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"This is Harlem Heights": Black Student Power and the 1968 Columbia University rebellion.


This is an account of the forces of race and power and how students and community members used their race to gain power from a white American institution. More specifically, this is a story about black students on the campus of Columbia University in the City of New York allying themselves with local black politicians as well as black working class and poor residents from Harlem, the black enclave just adjacent to the school. Taking place on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia, this tale's primary theme deals with the achievement of Black Power, which, in the late 1960s, was the goal of many young African Americans across the nation.

In essence, the second generation of the black bourgeoisie that sociologist E. Franklin Frazier described in his classic piece, Black Bourgeoisie, met with what may be called the "black proletariat." (2) Attempting to move away from the trappings of Frazier's first generation of black bourgeoisie members, black students (or members of the intelligentsia), who attended an Ivy League school, employed what this historian refers to as "Black Student Power." (3) The practice of Black Student Power included (but was not exclusive to) the use of the philosophies and strategies of Black Power to force predominantly white universities to capitulate to a variety of demands.

According to Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton, authors of Black Power, the achievement of Black Power for black people meant going through the processes of "self definition" and "political modernization." (4) In order to attain self-definition, black people would have to take pride in their blackness and take ownership of the issues that confronted the race. In an effort to define themselves, some black organizations in the late 1960s purged their ranks of white members and leaders, leaving black people to decide on black matters.

The process of political modernization involved three steps: "(1) questioning old values and institutions of society; (2) searching for new and different forms of political structure to solve political and economic problems; and (3) broadening the base of political participation to include more people in the decision-making process." (5) Indeed, in 1968, black students questioned white institutions and made an attempt to keep institutions of higher education from inhibiting the economic and political rights of black people. Furthermore, at places like Columbia, black students sought to give more representation and power to those whom white American institutions had previously used and neglected.

On American college campuses, some of the more popular demands of those protesters who applied the principles of Black Student Power typically involved increases in the number of black students and faculty members on campus, black studies courses and programs, black culture centers, and in the case of Columbia's protesting black students, respect and power for the neighboring black community. (6) The ultimate goal of Black Student Power was the cessation of the institutional racism that schools, colleges, and universities perpetuated as white institutions in America. In the late 1960s, black protesters like those on Columbia's campus used their status as students as a means to advance the Black Freedom struggle.

The study of black student protesters and Black Power is in no way new. Clayborne Carson, in his coverage of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), did quite well to denote the changing philosophies of black college activists in the 1960s. (7) Similarly, William Van Deburg made a good contribution to the field in his work on the cultural victories of Black Power. In New Day in Babylon, Van Deburg offered useful empirical data regarding black militancy on college campuses. (8) In the 1970 work, Black Students, sociologist Harry Edwards also chronicled the infusion of Black Power strategies into campus life. (9) He also wrote a valuable piece concerning the rise of black militancy in the realm of collegiate and professional athletics. (10) These works, and many others, provide background literature to the campus unrest that occurred across the country in the late 1960s.

Concerning predominantly white universities in the North, several authors have ably described the black student movement. In an effort to detail the action of black students at the University of Illinois, Joy Ann Williamson has most recently published her work, Black Power on Campus. In it, she explains that because white institutions of higher education fostered a sense of racial hostility, black students proactively unified into black activist organizations to forge an identity for themselves in order to effect changes in "curricula, policies, and structure[s]." (11) With his 1985 piece, Paradoxes of Protest, William Exum focused on the issues that affected black students in a mostly white academic environment as well. (12) In a similar fashion, Richard McCormick's book, The Black Student Movement at Rutgers, dealt with student demonstrations on Rutger's Newark campus. (13)

Regarding activity on Ivy League campuses, several authors have come to the forefront. Wayne Glasker, in Black Students in the Ivory Tower, described the incidents that occurred as young black protesters demonstrated on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. (14) Werner Sollors, Caldwell Ticomb, and Thomas Underwood constructed a documentary of Blacks at Harvard that covered black student activity in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (15) With his extremely thorough monograph, Cornell '69, Donald Downs depicted the 1969 scene that involved gun-toting demonstrators from Cornell University. (16)

In dealing with Columbia University, no one work has been devoted to the efforts of black students on the Morningside Heights campus. Authors like Jerry Avorn, who was a student at the time of the 1968 protest, have discussed in detail the role of the Columbia chapter of radical New Left organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but these authors have not gone into great detail about the work of the black student group, Students' Afro-American Society (SAS). (17) The same is true for Roger Kahn, author of The Battle for Morningside Heights. (18) Although Kahn points to Columbia's historically tenuous relationship with its Harlem neighbors, he does not present an in-depth analysis of SAS. Another scholar, Robert Liebert, who acted as an instructor of psychiatry at the time of the protests, did devote a good section of his volume, Radical and Militant Youth, to SAS's role; however, much of the discourse on the black group involved its relationship with the white students and not SAS's distinctive role in the demonstrations. (19)

