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The Real Vanguard!

Posted in Black Student Rebels at Columbia. 1968, Cultural Matters with tags , on June 10, 2018 by playthell

Veterans of the Columbia Student Rebellion Circa 1968

Black Columbia Rebels Reclaim their History

Stokely Carimichael and H. Rap Brown show Solidarity with black Students in Hamilton Hall

On Saturday June 2, 2018 a group of Afro-American alumni of Columbia University gathered in the law school on campus to commemorate their pivotal role in the student rebellion at that world-renowned university 50 years ago.  I decided to attend the event because of an invitation from Zachary Husser, who had been one of the student rebels.  My first inclination was to decline, because I was finishing a critical essay on Donald Trump and preparing for an upcoming trip to Cuba, where I will be investigating the state of race and class relations in the first socialist republic in the Americas almost 60 years after the Revolution.

However, this caused me to reflect on the fact that I was a freshman in college during 1959, the year the Cuban revolutionaries overthrew the corrupt, racist, decadent regime of Fulgentsia Batista. The southern student sit-in movement began it the spring semester of 1960, when black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter in Greensboro.  We at Florida A&M soon joined the movement, and I jumped in with both feet.

That was the beginning of the student revolt of the 1960’s, and as Zach persisted in urging me to come, insisting on the historical importance of the Columbia Revolt, which occurred eight years after we launched the uprising in southern black colleges, I became curious to see how far the movement had evolved as that decade of unprecedented student struggle came to a close.  And I wondered how different black student demands would be in an elite northern white university, where de jure segregation in the wider society off campus was not an issue.

As things turned out, Zach was right; this commemoration proved enlightening and certainly of historical importance. Which is why I decided to document my impressions of the occasion in a photo-essay that the participants could have as memorabilia to mark the occasion.   The distinguished sociologist William J. Wilson – heir to the tradition of Dr. WEB DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier in the scientific study of Afro-American life – once told me that my writing reveals a “sociological imagination,” perhaps, but I generally view events from the added dimension of historical perspective in order to place them in their proper context. That is what I have attempted to do in my reportage on the commemoration.  I shall leave it to the readers, especially those who participated in these events, to decide the extent to which I have succeeded.

The former student activists had gathered at Columbia not only to celebrate their struggle, but to reclaim its place in history by setting the record straight.  Aside from sharing their memories of the event, they unveiled a documentary film in progress whose raison d’etre is to fill the gaps in what has become the standard historical narrative of the Columbia student revolt in 1968.  Their complaint that the role of black students had been whited out in the media’s coverage of the student rebellion was confirmed later that very evening when CNN aired a marathon report titled, 1968: The Year That Changed America.  The report was ambitious in the scope of its concerns, yet as one who lived through this period as an activist in nation-wide struggles, I found that it short changed the contribution of Afro-Americans in bringing about that change in general, politically and culturally, and it virtually ignored the critical role of Black students in their recounting of the uprising at Columbia.

It was a startling experience, because I happened to stumble upon the program by accident. Rarely does a reporter or historical investigator have such compelling evidence for a seriously contentious claim simply fall into his hands with little or no effort.  Yet all of the complaints I heard earlier from the Afro-American alumni that attended the commemoration were on display in the CNN report.  While some may regard this omission as evidence of a conspiracy to deny black students their rightful place in history, I see it as the logical consequence of the flaws in the original reportage on the rebellion.

Yet in the final analysis this has proved to be a distinction without a difference when we consider the outcome. Whether it was a conspiracy or incompetent reporting, the end result is that the critical role played by black students has been whited out.  When I first heard the charges raised by the participants in these events of half a century ago, it was a revelation.  For although I was speaking to black student activist all over the country who were fighting for various reforms in University practices at the time, and knew black community activist in Harlem, which bordered Columbia’s campus and figured prominently in the student rebellion, I was not aware of the centrality of the black student activists in shaping the outcome of those events.

