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

reviewed by Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar - April 29, 2010

coverTitle: Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s
Author(s): Stefan M. Bradley
Publisher: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign
ISBN: 025203452X, Pages: 272, Year: 2009
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The Black Power movement has emerged as a subject of growing attention among scholars in the past decade. From national conferences, to several anthologies on the Black Panther Party, and an expanding corpus of scholarly articles, the burgeoning field of study has become increasingly known as “Black Power Studies.”  A few of these book-length studies have devoted sole focus to black student activism as an essential expression of Black Power. Historian Stefan M. Bradley makes a fine contribution to this particular focus of the era. Bradley explores the 1968 Columbia University student protests against a planned gymnasium in Morningside Park, which bordered the university and Harlem. He locates the student unrest as an important expression of “black student power” that provided a model for activists across the country. Additionally, black students at the Ivy League university in New York City did not equivocate on their fundamental allegiance to the wider black community of neighboring Harlem, with which Columbia had an increasingly strained relationship. Ultimately, Bradley argues, the activism must be framed as an example of an eclectic mix of activism from the New Left, anti-Vietnam War movement, and Black Power. But the emergence of a separate black student leadership in the protests was inextricably bound to the impulse of Black Power.

Like most of Manhattan in the late 1950s, open space was rare near Columbia’s main campus, and the university struggled to find areas for physical expansion. The initial measure, passed by state and local governments in 1961, to grant Columbia use of Morningside Park to build a gymnasium was met with support from the Columbia community and most Harlem residents and local black politicians alike. The gym would, it was agreed, have 12 percent of its area open to public access. However, as the Black Freedom movement unfolded, many community people became increasingly concerned about Columbia’s real estate interests and control of the area, in general, and the new gym in particular. Many Harlem residents felt that Columbia’s aggressive growth was emblematic of the nature of white racial policies that demanded black subordination to the interests of whites.

By 1968 there were several parties that had begun to organize in protest. Two campus-based groups are essential to Bradley’s narrative, the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS) and the local chapter of the mostly white Students for Democratic Society (SDS). Both argued that the gym was a racist land-grab of public space in disregard to the needs of the people of Harlem. But the two organizations’ ideological and tactical differences led them into different directions as the movement progressed.

Activists from the SDS were motivated by anti-war politics as well as a generally anti-establishmentarian politics of the New Left. For them, the gym construction was a mechanism by which they could foment radicalism among the general student body, reshape the university and influence its relationship with the military-industrial complex, among other things. Additionally, though not explicitly discussed by Bradley, the SDS’ anti-racist politics could win black supporters. One SAS leader noted, however, that “‘our immediate concern is not with the restructuring of Columbia University’ or society.” (p. 19) A range of other community-based groups joined the chorus of protest against the gym’s construction plans. While some groups demanded that the citizens have access to 50 percent of the new gym, instead of Columbia’s proposal for 12 percent, many others demanded that the plans for the gym be abandoned altogether. (p. 56)

Providing a detailed narrative, including a full picture of the major players and organizations that shaped the movement, Bradley does an impressive job exploring the implications and historical significance of this protest. The SAS, like black student organizations across the country, was intimately connected to the burgeoning Black Power Movement. Leaders of the SAS established linkages with various community groups in Harlem that, among other things, opposed the gym construction. One community activist insisted that “Harlem is a colony and is being treated like one.” (p. 57) This sentiment resonated with students at Columbia and inspired them to seek support from notable groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its national leaders, Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and H. Rap Brown. The latter warned that “if the university doesn’t deal with our brothers in there, they’re going to have to deal with the brothers out on the streets.” (p. 88) By the time that the SAS and SDS worked together to occupy administrative buildings in April 1968, the demand for black control of the protest had become central. Much like the purge of whites from SNCC, one SAS leader explained that the “SDS can stand on the side and support us…but the black students and the Harlem community will be the ones in the vanguard.” (p. 69) In agreement with the SAS, the white protesters left occupied Hamilton Hall to Black students. White students occupied Low Hall nearby.  Though both groups of occupying students were expelled by the police, they enjoyed notable support from the faculty and Harlem—mainstream black politicians and militants alike. The university acquiesced to demands and abandoned the construction of the gymnasium. In the wake of the protest, the demonstrators received congratulations from a wide cross-section of activists from across the country. Columbia’s demonstrators, “provided a catalyst to a larger social movement in the United States,” Bradley insists. (p. 108) This may be an overstatement of the degree to which Columbia’s protest influenced or inspired others, considering that college students had received national attention as activists in the Civil Rights movement for several years. The 1964-1965 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, as well as the groundswell of student activism in 1968 appear to be a better framework to understand the Columbia protests. Indeed, Bradley later explains that what happened at Columbia was “in line with acts that were occurring (or would occur) in London, Spain, Rome, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the West Indies, and Mexico.” (p. 156) What is unequivocal, however, is that the 1968 Columbia protests were far from any typical ephemeral student disturbance. As the author effectively details, these spring demonstrations had a lasting legacy for the inner workings of the university, as well as its relationship with its Manhattan neighbors.

In the aftermath of the spring 1968 demonstrations, Columbia University terminated ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which linked the university to contracts with the military industrial complex and the Vietnam War. Faculty were empowered though the creation of the Executive Committee, leading to greater visibility and voice for them. SAS demands for black studies, recruitment of black faculty, staff and students were increasingly realized, though not as quickly as SAS had desired. In fact, it was not until 1993 that the Institute for Research in African American Studies was established. By the late 2000s, however, Columbia would lead all Ivy League universities in the percentage of black faculty.

“In the end,” Bradley explains, “the gym was really just a symbol.”  For many, it represented white power, and black subordination. The resistance to the intrusion into black public space by a rich white private institution, therefore, represents a powerful symbol of the power of the people—blacks and their allies—to mobilize successfully. At the center of this power, one finds black student activists who did not find conflict in their loyalties. They were, Bradley details, bound to the wider historical moment that, in no uncertain terms, demanded racial allegiance over any class interests among black student protesters.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15962, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:43:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Jeffrey Ogbar
    University of Connecticut
    E-mail Author
    JEFFREY O. G. OGBAR is professor of history and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas, 2007). He is also editor of Civil Rights: Problems in American Civilization (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts and Letters (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). He received his BA in history from Morehouse College and his MA and Ph.D. degrees in history from Indiana University.
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