Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s

Stefan M. Bradley, Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

In the epilogue of his new book on the historic 1968 student revolt at Columbia University, St. Louis University Professor of History and African American Studies Stefan Bradley notes that “although many of the participants have since passed on, the issues at Columbia seem to linger.” This was borne out in 2008 at a 40th anniversary event, when a Harlem Tenants Council activist denounced the Columbia administration’s current 17-acre campus expansion project in the neighborhood north of West 125th Street and passed out a flyer in which community residents vowed to stand against Columbia‘s “West Harlem eviction plan.”

Professor Bradley also observes that more than 40 years after the student revolt, some of the black students who participated in the nonviolent occupation of Hamilton Hall “bristle at the image of the Columbia demonstration that media sources often invoke” when they focus only on white students defying their parents by taking over buildings.

A key factor in the large mobilization of white students just a few weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination was the political alliance that had developed at Columbia between the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the black students who were most active in the campus chapter of the Student Afro-American Society (SAS). So a book like Professor Bradley’s, which focuses more on the role of the black students who occupied Hamilton Hall than on that of Mark Rudd and the white student demonstrators, is long overdue.

In examining the 1968 confrontation between the Harlem community (and its student supporters) and Columbia’s board of trustees, Bradley attempts to: 1) explain how it was possible for Columbia to take land and power from black people before 1968; 2) determine the effects of the confrontation method that the 1968–69 student protesters used; 3) explain why the black and white student protesters separated after Columbia’s Hamilton Hall was jointly seized by them; and 4) explain why Columbia eventually capitulated to some of the demands of the student demonstrators.

The first part of Harlem vs. Columbia University explores Columbia’s historic relationship to Harlem’s people and land, while the second part examines the historic role students played in attempting to change Columbia’s institutional policies.

The first part includes an interesting history of the Harlem and Morningside Heights neighborhoods surrounding Columbia’s campus and explains why community resident opposition to Columbia developed. Bradley recalls that “there was only one full-time black faculty member at Columbia by the mid-1960s,” during which time 9,600 tenants, “approximately 85 percent of whom were black or Puerto Rican,” were pushed out of the Morningside Heights and West Harlem apartment buildings or Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) residential hotels which Columbia University purchased and demolished or converted for its own institutional use.

Bradley next focuses more specifically on Columbia’s plan to build a gymnasium for its students in Harlem’s Morningside Park and the history of community protests against this project. We learn, for example, that in a January 29, 1966 editorial, Harlem’s African-American newspaper, the Amsterdam News, warned:

If Mayor Lindsay permits Columbia University to grab two acres of land out of Morningside Park for a gymnasium it will be a slap in the face to every black man, woman and child in Harlem…Columbia University, one of the richest institutions in the nation, only admits a handful of Negro scholars each year and its policies in dealing with Negroes in Harlem have been described as downright bigoted… Why then should the parents of Harlem give up their parkland to Columbia? What has Columbia done to merit such favoritism?

Thirty-one years earlier, W.E.B. Du Bois had written similarly in his classic 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America that “the Columbia school of historians and social investigators have issued between 1895 and the present time sixteen studies of Reconstruction in the Southern States, all based on the same thesis and all done according to the same method: first, endless sympathy with the white South; second, ridicule, contempt or silence for the Negro.”

By digging up flyers of various 1960s community groups and articles that appeared in various neighborhood newspapers, Bradley indicates that between April 1966 and March 1968 there were at least four community rallies against Columbia’s gym construction project and at least 25 arrests of anti-gym protesters. As Bradley observes:

After realizing that they would receive access to only 15 percent of the proposed structure that Columbia University would control, and be forced to use a different entrance, many black residents in the community saw that things were once more separate, but hardly equal…Instead of fighting against Jim Crow, the community now fought against Gym Crow…

In the second part of his book, Bradley relates the growth of the New Left and Black Power movements on US university campuses during the 1960s and describes the initially integrated protest effort of the black and white student demonstrators at Columbia on April 23, 1968, on campus and at the Morningside Park gym construction site as well as inside Hamilton Hall during the first few hours. He goes on to show how the black student protesters in Hamilton Hall won some concessions from the Columbia administration by aligning themselves with off-campus Black Liberation Movement groups and the Harlem community. He also provides a good description of what happened inside Hamilton Hall after the white student demonstrators were told to leave, and explains the political and strategic rationale of SAS leaders for their decision to separate themselves from their white student allies. As SAS leader Bill Sales later noted, “There was no real rift between SAS and SDS,” but the black students, in their role of giving voice to the Harlem community, needed to have a “distinctive identity” in negotiations with the Columbia administration.

Bradley goes on to indicate the role of SDS solidarity in increasing white student support for the Black Liberation Movement. He includes a description of what happened when a thousand New York City police were called in by the Columbia administration on April 30, 1968, to arrest student protesters.

Bradley breaks some new ground in late 1960s Columbia historiography by showing how, “at Columbia, the strategies and goals of Black Student Power continued into the spring of 1969 as the black student group, with the support of SDS, called for changes in admission policies,” and observes that in the 1960s Columbia’s black students “were regularly stopped by the security guards…to have their identifications checked while most white students were not stopped.” Bradley is among the first historians to give a detailed account of black student activism at Columbia in 1968–69. He also provides a concise summary of black student protests at Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell, showing that despite the disproportionate media attention Columbia received, it was “not the only Ivy League university to be impacted by Black Power” in the late 1960s. Yet as late as 1984 there were still only three tenured black professors at Columbia, and the university did not recognize a black studies program until 1987.

One very useful feature of the book is its collection of previously hard-to-find photos of some of the black participants in the uprising and also of the excavated gymnasium construction site in Morningside Park. But the book also has some omissions and inaccuracies. For example, it inaccurately states that Mark Rudd “decided not to return to school” in the Fall of 1968, when – as Rudd notes in his recent autobiography, Underground – he was actually expelled from Columbia. In addition, although Bradley notes that “SAS and SDS participated in student-supported on-campus demonstrations throughout the month of May,” readers of the book would not learn that on May 21, 1968, the Columbia administration called police onto its campus a second time; the police rioted again, and a leader of SAS, Ray Brown, was clubbed to the ground and then kicked systematically by a crowd of cops.

Despite these few omissions or inaccuracies, Harlem vs. Columbia University reflects a deeper anti-racist perspective than previous books about the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt, and does a better job of showing how the Black Power Movement, the Harlem community, the Black radical left and left nationalist intelligentsia, and black students and community activists shaped the events at Columbia in 1968 and 1969 and also the current position of African-Americans in the Ivy League academic world. For anyone interested in these topics, Harlem vs. Columbia University should be considered required reading.

2010 Bob Feldman, Member, Columbia SDS Steering Committee, 1967-68
Co-author of 1968 pamphlet, Columbia and the Community

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