A Review of Stefan Bradley's `Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s'

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

In the epilogue of his great new book on the historic 1968 student revolt at Columbia University , "Harlem vs. Columbia University", which “attempts to draw out some of the important factors that contributed to the 1968-69 uprisings,” 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 at a 2008 commemoration event held on Columbia’s campus to mark the 40th anniversary of the student revolt. A Harlem Tenants Council activist denounced the Columbia’s current 17-acre campus expansion project in the neighborhood north of West 125th St. and passed out a flyer in which the Coalition to Preserve Community group of community residents vowed to stand against Columbia ’s “ West Harlem eviction plan.”

Professor Bradley also observes that over 40 years after the student revolt, some of the black students who participated in the non-violent student occupation of Hamilton Hall in April 1968, “bristle at the image of the Columbia demonstration that media sources often invoke” and “are dismayed at the representation of the rebellion as one where raucous white youth defied their parents and authority by taking over buildings…”

A key reason why the white students at Columbia and Barnard who were active in its Students for a Democratic Society [SDS) chapter were able to mobilize large numbers of white students to help shut down Columbia a few weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination was because a political alliance developed between Columbia SDS and the black students who were most active in the Student Afro-American Society [SAS] campus group. So a book like Professor Bradley’s book, which focuses more on the role that the black students who occupied Hamilton Hall played in the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt than on the role of Mark Rudd and the white student demonstrators, is long overdue.

By examining the 1968 confrontation between the Harlem community (and its student supporters at Columbia) 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 of the book examines the historic role students played in attempting to change Columbia’s institutional policies.

The first part of "Harlem vs. Columbia University" 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;” and, during the 1960s, 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 construct 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 before, W.E.B. DuBois had also written 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 and the local African-American press, 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 before April 1968. 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 U.S. 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. Bradley also provides a good description of what happened inside Hamilton Hall, after the white student demonstrators were told to leave Hamilton Hall and explains the political and strategic rationale of SAS leaders for their decision to separate themselves from their white student allies.

Bradley goes on to indicate the supportive role of SDS and its objective of increasing white student support for the Black Liberation Movement at Columbia and 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 write a detailed historical summary about black student activism on Columbia’s campus during the 1968-69 academic year. He also provides a concise summary of black student protests at Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell (that received less mass media publicity than did the 1968 Columbia student protests) which reveals to readers that Columbia University 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 a collection of rare photographs of some of the black participants in the 1968 Columbia uprising and the excavated gymnasium construction site in Morningside Park that weren’t included in most previously-published books about the student revolt. But there are also a few omissions or inaccuracies in the book. For example, it inaccurately states that Mark Rudd “decided not to return to school” in the Fall of 1969, 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 does a much better job than previously published books about the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt of-- from a deeper anti-racist perspective-- highlighting the relationship of the late 1960s Black Power Movement, the history of the Harlem community, the Black radical left and left nationalist intelligentsia and the role of Black students and Harlem community activists to what happened at Columbia in 1968 and 1969 and the current position of African-Americans in the Ivy League academic world. So if you’re interested in the history of 1960s movements, Harlem and Columbia University or if you’re a 21st-century opponent of institutional racism at Columbia University and at other Ivy League universities, "Harlem vs. Columbia University" should be considered required reading.