Todd Gitlin, a prominent 1960s anti-war activist and scholar who drew on his experiences and influenced many others as an author, sociologist and educator, has died at 79.
His sister Judy Gitlin confirmed his death on Saturday, but declined to provide details beyond saying he was hospitalized late last year. Gitlin’s friend and colleague Peter Dreier posted a tribute on his Facebook page, calling him “a prolific writer, deep thinker, progressive political activist, and respected and revered mentor to generations of activists, writers and scholars”.
A Manhattan native, Gitlin served as president of one of the major campus organizations of the 1960s—Students for a Democratic Society—and helped organize one of the first major Vietnam War protests, in Washington, D.C. in 1965. The same year, he helped lead an anti-apartheid sit-in at the Wall Street headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank, a moneylender to the racist regime in South Africa.
“That’s what moved me most about the SDS circle: everything these people did was full of intensity,” writes Gitlin in “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” a book widely hailed published in 1987 which combined history and personal life. souvenirs. “They were both analytically sharp and politically engaged, but also, with a thousand gestures of affection, these shameless moralists cared for each other.”
Gitlin’s activism dates back to the turn of the decade, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard University. He became the leader of a Harvard group opposed to nuclear weapons and helped organize a demonstration in Washington in 1962. He later earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan, where Tom Hayden and others helped found the SDS, and a Ph.D. D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley.
Gitlin remained politically involved after the 1960s, but also clashed at times with other liberals. In the 1990s he criticized some of the academic debates over the literary canon and the predominance of white male writers. In his 1995 book “The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars”, he alleged that the emphasis on what he and others called “identity politics” was weakening the left as a whole, writing that as the Republicans gained power in Washington, the left “marched on the English Department”.
In 2020, he was among the signatories of a widely debated letter that appeared in Harper’s magazine and denounced the so-called “cancel culture” and the rush to “swift and severe retaliation in response to perceived transgressions of speech and of thought”.
Gitlin taught at several schools before joining Columbia University in 2002 as a professor of journalism and sociology. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and other publications. His books also included “Occupy Nation” and “Letters to a Young Activist,” in which he advised his potential reader to “Be original. See what happens.
He has been married three times, most recently to Laurel Ann Cook, whom he married in 1995.