During the 1960’s, New York city was the scene of an incredibly powerful anti-war and student movement. Like Occupy Wall Street, this movement was often attacked for being unrepresentative of the city’s working class.
In reality, this movement was far more diverse in class and race than critics at the time, or historians, realized. As both a participant in this movement, and a historian trying to make sense of it, I want to give a sense of how important the working class component of the anti-war and student movements in New York City were in the 1960’s and early 70’s.
In doing so, I will present some rarely discussed features of the Columbia Strike, the most publicized of student movements during the period, as well as the struggle for Open Admissions in the City University, anti-war activism in the city’s high schools, and neighborhood organizing projects spawned by SDS, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party
The Columbia Strike, a building occupation which lasted seven days, has often been held up as an prototypical example of elite leadership of the student movement and the anti-war movement. This is not entirely wrong. The vast majority of the leadership and membership of Columbia SDS, along with the majority of the white students who occupied four of the five buildings, were from middle class and upper middle class families.
The vast majority of the leadership and membership of Columbia SDS, along with the majority of the white students who occupied four of the five buildings, were from middle class and upper middle class families.
However, the Black students who occupied Hamilton Hall, without whose leadership and militancy the “occupation” strategy would have never been introduced, were far more diverse in class origins than SDS members. Many of the students occupying Hamilton Hall, including my own girlfriend at the time, came from working class and lower middle class families—products of a new admissions policy which Columbia had introduced beginning in 1966 that multiplied the number of black students at the school more than sixfold.
In addition, leaders from Harlem organizations were regular participants in the Hamilton Hall occupation, giving the entire movement space to operate because Columbia administrators were afraid they might cause rioting in Harlem, leading to attacks on the university, if they used police action to pull Hamilton Hall occupants out.
In addition, high school students from Harlem and the Upper West Wide played a major role in the strike when they marched, 500 strong, on to the Columbia campus to break through a blockade of the buildings that conservative athletes had set up to try to “starve out” protesters. Without a highly politicized Harlem community, and strong student movements in largely working class New York City high schools, both of whom mobilized in support of Black student occupiers and the movement as a whole, the Columbia strike would have likely ended in one or two days, and would not have won its most important victory—the prevention of the construction of a private gymnasium for Columbia students in a Morningside Park, a public park adjoining the campus.
But though the Columbia strike was the most publicized student movement in that era—not only in New York City, but the nation—in terms of material consequences, it was far surpassed by an entirely working class movement—the struggle for open admissions in the City University of New York. In 1969, Black and Latino students at City College initiated a strike, and blockaded the school, to demand that the overwhelming white 4-year colleges of CUNY open their doors to students of color who had become the majority in the city’s high schools.
This fierce battle, supported by SDS chapters around the city won an incredible victory. The City University Board voted to radically change admissions standards for its 4-year colleges and initiate a broad-based remediation program to accommodate the new students.
The results were astonishing. Within one year, the number of freshmen attending CUNY 4-year colleges rose from 20,000 to 35,000 and the number of students of color tripled. This was arguably the greatest single victory won by the student movement in New York City during the entire period, and was organized and led by students from working class backgrounds.
Where did these students come from? How were they politicized? Here we have to look at the impact of Black students organizations founded in the city’s high schools and colleges, as well as the impact of community organizing and political education carried on by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.
When the Black Power slogan was launched by Stokely Carmichael of SNCC, it captured the imagination of Black students around the nation. The idea that Black people had to create separate organizations to achieve true self-determination touched a particular chord with Black students at predominantly white institutions and led to the formation of Black student unions on every City University campus and at private colleges like Columbia, NYU and Fordham.
The college Black student unions, in turn, reached out to black students at public high schools to form student organizations of their own, a process which was often resisted by recalcitrant administrators, and to demand that black history be taught as part of the curriculum. The result was considerable political turmoil at the city high schools around issues of race and representation, a tension only increased by the 1968 teachers strike which pitted community groups in Black and Latino neighborhoods seeking local control of all aspects of school management against a teachers union determined to have hiring and firing of teachers immune to local pressures.
These students were also exposed almost daily, in their neighborhoods, and outside their schools to representatives of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. Men in black suits and bow ties selling Muhammed Speaks were a fixture of life in the city’s black neighborhoods, as well as neighborhoods near schools and colleges (we had our salesman at Columbia everyday).
By 1969, men and women selling the Black Panther Party newspaper were almost as visible. High school students of color purchased and read these newspapers, giving them an exposure to a critical view of American society which was a reinforced by neighborhood and school newspapers sold and distributed on the streets by white radical students and activists.
This student activism was supplemented by community organizing, some of it around the war, some of it around issues of health care and labor rights. In the fall of 1969, some activists in a now splintered SDS decided to launch organizing projects in working class neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens while the Black Panthers and Young Lords joined initiated a remarkable campaign to improve health care and empower staff members and patients at the notoriously badly run and dangerous Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx.
Some activists in a now splintered SDS decided to launch organizing projects in working class neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens while the Black Panthers and Young Lords joined
As a participant in one of these initiatives—the Bronx Coalition—I saw how deeply student and community activism had become embedded into what was then a largely white, but rapidly becoming multiracial section of the Bronx. I was the only “Columbia” person in the group, which consisted of faculty in the Seek Programs (the new remediation initiative in CUNY) of Lehman and City colleges, nurses, teachers and postal workers, students from Lehman, Clinton, Taft, and Roosevelt High Schools as well as Bronx High School of Science, and students from SDS chapters at Lehman, Bronx Community, Fordham and NYU.
We participated in anti-war marches and demonstrations in support of imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, but we also organized support for striking postal workers, did draft counseling for neighborhood youth, and ran a storefront women’s health clinic that eventually evolved into the first abortion clinic at a New York City Hospital (Montefiore). We promoted all our activities through a community newspaper, The Cross Bronx Express, which we sold on the streets and outside schools for anywhere from a penny to 25 cents, usually selling out a print run of more than 3,000 papers.
We also held street rallies and concerts, picketed the local armed forces recruiting station and tried to take our message to the youth by playing basketball in schoolyards and parks. The abortion clinic was our most lasting achievement, along with the collective accomplishment of helping to end the war, but during the two years we were together, we gave a voice to a working class people who were often left out of public discourse, and whose role in building sixties protest movements has often been overlooked.
One powerful example of the working class participation in the movement to end the war took place after the invasion of Cambodia. Not only did every university in the borough go on strike, but 5000 high school students, including those from Clinton and Roosevelt, marched out of school and commandeered buses and subway trains to express their outrage at this expansion of the war.
I hope this brief overview will be helpful to Occupy Wall Street as it begins to embed itself in working class communities and to take up issues that are central to those communities economic and social health. Certainly, the greatest victory of that period—the struggle for open admissions at City University—holds numerous lessons for current activists, but so does the role of the Harlem community and high school students in defending, protecting and extending the Columbia strike. Now as then, involvement of the working class is key to endowing justice movements with the energy, power, and moral stature required to extract concessions from the powerful
With A Brooklyn Accent