"Gym Crow Must Go!" Black Student Activism at Columbia University, 1967-1968

Article excerpt

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. (1)

H. Rap Brown, 1967

When Americans remember black student activism of the late 1960s, images of gun-toting, bandolier-clad student protesters at Cornell University in 1969 come to mind. (2) While the protesters at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, may be the first to come to mind, black student activism took place earlier at another Ivy League school: Columbia University in the City of New York. There, members of the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) fought on behalf of the Harlem community to keep Columbia University from building a gymnasium in Morningside Park, which represented the only land barrier between Columbia and the mostly black, working-class enclave of Harlem. (3)

Columbia's gymnasium in the park became a symbolic issue for the black students and community demonstrators during the 1968 protest. The ultimate goals of the students were to improve the relationship of Columbia with its Harlem neighbors and for the black residents to gain power by controlling the neighborhoods that surrounded their homes. (4) However, the students were initially interested in exercising Black Student Power to keep the gym from being built in Morningside Park. In the late 1960s, Black Student Power represented the choice of black students at predominantly white universities to use the philosophies of Black Power to achieve specific goals. At colleges across the nation, Black Student Power was achieved by using tactics such as sit-ins, strikes, and marches. (5)

This essay will examine two related issues. First, it will provide a detailed analysis of the role of black student protesters at Columbia in 1968. Second, it will show how the politics of the period (specifically Black Power) affected the protest strategies of SAS on Columbia's campus, as well as how the tactics of SAS affected the protest launched by the larger, mostly white radical group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The efforts of SAS, in conjunction with those of SDS, led to the week-long occupation of campus buildings, the six-week closure of Columbia University, and the university's decision not to build its gymnasium in Morningside Park. As a result of the protests, Columbia had to reconsider its expansion policies as well as its approach to the black residents of Harlem.

Several books have been written about black student activism in northern, predominantly white universities. Some of those include Richard McCormick's volume on the protests that took place at Rutgers University in New Jersey; Donald Downs's account of the black student protesters at Cornell in 1969; and Werner Sollors, Caldwell Titcomb, and Thomas Underwood's discussion of black student life and activity at Harvard. (6) Most recently, Wayne Glasker described black student protest at the University of Pennsylvania between 1967 and 1990. (7) All these protests shared a common theme: the appeal to and use of Black Power educational philosophies. (8) The demand for the inclusion of Black Studies programs at these universities typically became a protest goal. That demand is what makes the efforts of the black students at Columbia in 1968 stand out from other protests. Columbia's proximity to Harlem allowed SAS to focus on an issue that directly affected the surrounding black community.

With regard to Columbia University, there have been several studies of the 1968 protests. None of these have focused specifically on the actions of the black student activists and how race affected the protests that caught the attention of the nation. Authors such as Roger Kahn, Jerry Avorn, and James Kunen attributed the protest to the emergence of the New Left and the rise of the antiwar movement. (9) Others, like Joanne Grant, claimed that the protests that took place in 1968 concerned the students' push to transform Columbia into "a moral force in society. …