis on “identity politics,” as he and others called it, was weakening the left. He claimed that, while Republicans gained power in Washington, the left had been “marching upon the English department.”
He was one of the signers of a controversial letter in Harper’s magazine in 2020. It denounced “cancel culture” as well as the rush to “swift, severe retribution” for perceived speech and thought transgressions.
Gitlin was a teacher at many schools before he joined Columbia University as a professor in journalism and sociology in 2002. His writings were published in The New York Times and The New Republic, among other publications. His books included “Occupy Nation” as well as “Letters from a Young Activist,” where he encouraged his readers to be original. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
He was married three more times, the most recent to Laurel Ann Cook whom he got married in 1995.