Authors on Issues: Stefan M. Bradley on the 1968 Columbia University Student Rebellion

The following is a guest post from Stefan M. Bradley, the author of Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s.

“Racist Gym Must Go!”: Remembering the 1968 Columbia University Student Rebellion.

Any story involving Alexander Hamilton, Malcolm X, Frederick Law Olmsted, Harlem, and the Ivy League is worth remembering.  This week, Columbia University in the City of New York commemorates the student and community uprisings that occurred on campus in 1968.  The major issues of the 1960s fueled the rebellion.  Students demanded power and an end to the Vietnam War.  Along with their black neighbors in Morningside Heights and Harlem, students also wanted to fight racism while checking the momentum of urban renewal.  Conflict arose over gender roles and generational divides, as young activists struggled to operationalize their ideals of leadership.

The Columbia crisis was technically a local controversy, but it was no small matter.  Activists took over five buildings, university officials called 1,000 police officers onto campus to evacuate the buildings, students engaged in a six-week strike, and neighborhood residents rallied to check the physical expansion of the university.  Richard Nixon, whose campaign of “law and order” propelled him into the White House, knew what it meant to the nation.  He called the campus disruption “the first major skirmish in a revolutionary struggle to seize the universities of this country and transform them into sanctuaries for radicals and vehicles for revolutionary political and social goals.”  Many students then and now wish Nixon had been right.

That the university is now sponsoring and promoting events concerning the fiftieth anniversary of the demonstrations is remarkable.  For many years afterward, there was no official recognition of the protests that provoked acrimony on the campus among the administration and faculty that lasted for decades.  As time went on, however, the institution has learned to commandeer some of the history as part of its own narrative.  Indeed, history forced Columbia to confront the implications of the 1968 crisis.

Postwar policies provided a build-up for the campus demonstrations that occurred fifty years ago.  No different than the University of Chicago or the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University took advantage of the Housing Act of 1949 as part of a group called Morningside Heights, Incorporated (MHI).  The university sought to make the neighborhoods surrounding the institutions more comfortable and safe for their patrons, who happened to be almost exclusively white.  Regarding the neighborhoods surrounding the university, one Columbia official remarked “We are looking for a community where the faculty can talk to people like themselves . . . we don’t want a dirty group.”  The faculty was nearly all white.  As part of its Morningside Heights General Renewal Plan, the university, along with the fourteen other institutions, made use of government subsidies and policy to expand.  That directly led to the displacement of 10,000 mostly black and Puerto Rican residents from the neighborhood. 

The Black Freedom Movement expanded as well.  In the postwar era, African continentals fought for independence and against colonialism abroad.  Local black activists like Victor Solomon of Harlem CORE claimed that he battled colonialism domestically.  Black Power took hold of Harlem, as leaders like Malcolm X implored black residents to not allow white imperialists to control their neighborhoods.  His word inspired freedom fighters who struggled in the urban terrain to help the black people that President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society missed.

 On April 23, 1968, students arrived at an on-campus rally that the mostly white Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had planned.  SDS had been pushing against Columbia’s ties to defense research and the Vietnam conflict.  The university had even punished six members for a previous protest regarding the university’s standing with the Institute for Defenses Analyses IDA.  Another campus organization, the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS) was there as well.  Its members had conflicted with some athletes (mostly white) who supported the university’s plan to build a new gymnasium in the Frederick Law Olmsted designed Morningside Park, which is the only eastern land mass separating Columbia’s main campus from the historic neighborhood of Harlem. 

Considering it was just weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the nerves of hundreds of students who came to protest or observe were raw.  To the young activists, who had been in communication with Harlem organizations, the gymnasium became a symbol of institutional racism and rich powerbrokers’ control of working-class and poor black people. As planned, the gymnasium allowed the community to take advantage of only 15 percent of the floor space and to enter through separate doors from Columbia affiliates.  It was reminiscent of the institutional racism of the past, and they cleverly called it “Gym Crow.”  In the congested upper westside, everyone coveted affordable housing and green space.