Part of the reason for this neglect is the fact that these authors completed their work shortly after the 1968 protest. At the time, many protesters refused to participate in interviews (although they would later). (20) Some of the black protesters refused on the grounds that they were unsure of what repercussions university officials planned to level at the young demonstrators for their disturbance. Another reason for the relative lack of information on the activity and role of SAS rests in the over-inflated role that these authors envisioned the members of SDS playing. Granted, SDS gained national attention for the protest by drawing violence, destroying school property, and by pushing for an end to the Vietnam War and an increase in student power; however, the most tangible victory of the 1968 protest concerned SAS's tactics in blocking construction of Columbia University's proposed gymnasium in Morningside Park (the only land mass that separated the university from the neighborhoods of Harlem). (21)

This article has several purposes. First, it will highlight the efforts of black student activists on Columbia University's campus. The fact that young black people, who had the opportunity to attend an elite Ivy League university, chose to risk their chances of economic, political and social success in America for the sake of advancing the Black Freedom movement is truly remarkable and should be noted. Second, the article will show how even an Ivy League school like Columbia could not escape or shut out the invasiveness of the social movements of the 1960s; particularly, the tenets and philosophies of Black Power to confront the power and authority of university officials. Finally, this article will illustrate a tangible victory for Black Power.

As William Van Deburg pointed out in A New Day in Babylon, many of Black Power's victories were cultural in nature, e.g., cultural identification, redefinition, and cultural pride. Admittedly, the tangible achievements of Black Power have not always been so apparent. With that in mind, SAS's and the Harlem community's ability to keep the university from building the gym in Morningside Park marked one of those tangible victories. By forcing the university not to build a gym in the park, the black protesters won not only space for the Harlem community, but also the respect of Columbia University decision makers who could never approach the Harlem community in the same way again.


To understand this controversy, it is necessary to note the relationship of Columbia to the city of New York and black residents. Originally, Columbia University had not been located on Morningside Heights, which stretches from 110th to 125th street on its west side and from Morningside Park to the Hudson River on its east side. As early as 1775, the institution, then known as King's College, actually sat on the land of the Trinity Episcopal Church at Broadway and Wall streets. Later in 1897, it moved to what was known as Morningside Heights because, according to George Nash, author of The University and the City, Columbia University was attempting to "escape" the encroachment of the city onto the campus. (22)

Until World War II, the neighborhoods of Morningside Heights remained starkly white in population. As black southerners migrated to the North during the first and second Great Migration, some found their way to Morningside Heights while most moved to nearby Harlem. (23) The fact that blacks chose to live in an area that had traditionally been reserved for Columbia's faculty members and students motivated the university to intensify its efforts to "escape" certain elements of the city. In 1967, Jacques Barzun, a provost at Columbia University, believed that the neighborhoods that surrounded the school were becoming "uninviting, abnormal, sinister, and dangerous." (24) Along the same lines, the Faculty Civil Rights Group of Columbia University, which did a study on the university's policy in regards to the Morningside Heights neighborhood, quoted one of the university planners as stating: "We are looking for a community where the faculty can talk to people like themselves. We don't want a dirty group." (25)

As Columbia did not employ one full-time black faculty member until 1969, it is clear what the planner meant by "people like themselves." It is also clear, given the rising population of black and Puerto Rican residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights, that the planner was referring to the non-white dwellers of the surrounding community as elements of the "dirty group." Whiteness and white privilege for staff members like Barzun and the university planner had made it possible for them to see whiteness as somehow culturally clean or natural and blackness as otherness. (26) In essence, the statement implied that the arrival of so many blacks and Puerto Ricans "dirtied up" the once clean (white) group of Morningside Heights residents. Consequently, it became one of the objectives of the university to clean up the "sinister" and "dirty" area surrounding the school.

To sanitize the nearby neighborhoods, Columbia embarked upon a project--purchasing a great deal of land and buildings in Morningside Heights and Harlem neighborhoods. Ostensibly, the purpose for these purchases was to create more space for the students and to construct more campus buildings. Incidentally, more than a few of the edifices that the university bought had provided homes for poor and minority residents. The fact that Columbia owned Single Room Occupancy (SROs) buildings would later fuel the controversy between the university and Harlem residents, who believed that the school was using its power to take homes and space away from black people.

