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'Harlem vs. Columbia University'

'Harlem vs. Columbia University'
August 20, 2009

In 1968 and 1969, students at Columbia University protested against a number of the university’s policies and plans, accusing the institution of racism and imperialism -- the latter for the military ties that connected the university to the Vietnam War. Most notably, they opposed Columbia's intended construction of a gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park, a small green space utilized by the area’s largely black and Puerto Rican residents.

Members of the Students’ Afro-American Society, with support from Students for a Democratic Society as well as local community members, engaged in a series of confrontational demonstrations that ultimately led to a campuswide student and faculty strike. In his new book, Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (University of Illinois Press), Stefan M. Bradley discusses the conflict and its repercussions, placing it in the broader context of black student activism and its influence throughout academe. Bradley, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Saint Louis University, responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: Your book touches frequently on the complex relationship between two key student groups at Columbia: the mostly white Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the black Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS). Can you describe (and perhaps explain) a few of the ways in which these groups collaborated -- and clashed -- during the protests of 1968-69?

A: Before the demonstrations in 1968, SAS and SDS hadn't really worked collaboratively in any substantive way. With regard to the ill-conceived gymnasium that Columbia intended to build in Morningside Park, members of both groups agreed that taking up more space, with an essentially private gym, in a primarily black patronized park was a bad idea. They believed that the proposal to do so in spite of consistent opposition from members of the Harlem community had racial overtones. The initial collaboration took place on April 22, 1968, when leaders of SDS and SAS met and decided to demonstrate together on the campus the next day.

Early in the demonstration there were some ideological differences in the approach to group dynamics that affected SDS and SAS. SDS adhered to participatory democracy -- a practice that it adopted from the SNCC's efforts in the South -- that emphasized the expression of individual opinions and consensus. SAS members found the ultra-democratic methodology frustrating when applied to the group of hundreds of people that was waiting to be led. The crowd did agree to take over a classroom building, but SAS and SDS eventually split because SAS leaders didn't believe that the white radicals were militant enough to really confront the administration with regard to the gym in the park.

Additionally, SAS wanted to focus the attention of the demonstration on the poor relationship between Columbia and Harlem, to show the community that its interest was at the heart of the protest for black students. At that point, SDS leadership had ideas about radicalizing the mostly white student body to the point that it would demand an end to Columbia's ties to war research and for more decision making power on campus (not to mention the dismissal of university charges against demonstrators who had been placed on probation). The result was a split in the early morning hours, shortly after Black Power advocate H. Rap Brown showed up in the building.

Subsequently, SDS supported SAS by taking over more campus buildings, and continued to support SAS the next year when SAS sought to establish a black studies institute and to increase black student enrollment.

Q: What was the relationship between the student protesters and the Harlem and Morningside Heights residents who also demonstrated against the proposed gymnasium?

A: I think this relationship -- between the students and the community members -- was really one of the best parts of the story. There had been members of the Columbia campus chapter of CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality] (which was racially integrated in the mid 1960s) and others who had participated with community members in protests against the university's housing policies and the gym in the years before the 1968 demonstrations. SAS, which was a group that was created to establish an identity for black students on campus in 1964, eventually moved to a place where the members wanted to be more relevant to the larger black community. During the period before the 1968 protest, SAS members joined community groups such as the Harlem chapter of CORE (which was nearly all black by that time) and several other groups to find out what issues most affected the neighboring black community and how the students could help.

When the members and followers of SAS gained sole occupation of a campus building, they allowed community members from groups like the West Harlem Community Organization and the United Black Front to enter the building. Then, there were leaders like H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and other militants who led black Harlemites onto campus, which must have been a frightful scene for administrators who witnessed Harlem burning weeks earlier when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Those community members, not all militants -- some just mothers who wanted to bring food -- wanted to support the black students for taking a stand on a community issue.

More moderate black politicians in New York supported the cause of the black student activists, if not their tactics. Those leaders included Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton, Shirley Chisholm, and Charles Rangel. I think that by the time famed Columbia alumnus and psychologist Kenneth Clark left the seized building to report to university administrators that the black students were not leaving until construction on the gym was halted, school officials knew that the momentum regarding gym construction had swung in favor of the opposition.

Q: While your focus is Columbia University, you also discuss related actions at Harvard, Yale, and Cornell Universities, as well as the University of Pennsylvania. Why did you choose to concentrate on Ivy League institutions?

A: I chose to cover, at least tangentially, other Ivy League universities for several reasons. The first was that these institutions represent the best that America has to offer. These schools are breeding grounds for those who go on to make decisions for the nation and world. On a more practical note, graduation from an Ivy League school, at least in the minds of many Americans, means direct entree into middle and upper class security. I was amazed that black students (many of whom were first generation college students) at these elite institutions would risk their chances of social and economic security in society to protest on behalf of black people who would never set foot on a college campus, let alone an Ivy League university.

