"This Is Harlem Heights": Black Student Power and the 1968 Columbia University Rebellion

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

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. …