SROs were originally apartment buildings, but because of the weakness of the market, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they were separated and rented out as rooms. (27) Initially, students used these SROs as dwellings; however, later, poorer and more elderly people took over the residences because of the inexpensive rent. Some of the tenants were those who had had troubles with the law, such as prostitutes and various roguish types. As Gilbert Osofsky noted in Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto, Harlem was once the home of a renaissance, but with the decline of municipal services, the influx of drugs, and the removal of job opportunities for its residents, the black enclave withered rapidly. Within this declining economy, land values became even cheaper. This cheapness of land provided an impetus for Columbia University to expand its domains.

The relationship between Columbia and city residents was further weakened by the university's alleged landlord policies. Roger Kahn, who wrote about the 1968 controversy, claimed that Columbia was one of "the largest and most aggressive landlords on earth," and that more than half of its assets ($280 million) were in land, buildings, and mortgages. (28) Maintaining that the trustees of the university were the invaders, The Worker, a socialist paper, alleged that "Columbia made war on its Harlem neighbors" without regard to their need for shelter and homes. (29) While the word "war" might have been an extreme description of Columbia's acquisition policies, it was quite clear that the university intended to expand its holdings in spite of the complaints and concerns of residents and neighbors.

Bolstering the arguments of The Worker article, several residents of Columbia-owned SROs decried the removal tactics that Columbia used on those who dwelled in the university's buildings. One resident, Yvelle Walker, explained that after the university told her to move from her apartment, she subsequently found a wax-like substance in her lock, preventing her from re-entering her home. (30) Another tenant observed that the university would ask residents to leave and if they did not leave fast enough, then the residents would find themselves without the use of heat, which was the case in one of the university's buildings during the winter of 1967-1968. (31)

The results of Columbia's efforts to remove tenants in the Morningside Heights and Harlem areas are notable. Robert Liebert, who also documented the 1968 rebellion, found that in the decade of the 1960s, the university purchased 150 housing units used mostly by blacks and Puerto Ricans. During that period, the university facilitated the displacement of 7,500 people, approximately 85 percent of whom were black or Puerto Rican. (32) When the university appointed a committee to find out the causes of the 1968 protest, the commission found that one of the primary causes regarded Columbia's insensitivity in tenant removal. It pointed to one university publication that stated "Morningside Heights has been cleaned up.... All but two of the worst SRO houses have been eliminated, and nobody really regrets their passing." (33) Surely somebody regretted "their passing."

Concerning space, Columbia University further antagonized the residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights with its use (rather misuse) of Morningside Park. During the 1950s, the university leased five acres of land from the city to construct softball fields in the park. (34) The school would use the fields for the recreation of its undergraduate men. The city authorized the lease of the land, but only under the stipulation that Columbia make the fields open to the public free of charge. Early on, Columbia upheld its end of the bargain by sponsoring community little league play. (35) In fact, at that point, the university had invested nearly $25,000 into the community athletic program.

Toward the end of the 1960s, however, the situation changed when the fields were all too frequently locked and unavailable to the community. (36) Needless to say, seeing the locks on the gates of the fields embittered the black residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights who also needed recreational space. By making the field available to only university affiliates, Columbia was using its economic prowess to place its need for space above that of black city residents. Many feared that the construction of a gymnasium in the park would end with the same results.

This scene, along with national turmoil, precipitated the events that came to a head in 1968. The Black Power movement did not occur in a vacuum; it was the result of building racial tension in America. During the 1960s, Harlem, and many other black communities throughout America experienced civil unrest. In 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, black students from North Carolina A & T attempted to integrate the city through lunch-counter sit-ins. (37) Three years later, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy, whose constituency included many African Americans. At the same time, the black Muslim movement thrived, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated his dream of racial harmony. Although Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the long hot summer of that year saw yet another riot in Harlem after an off-duty police officer killed a black youth. (38) The next year, as King marched in the South, several black Muslim men assassinated Malcolm X in Harlem, and, that summer, the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded with racial violence. (39)


Between 1965 and 1968, racial tension in the United States spiked. In the mid and late 1960s, the government increasingly called upon many young black men to fight the Vietnam War, and those not drafted struggled to find employment. (40) This and many other factors spurned the birth of Black Power, which advocated separation along racial lines. By 1968, Black Power had reached its pinnacle, and unrest among many black people appeared especially intense. Moreover, the April 4, 1968, murder of King further unsettled many black communities. In the neighborhoods of Harlem, which sit adjacent to Columbia University, people poured into the streets, rioting and grieving the murder of their leader. (41) Many black citizens blamed the prejudice and discrimination of white America for these incidents. The black people, who lived next to the Ivy League school in Manhattan, saw the institution as a representative of white oppression, and the university subsequently became a target of their frustration.