Then, I was intrigued by the fact that even these elite universities that typically prided themselves on their abilities to isolate themselves from the troubles of the world, couldn't block out the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Seriously, most of the universities in the Ivy League have been around before there was a war for independence. They stayed open during the Civil War and all other calamities that followed. In the late 1960s, though, young black students were able to bring some of these institutions to a stand still. Those young people literally brought black studies to their campuses. That really spoke to me about the invasiveness of the movements and tumultuous nature of the times. Finally, the similarities in the movements on the various campus were too striking not to discuss.

Q: You mention in your introduction that most of the other works about the Columbia student revolt were “completed … very near the time of the rebellions,” and that your own work “benefits from the advantage of thirty-some years of hindsight.” How might the intervening decades have affected your interpretation of the protests and their origins?

A: I find that question cruel but timely. Of course when I originally wrote that, there were few books out concerning the Columbia demonstrations that were indeed completed in or just after 1968. Now, as the fortieth anniversary of the demonstrations just passed, there are several recently released books dealing with the Columbia Crisis. At least two student activists and one administrator have published their accounts of the events.

What sets my book apart, of course, is the fact that most of those works are memoirs and mine is more of a case study. Whereas those authors had the benefit of actually being there, I had the benefit of seeing how the Columbia demonstrations of the late 1960s fit into the larger context of history. In addition, I was able to dive into great archival materials left by the activists, school officials, politicians, onlookers, etc. The result was my ability to show that what happened at Columbia was part of a wave that swept through the nation and the world.

Then, also, I must admit that I am attempting to revise the historical memory of the rebellion. The story of the Columbia rebellion, as it has been told in the four decades since, has nearly always featured the antiwar aspects of the demonstrations and has focused almost solely on white radical leaders such as Mark Rudd and other white activists. That narrative is not historically accurate. My book takes a departure from that narrative to show that it was the militancy and focus of the black student activists, who took up the tactics and methodology of the Black Power Movement, that made the demonstrations and strike possible. That, combined with the proximity of the campus to a resentful black and Puerto Rican community in Harlem, meant trouble for the university. As I like to tell my students, when time and space meet, history is born. Time and space confronted each other on Columbia's campus, and I think it made for great history -- one that happened to include black students and community members who had been forgotten.

Q: In summing up the long-term effects of the Columbia protests, you note that today’s college students are much less inclined to engage in protests than were the students of the 1960s. How do you view the present-day role of political activism on campus, and do you see any signs that it is continuing to evolve (for better or worse)?

A: I thought it was fascinating to watch American students organize for the Obama campaign. It was especially interesting because there had been little that had really moved students to organize since the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s. It was wonderful to see students take an interest in an issue that affected them as citizens, not just as students, but it really stood out in contrast to the apathy that plagued students for a generation. With that said, part of the apathy that affects students may have to do with the direction larger society has gone -- that is, toward what I call "island individuality." Students, in many instances, have acted as though they were islands and entities that were not part of something larger. This is not an indictment, but I think more an observation. In some ways, I believe the activists in the 1960s fought so that future students wouldn't have to be activists in addition to students.

I think one of the things that really set the generation of students in the 1960s apart from current students is the desire to read. Many of the student activists of the earlier generations were incredibly well read. Of course they didn't have the distractions of iPods, Xboxes, personal computers, and televisions everywhere, but many of those students did try to understand how the world worked and impacted them. Speaking from experience, getting young people today to read (outside of what's required for their courses) so that they can be aware of what is happening around them is more than a notion. Then, too, the students of the late 1960s were facing the very real possibility of the draft, and racism was just so palpable. Perhaps if the issues were quite so obvious for students today, they might be moved to act. Still in all, I believe that students, with their great privilege, have a responsibility to confront the social, political, and cultural issues that impact the world outside of the confines of campus.

Q: The dispute over Morningside Park is among the most famous of town-gown conflicts, and it ended in a near-total victory for the local residents who opposed the university’s plans. What lessons can be drawn from it for those on either side of such conflicts today?

A: There are indeed lessons to be learned on both sides of these types of conflicts. The amount of available space on earth is not in any way growing, so conflict is inevitable. For those institutions -- whether they be retail centers or universities -- that seek to expand, it would be helpful to include those who would be affected by the expansion in the policy decisions. Although doing so could be time-consuming and could potentially alter the institution's plans, the overture would be appreciated by those who would be impacted. Then, regular citizens can learn from the Columbia conflict that community organization can work, that the race doesn't always go to the strong or swift, and that taking a stand, regardless of the odds, can be beneficial to the community. In this case, taking a stand worked because the times accommodated the community's movement. After sitting in Morningside Park this summer and watching the people playing softball, laying out, skating, and grilling, I am glad students and community members made a stand and there is no gym.

 

 

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