“To the young activists, who had been in communication with Harlem organizations, the gymnasium became a symbol of institutional racism and rich powerbrokers’ control of working-class and poor black people.”

After a failed attempt to take over a building in the way that students at Berkeley had done during the Free Speech Movement or how students had done at historically black Howard University a month earlier, Columbia students walked to the nearby gym site to impede construction.  At Morningside Park, they physically confronted police and construction workers before returning to campus and eventually taking over Alexander Hamilton Hall.  In the process, the student activists captured a dean and his staff in his office.  He eventually left, thereby releasing them from kidnapping charges. 

The night of April 23, at the invitation of SAS, famed revolutionary H. Rap Brown arrived, boldly announcing:  “Thank you for taking the first steps in the struggle . . . . The Black community is taking over.”  Months earlier, Rap Brown had encouraged Harlem residents to either blow up, burn down, or takeover the gymnasium if Columbia tried to take any more space in the park.  Within hours of his arrival in Hamilton, the white members and followers of SDS were leaving to take over four other buildings in the name of the struggle. 

The building occupations lasted a week, confounding university and municipal officials alike.  Hamilton Hall presented a special problem in light of the uprisings and destruction that occurred in Harlem after King’s violent death.  When SAS faced a media blackout, it invited Stokely Carmichael, the world-renowned leader of SNCC and the Black Panther Party to read aloud their demands to end gym construction.  Carmichael had been charged with inciting a riot in Washington, D.C. weeks prior.  With his announcement of SAS’s demands, the world became aware of the campus struggle.  The black students in Hamilton renamed the building Malcolm X Hall and invited guests from the community, including the Black United Front, Revolutionary Action Movement, the Harlem Mau Maus, and black mothers. 

After finding that neither the liberal NAACP nor alumni like psychologist Kenneth Clark could get the students to leave, officials had to recognize that momentum was working in the favor of student and community activists.  New York City mayor, John Lindsay, and Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, did not want to incite more violence in a confrontation with the all-black occupants of the building, so they negotiated to end construction of the gymnasium.  Even though it received assurances that the gym would be suspended, SAS maintained the demonstration to be in solidarity with the mostly white students in the four other buildings, who also demanded amnesty and the cessation of ties to defense research.

To end the week-long occupation, Columbia’s president called the notorious New York Police Department to extract the students.  The mostly working-class white officers brutalized students who sometimes resisted as they exited.  Incidentally, professors and onlookers were not immune from the violence; more than 700 people were arrested.  Notably, black students exiting Hamilton did not experience violence during the arrests.  Without hyperbole, the whole world watched as Columbia became ground zero for the problems of postwar America.  The police actions on April 30 radicalized enough students to spark a six-week strike and another student-community demonstration in Hamilton that ended again in violence.  The university had lost control; it had to change course.

“As Columbia University graduate students implore the university to recognize their union, the students should recall that fifty years earlier young people believed they could stop a war and prevent a prestigious white American institution from expanding into black spaces at the same time, and they did.”

Elements of the 1968 Columbia rebellion are inspiring and instructional for today’s students, activists, and community residents.  As some in Harlem continue to fight Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville, they should study the unity of neighborhood groups like the West Harlem Community Organization and Morningsiders United that represented the varied interests of residents.  As Columbia University graduate students implore the university to recognize their union, the students should recall that fifty years earlier young people believed they could stop a war and prevent a prestigious white American institution from expanding into black spaces at the same time, and they did. 

Without question, the coalition that formed around the singular issue of the gymnasium was the most instructional element of the uprisings of a half century ago.  Columbia’s agreement to end its participation with the IDA and to terminate construction of the gymnasium was atypical of history.  Predominantly white institutions historically have their way in poor black and brown spaces.  Not, however, in this case.  Black and white students, politicians, community activists, park preservationists, and working-class people came together on one issue, and they claimed victory.  In the midst of today’s tumult, perhaps it is again time to call for “two, three, many Columbia’s.”

-Stefan M. Bradley, Saint Louis University



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