Using this frustration as fuel, the black community members would eventually lash out at the multimillion-dollar gymnasium that Columbia planned to build in Morningside Park. The fact that Columbia, in order to compete with other Ivy League universities, needed to build a new gymnasium brought the school into direct confrontation with residents of Harlem, who also wanted to enjoy the recreational space that the park provided. (42) To deal with this, Columbia, under pressure from city officials, offered to allow non-university affiliates use of two of the ten floors of the structure the school would build. (43) When the plan was submitted in 1958, there was little controversy involved because of the relatively mild political climate and because the school had not brought the idea to the community. (44)

By 1967, the political and social atmosphere of Harlem and the rest of the nation had changed a great deal, and because of this, the idea of a predominantly white private institution building a structure in a public, predominately black, community park, did not go over so well. Part of this rising controversy had to do with the fact that Columbia, although making provision to allow city residents use of the facility, had misrepresented the amount of space that would be allotted for community use. Instead of the 20% of the structure that many residents expected to have available (Columbia had previously set aside two often floors), the facility really only offered 12.5 percent of the space for the community. (45) Making matters worse was the fact that the community part of the structure had an entirely different entrance than university affiliates would use. Reminiscent of the days of legalized public segregation, this prompted some city officials, residents of Harlem and Morningside Heights, and students to refer to the university's proposed recreational facility as "Gym Crow." (46)

At this point opposition to the gymnasium grew steadily. (47) A part of the opposing contingent was Black Power activist H. Rap Brown, who, at one point, headed up SNCC, the organization that took the lead in the Black Power movement. In 1967, Rap Brown, at a Harlem community rally against the gym, offered some advice to residents concerning university builders and the gym. He said: "If they build the first story, blow it up. If they sneak back at night and build three stories, burn it down. And if they get nine stories built, it's yours. Take it over, and maybe we'll let them in on the weekends." (48) Although Rap Brown used references to explosions and burning as rhetoric, it would not have been difficult for Columbia officials to recall riots that took place in Harlem in which several white-owned businesses were burned and destroyed. (49) In this way, the potential for the destruction of the gymnasium, if built against the will of the community, became very real for the university.


Starting in the late 1960s, emissaries from SAS had been attending local meetings to find out the issues that affected the neighboring black community. (50) While at these local gatherings, the members of SAS learned of the gym controversy and decided to take on the community's protest as their own. SAS saw the proposed gym in the park as a symbol of racism and as a struggle for control over land in the adjacent neighborhoods. (51) Because of the school's proximity to a black community, the nearly one hundred black students at Columbia who made up SAS could readily become activists for the Black Freedom struggle.

One observer of SAS believed that the black group had ulterior motives in taking up the protest against the gym. The observer claimed that the role of SAS in the 1968 controversy "was to dramatize the unresponsiveness of the University primarily to them," and not necessarily that toward the community of Harlem. (52) To be sure, like many black student groups across the nation, when Columbia's SAS started in 1964, it did strive to create an identity for itself. (53) To do so, it protested for an increased number of black students and faculty, as well as changes to the university's curriculum. The idea, however, that the group took on the gym to bring attention to itself was unfounded. Furthermore, in the view of the black students, they struggled for more than their own advancement. Their larger concern was for the interests of their race, because of the commonality of their race, the students and community members shared a bond in their battle. (54)

By 1968, another campus group, SDS, had taken on the gymnasium as a protest issue. (55) As a chapter of the nationwide organization, Columbia's SDS, led by Mark Rudd, a junior from New Jersey, had previously demonstrated against the presence of an ROTC program on campus, the arrival of CIA recruiters, as well as Columbia's ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). (56) IDA was a consortium of higher level universities that received funding from the government to research war weaponry and strategy. These issues, SDS believed, brought the university into a direct relationship with the controversial war in Vietnam. While the radical group might have been correct in its assessment of the university's relationship with the war effort, until 1968, none of the organization's protest efforts had stirred the mostly apathetic student body on Columbia's campus to social action. Because of this, SDS needed an issue that directly affected the students on campus. (57) That issue became the gymnasium in the park.

SDS's timing in inserting the gym as an issue on its protest platform was impeccable. The April 4, 1968, death of King and the riots that occurred afterward weighed heavily on the hearts of a great many Americans and more than a few college students. Taking advantage of this situation, at a memorial for King, SDS leader Rudd pointed to the university as a racist institution for attempting to honor the fallen civil rights activist and at the same time continuing with its plans to build the gym in the park. (58) This was a view that SDS and SAS shared.

