By: M. ALEXIS SCOTT
May 08, 2008
Last month I received recognition for being a part of the Students
Afro American Society in 1968 at Columbia University. All of the
members who returned received a certificate, Mine read "Service as a
true Race Woman"
At the time, I was in my second year at Barnard College, the women's
undergraduate school at Columbia in New York City. Issues of race and
war are the primary reasons that led to the takeover of five
buildings on campus by students in 1968.
And last week I returned for the "Columbia 1968 + 40" reunion. The
reunion was billed as "War, race, activism and the university - An
intergenerational dialogue." I was one of about 40 Black former
students who participated in the three-day commemoration, reflection
and performance art piece featuring some 300-plus former students.
The most eerie part of the weekend was that I departed feeling like
the more things had changed since 1968, the more they remain the
same. We are a nation at war, racism threatens to derail the
presidential bid of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, and the university is
once again embroiled in a controversy about appropriating land for
its use from its Harlem neighbors. Once again, these are the primary
issues that led to the student takeover 40 years ago.
On a personal level, it was exhilarating to see schoolmates, many for
the first time in 40 years. It also brought back very painful
memories of being a young "colored girl" from the recently
desegregated South at a majority White elite Ivy League institution.
I was one of 19 young Black women who enrolled into the Class of
1970. I was the only one not given a Black roommate. My roommate was
a young Jewish girl from New Haven, Conn., who made a perfect score
of 1,600 on her SAT.
I thought to myself, "What am I doing here?" Yes, I was my high
school valedictorian, but it was an all Black public high school in
Atlanta that got hand-me-down books from the White high school. I was
a National Achievement Scholarship recipient. This was the program
set aside for Black students as part of the National Merit
Scholarship program. But I only got an 1,100 on my SAT.
While I had all sorts of confidence and self-esteem issues going, I
quickly made friends with the other Black students, many of whom had
similar backgrounds. We were the top students from our hometowns, and
we found ourselves in a less than hospitable environment on campus,
hence our participation in the Students Afro American Society.
My long-time family friend, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford
J. Dempsey Jr., was a third- year student at Columbia in 1968. He
attended the reunion, too, and talked about his frustration and
disappointment during his time as a Columbia student.
Dempsey's and others' recitation of the significant indignities
suffered by Black students on campus was part of a Friday night
program called "What Happened?" It was a large-scale multi-media
narrative of the events at Columbia in the spring of 1968 told by
many witnesses and participants from many different points of view.
It was a masterpiece orchestrated by talented playwright, journalist
and author Thulani Davis, also a member of the Barnard Class of 1970,
the Students Afro American Society, and a member of the steering
committee that put together last week's reunion.
Dempsey and others talked about being told by professors that they
weren't smart enough to be in their classes, and how they were
subject to a practice called "stacking," in which all the Black
football players were assigned to play the same position, no matter
that they had played different positions in their respective high
schools. As a result, they all mostly sat on the bench.
My most hurtful memory, which I did not share during the collective
piece, was being invited and then dis-invited in my freshman year to
read the news at the Columbia radio station. Only minutes after I was
told I had the job, a blonde student arrived, and in another few
minutes, I was told there was a mix-up and the job was hers. It
didn't feel like a mix-up. It felt like they ditched me in favor of
the White girl.
When I returned home and shared my weekend experience with my son, he
asked me why I had never talked about it with him. He's only 20 years
younger than I am, but I couldn't figure out why I had never
discussed it. I guess the memory was just not a good one, and I
didn't want to talk about it.
Now, though, after the weekend, I do want to talk about it because
for the first time, I along with the 300 others present got to see
that the unified participation by the Black students was important to
the success of the take over. It became clear to all present at
Friday night's program that the unity, discipline and community
identity of the Black students gave the protest its legitimacy,
strength and effectiveness.
After the takeover of Hamilton Hall, the Black students asked the
White students among them to leave. From the narrative and individual
recollections, the reasons became very clear. The Black students all
knew each other, had the discipline to vote for and empower their
leadership and remain focused on a nonviolent protest, including not
destroying anything in the building. The White students were not a
cohesive group. They had many factions, including likely infiltration
by undercover police. The Black students also enjoyed the support of
the Harlem community, including elected officials who knew and worked
with them on prior occasions. This bought time to work on the protest
demands. It also resulted in all of the Black students being arrested
without incident at the end of a full week of building occupation.
Unfortunately, a nonviolent end was not in store for many of the
White students -- some of whom resisted arrest and/or got caught up
in confrontations with the police as they moved onto campus at the
request of Columbia officials after a week of occupation.
Most of the demands by the Black students were met, including not
building a planned gym in the adjacent public park, amnesty for
community protestors who had been arrested during previous protests
and amnesty for the Black students involved. For years, it was the
Students for a Democratic Society and its leader Mark Rudd, who were
the focal point reports of the student protest that ended in a bloody
confrontation with police. Now the record has been completed. It was
really the participation of the Race Men and Women of Hamilton Hall
who gave the protest its fiber and backbone.
We celebrated our new-found appreciation for those days at a luncheon
for the 1968 Black students of Hamilton Hall on Saturday, April 26,
at a restaurant in Harlem. That's where I got my certificate signed
by Cicero Wilson, William W. Sales Jr., Leon Denmark and Thulani
Davis. Now I am a fortified and certified "Race Woman" ready to
continue to fight against another war, ongoing racism and
M. Alexis Scott is the third-generation publisher of the Atlanta Daily World.