Columbia University protests and the lessons of ‘Gym Crow’

Columbia University protests and the lessons of ‘Gym Crow’

Judd Legum writes:

In the early morning hours of April 30, 1968, then-Columbia University President Grayson Kirk summoned the NYPD to arrest hundreds of student protestors. About 1,000 police officers arrived on campus and, wielding nightsticks, violently arrested about 700 students. Almost 150 protesters ended up in the hospital with lacerations, a few broken bones, and other injuries.

The student protesters had occupied several university buildings, forcing the school to suspend classes, in protest of Columbia’s plans to build a large gymnasium in Morningside Park, a public park used by the Black community in Harlem. Columbia was planning to build the gym on public land, but 88% of the facility would be limited to staff and students. Only 12% of the gym would be available to community residents, and they would be forced to use a separate entrance at the bottom of the facility. Protesters called the proposal “Gym Crow.”

Others involved in the protest, which occurred against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, objected to Columbia’s involvement with the Institute for Defense Analyses, an organization that conducted “weapons evaluation and other research for the Department of Defense.”

Columbia was goaded into action by the political right. In a column, National Review founder William F. Buckley chided Columbia for having an “authority gap.” Buckley claimed that the protests were not about the gym. (Forcing “Negros” to use a separate entrance to the gym was not evidence of “race prejudice,” Buckley argued.) Rather, the protests were simply a result of “children… looking for an opportunity to rebel.” Buckley urged Kirk to call the police on his own students.

While Buckley’s view prevailed on April 30, over the years, Columbia came to embrace the protests — and political activism — as an important part of its legacy. In the aftermath of the police raid, the university sided with the protestors, “canceling the gym and severing ties with a weapons-research institute affiliated with the Defense Department.” Kirk resigned as president within a year. [Continue reading…]

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