Although the two groups had never worked together before, SDS and SAS would come together during a campus protest on April 23, 1968. SAS members such as Raymond Brown and Cicero Wilson, both undergraduates, and William Sales, a graduate student, watched and listened at the sundial in the middle of campus as members of SDS denounced the university and its implicit relationship to the war as well as the university's poor treatment of its black neighbors. (59) From the start, the black group made clear what its role in the protest would be. After gaining the attention of the growing crowd of mostly white students, SAS leader Cicero Wilson explained that "this is Harlem Heights, not Morningside Heights," implying that Columbia University was part of a mostly black residential area and that the residents in that area had just as many rights as the university to make decisions that would affect their homes and community. (60) He continued by asking the mostly white crowd what it would do if somebody tried to commandeer its property. (61)

While at the sundial, Rudd suggested that the crowd stage an indoor protest in Seth Low Library, the university administration building. When that effort was blocked, Rudd urged the crowd to take the protest to the construction site of the gymnasium. After an altercation between the protesters and the police took place there, Rudd, at the encouragement of another SDS leader, led the crowd back to campus. (62) It was apparent that SDS's leadership did not have a clear plan as to how the protesters would implement their demonstration. Consequently, the members of SAS had grown frustrated with the back and forth decision making that SDS used. (63) In a reactionary moment, SAS's leadership further clarified its role. Venting its frustration, Wilson intimated that his group intended to take over the demonstration: "SDS can stand on the side and support us ... but the black students and the Harlem community will be the ones in the vanguard." (64)

Rudd, who had just been upstaged, asked Wilson what his proposals were. (65) Wilson responded that SAS had not "proposed" to do anything but to keep the university from building the gymnasium. (66) Furthermore, he stated, the idea that proposals were necessary for the protest inferred that white leaders wanted to decide which path black people should take to end construction on the gym, and that would be unacceptable.

In 1966, that very same sentiment amongst the white leadership of SNCC struck a militant cord amongst many black participants, who, until that point, had been willing to share the leadership of the organization. (67) The result of that controversy culminated in the group's purging itself of white membership and calling for Black Power. Wilson's statements about taking the vanguard and allowing the community to decide for itself what was best were very much in line with the tenets of Black Power, which advocated that blacks take the leadership in matters that would primarily affect them and their communities. At that point, it became clear to all the protesters that SAS's main concern was with the gymnasium and the university's mistreatment of the adjacent neighborhoods.

Wilson's statements took Rudd and many of the white protesters by surprise because they believed that blacks and whites would attack Columbia together as an integrated front. (68) In turn, SAS members began to wonder if SDS was using them to enhance its ideological "revolution." (69) Taken aback by Wilson's inferences, Rudd maintained that SDS was indeed serious about helping to end racism, but that its style of leadership was just different. He exclaimed that it was not indecisiveness that led the protesters back and forth; instead, it was the radical group's adherence to participatory democracy, a leadership style that allowed the members of a group to have as much decision making power as the leader(s). (70)

This particular style was markedly different from the styles and strategies that Black Power groups employed. By the late 1960s, members of Black Power organizations like SNCC, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Black Panthers, as well as predominantly black groups in general, tended to elect their leadership. After the leaders took their offices, the leaders would develop plans with the people who elected them in mind. These group leaders even asked for contributions from the various memberships; however, once the leadership solidified its plans, then the groups typically adhered to the plan. (71) Furthermore, discipline was extremely essential to the operation of Black Power and black organizations, and this trait was not wasted on the members of SAS, who urged the white leadership of SDS to practice more of it.

One of the comments that university officials frequently made about the black student protesters concerned SAS's strict discipline and determination to carry out goals. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the fact that many of the members of SAS participated in civil rights organizations as well as black Greek-letter organizations even before the protest. (72) Concerning the white radical group, some school officials claimed they had absolutely no respect for the SDS led protesters, who often destroyed school property, participated in violence, or refused to discuss the demands that the radical group had set. (73)

As far as the current protest was concerned, SAS leadership, seeing the potential effectiveness of a black-white coalition decided to go along with SDS a little while longer. (74) Although the philosophy of Black Power advised black groups against making coalitions with radical white groups, the philosophy clarified that it was not advisable to do so if the black group is less powerful than the white. (75) In this case, it was very probable that at the time the members and leadership of SAS believed that, with the backing of the Harlem community and various other city officials, SAS had at least as much power as the SDS led white protesters.

After reassessing the situation, Rudd and SDS led the expanding group of 400 protesters into Hamilton Hall, a classroom building. There, the army of demonstrators surrounded a dean's office, in essence forcing the dean to remain there. (76) What happened afterward, really pointed up the influence that Black Power had on the leadership of SAS. While the racially mixed group had entered the building as one, that situation soon changed. SAS and SDS disagreed over which tactics to take in securing the building. SDS's leadership wanted to hold a sit-in, allowing people to come in and out of the building. Conversely, SAS leadership wanted to barricade the doors and not allow anybody in or out of the building. (77) At the time, SAS's strategy of barricading the building and disallowing traffic was fairly new to campus protest; furthermore, it was a significantly more militant stance than was the sit-in.

The matter was settled late into the night when Black Power leader H. Rap Brown arrived with a Harlem contingent. To the group of onlooking white demonstrators he stated: "I'd like to tell you that the Harlem community is now here and we want to thank you for taking the first steps in this struggle." Moreover, he asserted, "the black community is taking over." (78) After some befuddlement, and some encouragement from the black leadership, SDS left Hamilton and eventually entered four more campus buildings. (79) SAS and Rap Brown had made the point; in this situation Black Power would prevail and the black protesters would not confuse the community issues with those of the radical white group.

While SDS leadership had placed the gymnasium at the top of its list of protest demands, there were several more items on the list that could have clouded the issue. Some of those items included amnesty for the current protesters and protesters involved in previous demonstrations; the creation of a tripartite disciplinary board that allowed students, faculty members, and administrators to make decisions involving students; and finally, SDS demanded that the school cut ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis.

Granted, these demands were extremely valid and important, but as SAS leadership realized, those were not demands directly related to the neighboring black community and the way that Columbia was using its power to take advantage of black people. To focus the attention on the issues of the community, the members of SAS believed that only they and their invited guests should occupy Hamilton Hall. With that in mind, SAS released the dean from his office and bid SDS farewell. (80)

For the next week, SAS maintained it own separate protest in Hamilton as the ousted white demonstrators took over four other buildings. While in Hamilton, the members of SAS enjoyed the support and assistance from Harlem well-wishers. At the onset of the protest, SAS sent emissaries to Harlem to inform the community of the protest and to ask for food and monetary donations. From patrons in local clubs and restaurants, the black group, within hours, received more than $100 in donations. (81) Throughout the week, families from the community dropped off food donations at Hamilton Hall. While standing outside of Hamilton Hall on the rainy second night of the students' occupation, one mother from Harlem explained that "rain or no rain, I don't care. We must support these young people. They went out on a limb for us.... I for one am coming back and bringing them hot, nourishing food." (82)

Furthering the cause, black politicians, activists, and high school students came to join SAS's efforts. Politicians such as Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton appealed to then Mayor John Lindsay and school officials to end construction on the gymnasium. (83) Members of black militant organizations from Harlem such as the Mau Maus and the United Black Front also arrived on campus to protest the gym with the black students. (84) Activists like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael used their fame to help the black student demonstrators. Although SAS leadership would not allow the two activists to make decisions on behalf of the student group, Rap Brown and Carmichael assisted by relaying the demands and messages of the group to the media when the press imposed a "black out" on the students in Hamilton Hall. When speaking to the press, the activists declared their support for the group inside. "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," explained Carmichael. (85) At one point during the week, black high school students with bats, clubs, and sticks marched onto campus to help SAS in its protest. Although the members of SAS had to tell the high school students to "cool it," the student group appreciated the generosity of the community. Other community members offered moral support.

The Harlem community enveloped the black student protesters with support. As one Harlem resident, the Reverend Sam, thought about the actions of the black students, he commented that when SAS commandeered Hamilton Hall, it was like "the invasion of the ivory tower." (86) Similarly, letters and articles in the black newspaper, the New Amsterdam News, expressed pride in the maturity and determination of the black student protesters. (87) Highlighting the support of the community, one New Amsterdam News headline read: "Harlem Backs Columbia Sit-in." (88)

This particular protest over the gymnasium was able to do what few protests in the history of black America could effectively do. It brought together black people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and black people who fell on opposite sides of the political spectrum to accomplish one goal. As the politically moderate black senator, Basil Paterson, admitted, he "would stand with anyone [including the likes of H. Rap Brown] against the racist gym." (89) This was remarkable, and it displayed the quintessence of Black Power.

For centuries, white people had practiced and maintained "white power" by crossing lines of class and coming together along racial lines. After Nathaniel Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, white people were able to ally themselves along racial lines to assert their place in society. (90) The same occurred when the Ku Klux Klan mustered members from the ranks of both politicians and sharecroppers to deal with blacks during Reconstruction and even into the twentieth century. (91) This carried on during the Jim Crow era, and even into modem politics, when presidential candidates like Richard Nixon used his "southern strategy" to stabilize a white southern constituency at the expense of black progress. (92)

With the gym protest that SAS maintained, black people coalesced in much the same way, and the effects were crippling for the university. On April 25, the pressure of the black protesters forced school officials to suspend construction on the gymnasium indefinitely. When school officials, in an effort to end the ever-growing demonstration of student power, brought 1,000 police officers onto campus, the protest turned sour. At this point, black students saw the university acquiescing to SAS's demand for the end of gym construction, so the black group decided to leave the building non-violently and without incident. In fact, several black lawyers were present to ensure that the mostly white police force did not mistreat the students as the students were being arrested. (93)

Meanwhile, the mostly white student protesters, who had left Hamilton and taken over four other campus buildings, met with danger. For the SDS led demonstrators in those buildings, the situation was not the same as it was for the black students in Hamilton. In the newly occupied buildings, violence erupted between students and police officers, who in an effort to clear the buildings, used their batons to beat male and female students. By the morning of April 30, some 700 students had been arrested and countless more had been traumatized by the violence. The result of the incident was a six-week student strike that shut the university down. (94)


Columbia University witnessed a tremendous show of power during the spring protest of 1968. It saw determined students who believed in their demands regarding student power and an end to school ties to the Vietnam War. It also observed concerned black students who would not allow a white institution to take advantage of black people. These children of the black bourgeoisie sacrificed their class stability to advance the cause of their race. In this rare case, members of SAS, by taking on the gym in Morningside Park as an issue, brought together community residents, local black politicians, and militant black activists for a single purpose. Together, the group of anti-gym activists exercised the essence of Black Power.

The members of SAS, using what they had learned from the growing Black Freedom movement, advanced the movement by employing Black Student Power. For this protest, that meant separating from white protesters to allow black people to define the goals and strategies of black people, as well as taking over buildings to disturb university operations and to draw attention to a particular issue. Subsequently, these would be tactics that protesting black students would use at other Ivy League schools in the North. (95) In the end, the group achieved its goal of halting the gym's construction, and SAS won respect for the neighboring black community. Because of these black students' efforts, Columbia, although still powerful and rich in land holdings, could never approach Harlem in the way it did before the protest in 1968.

In a larger sense, the protest marked a tangible victory for the national Black Freedom movement. The Columbia Rebellion taught American universities and institutions that black people would use their collective power to protect what black people perceived as "their" space. The battle to end "Gym Crow" showed that, in spite of their class differences, black people would actively confront institutional racism and they would look to their race as a form of empowerment. In the end, Columbia never built the gym in Morningside Park, but there are those who still remember when Black Power "invaded the ivory tower." (96)

(1) Stefan Bradley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

(2) E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1970), 193-194.

(3) For an interesting discussion regarding the second generation of the black bourgeoisie, see Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984), 272-273.

(4) Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Books, 1967, 1992), 34-39.

(5) Ibid.

(6) For discussion on the topic of black student activism in America, please see The Journal of African American History, vol. 88, no. 2, spring 2003.

(7) Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

(8) William Van Deburg, A New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 64-81.

(9) Harry Edwards, Black Students (New York: Free Press, 1970).

(10) Harry Edwards, Revolt of the Black Athlete (New York: Free Press, 1970).

(11) Joy Ann Williamson, Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965-1975 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 1.

(12) William Exum, Paradoxes of Protest: Black Student Activism in a White University (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985).

(13) Richard P. McCormick, The Black Student Protest Movement at Rutgers (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

(14) Wayne Glasker, Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania, 1967-1990 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002).

(15) Werner Sollors, Caldwell Titcomb, and Thomas Underwood, eds., Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

(16) Donald Downs, Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

(17) Jerry Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall: A History of the Columbia Crisis, (New York: Atheneum, 1968).

(18) Roger Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights: Why Students Rebel (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1970).

(19) Robert S. Liebert, Radical and Militant Youth: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry (New York: Praeger Press, 1971).

(20) Joanne Grant, Confrontation on Campus: The Columbia Pattern for the New Protest (New York: Signet Books, 1969), 111.

(21) Frederic Law Olmsted, Jr. and Theodore Kimball, Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1822-1903 (New York: GP Putnams, 1922); SB Sutton, Civilizing American Cities, A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted's Writing on City Landscapes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971).

(22) George Nash, The University and the City: Eight Cases of Involvement, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973), 95.

(23) For a discussion of the rise and results of the Great Migration and Harlem, see Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963), 15-34.

(24) Nash, The University and the City, 97.

(25) Ibid.

(26) David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness and The Making of the American Working Class (New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1991), 14 and 19; Roediger, Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

(27) Daniel Bell and Irvin Kristol, eds., Confrontation: The Student Rebellion and the Universities (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 110.

(28) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 82-83.

(29) The Worker (New York), 17 May 1968.

(30) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 86.

(31) Douglas Davidove, Assadour Tavitian, Teymour Darkhosh, and Michael Stama te Latos, "What do the Tenants of the Occupied Buildings Say?" 17 May 1968, Columbiana Collection, Columbia University, New York.

(32) Liebert, Radical and Militant Youth, 36.

(33) Crisis At Columbia: Report of the Fact-Finding Commission Appointed to Investigate the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May 1968 (New York: Random House 1968), 39. Hereafter Cox Commission Report, Crisis at Columbia.

(34) Roger Starr, "The Case of the Columbia Gym," The Public Interest, 107; Peter Millones, "Gym Controversy Began in Late 50's," New York Times, 25 April 1968, 50.

(35) Partners in the Park (New York), March 1968, Columbiana Collection, Columbia University, New York.

(36) Dwight C. Smith, "Letter to the Editor," New York Times, 20 May 1966, 46.

(37) John Salmond, "My Mind Set on Freedom": A History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997), 81-84.

(38) Kerner Report: Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York, 1968), 206.

(39) For a complete discussion on Watts riots, see Jerry Cohen and William Murphy, Burn, Baby, Burn: The Watts Riot (New York: Avon Books, 1966).

(40) Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), xiii.

(41) Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 192.

(42) Columbia Gymnasium Committee, "The New Columbia Gymnasium," Columbiana Collection of Columbia University, New York.

(43) Bell and Kristol, eds., Confrontation, 118.

(44) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 92.

(45) Starr, The Public Interest, 114-116.

(46) Ibid., 118.

(47) Opposition to the gym included then Democratic Mayor John Lindsay, Parks Commissioner Thomas Hoving, Senator Basil Paterson, Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and numerous community environmental and civic groups. "Politicians Would Prevent Construction in Morningside Park," New York Times, 17 May 1966, 49; Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 94; "M.M. Graff to the Editor of the New York Times," 25 April 1968, Collins Collection of the Archives, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York; Sara Slack, "Columbia Students In Siege," Amsterdam News, 27 April 1968, 37.

(48) Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 20.

(49) Kerner Report, 35; 206.

(50) William Sales, interview by author, 25 March 1999, telephone interview, Columbia, Missouri.

(51) Stephen Donadio, "Columbia: Seven Interviews," Partisan Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (1968) p. 376.

(52) Cox Commission Report, Crisis at Columbia, 17.

(53) "Black and Latin at Columbia," Barnard College Archives, Barnard College, New York.

(54) Sales interview

(55) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 108.

(56) Cox Commission Report, Crisis at Columbia, 63-69.

(57) Alan Adelson, SDS: A Profile (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1972), 7.

(58) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 108.

(59) Ronald Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (New York: Patheon Books, 1988), 171-172.

(60) Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 40-41.

(61) Ibid.

(62) Grant, Confrontation on Campus, 45.

(63) Sales Interview.

(64) Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 47.

(65) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 126.

(66) Avom, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 47.

(67) James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1972), 497-504; Carson, In Struggle, 191-214. William Van Deburg, ed., Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 123-124.

(68) Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 47.

(69) Twenty years after the 1968 rebellion, Rudd recalled that he had actually "bought into the fantasy of a revolution." Keith Moore, "Only Make-Believe Says Student Rebel," New York Daily News, 22 April 1988, 1. SAS leader Ray Brown claimed that from the start of the protest, the members of SAS had no pretenses about a revolution, instead they were fighting to stop the construction of a gymnasium. Raymond Brown, interview by author, 24 November 1999, telephone interview, Columbia, Missouri.

(70) Adelson, SDS, 207.

(71) For a thorough discussion of SNCC's leadership, see Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 411-444.

(72) Raymond Brown Interview.

(73) David Truman, interview by John Wooter, 4 October 1968, Oral History Collection, Columbia University, New York, NY.

(74) Sales interview.

(75) Ture and Hamilton, Black Power, 59-84.

(76) Grant, Confrontation on Campus, 46.

(77) Raymond Brown interview.

(78) Grant, Confrontation on Campus, 58.

(79) Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 187-189.

(80) Raymond Brown interview.

(81) Columbia Revolt, produced and directed by the students of Columbia University, 60 min., Third World Newsreel, 1968, video cassette.

(82) Allon Schoener, ed., Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 (New York: Random House, 1968), 238.

(83) Avorn, Up Against the Ivy Wall, 182-183.

(84) David Bird, "300 Protesting Columbia Students Barricade Office of College Dean," New York Times (New York) 24 April 1968, 1; 30.

(85) Columbia Daily Spectator (New York) 27 April 1968, 1.

(86) Reverend Samuel N. Brown, interview by author, 22 November 1997, New York, hand-written notes, the "Pan Pan" restaurant, Harlem, New York.

(87) Amsterdam News, 11 May 1968, 18.

(88) Ibid., 4 May 1968, 1.

(89) Kahn, The Battle for Morningside Heights, 96.

(90) Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), 266-267.

(91) Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 52-53.

(92) Kenneth O'Reilly, Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 6-8, 279-329.

(93) Grant, Confrontation on Campus, 93.

(94) "Six Weeks that Shook Morningside: A Special Report," Columbia College Today, spring 1968, 65-66.

(95) See Sollors, Titcomb, and Underwood, eds., Blacks At Harvard; Lawrence Eichel, The Harvard Strike (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1970); Downs, Cornell '69; Glasker, Black Students in the Ivory Tower.

(96) Reverend Sam interview.

Stefan Bradley (1)
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