However, as a former history professor and co-founder of the first free standing, degree granting department of Black Studies – the WEB DuBois Department at U-MASS Amherst in 1969 – I fully understand the importance of preserving our legacy of struggle, and I know that the history of black activism in American universities in this period is still being written.  I also understand that writing the history of any period is never fully finished.  That’s why even the most distinguished historians routinely refer to their works as “a history,” rather “the history” of a period or event.  And since journalism is widely regarded as a “first draft” of history, it is of paramount importance to get the initial story right. That is why it is imperative that we record the testimony of those who lived through, participated in, or witnessed the events.

Hence, when viewed from the perspective of the historian, the testimony of former student activists who came together on Columbia’s campus to share memories of their struggle a half century earlier is priceless.  The fact that they are recording their testimony on film will insure that it will last forever in the archives of ancient wisdom,  and countless generations who follow in their wake will be informed and inspired by their heroic example. It is impossible to overstate the importance of telling our own story as Afro-Americans, unmediated by Euro-American interlocutors.

As the distinguished Afro-American writer and blues philosopher Albert Murray warned in his broadly learned, deeply insightful, and highly original text, The Omni-Americans, that whenever white editors or producers are given a choice between “a story of black heroism or a tale of black pathology, they will most often choose the tale of black pathology.”  Murray argues that it is essential to preserving and propagating “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology.”  This is such a widespread practice that it led General Colin Powell to reply to a white editor who told him that his prominence was such that they would no longer mention his race when writing about his achievements – after he was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff in the armed forces – “Don’t stop now!”  Powell exclaimed. The General went on explain: “If I was out here mugging or murdering somebody you would certainly mention my race then.”

The belief that white Americans cannot be trusted to represent us accurately, and routinely promote the worse rather than the best in Afro-American life and culture, is widespread among educated thoughtful black folks as I write and it has a long history.  That’s why as soon as he saw the new art of photography, which was transported from Paris to New Orleans in 1840 by Jules Lion, an Afro-American photographer who introduced the art into America, Frederick Douglass called for free Afro-Americans to dress up in their finest clothes and have themselves photographed; then place their photos in newspapers and other public media as a counter-statement to white racist imagery of them.*  WEB DuBois – who mounted a prize-winning photography exhibition of Afro-Americans at the Paris Exposition of 1900 – also noted this racist practice of denigrating the character of black people in his powerful, prophetic, erudite, and poetic text “The Souls of Black Folk,” published three years later in 1903.  Dr. Dubois, one of the most insightful observers of race relations ever, concluded that the  white commentators and critics of the Afro-American community were guilty of “the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse.”

Many people believe that this explains the tendency of the record and movie industries to promote products with pathological messages and imagery over more wholesome uplifting works.  As I write there is a raging debate among black women in the recording industry as to whether the rising prominence of the foul-mouthed “gutter” rapper Cardi B, is due to a conscious effort by the “Suits,” – i.e. the white boys that make the decisions on how promotional dollars are spent – to counteract the enormous positive, uplifting, images of Afro-American women and culture projected in the works of Beyoncé!  This view is also shared by black businessmen in the music industry who have co-signed this charge in conversations with this writer.

There are also black movie critics who believe it was this kind of thinking by white members of the film academy who selected “O.J. Made in America” over “I’m Not Your Negro,” a view of the black struggle in the 1960’s told through the writings of the brilliant novelist/essayist James Baldwin in a voice over the images, and the selection of “Moonlight” over “Hidden Figures” for Best Picture.   Although in the absence of confessions by the voters it is impossible to prove this charge, it remains a suspicion. For even if all things were equal artistically, the radical difference in the representations of Afro-American character and culture lends gravitas to the charge that white cultural arbiters prefer black pathology over heroism.


The participants in the commemoration on Saturday are just the kind of thoughtful, conscious Afro-Americans who are well-aware of this issue; this tendency on the part of our white American countrymen to try and present us as something less than we are.  As graduates of a great university they have gone out into the world and worked in a variety of fields ranging from law, academia, business and high finance, etc. And they have had to compete with white colleagues in institutions where they are always outnumbered and were most often evaluated by white supervisors.

This interaction has made them well-aware of the widespread ignorance about Afro-American history and culture among Euro-Americans.  And it is in the nature of things that this ignorance is complicated by the belief on the part of many whites that they know things about us which they presume to be “facts” but are not true.  Which, alas, is the worst sort of ignorance.  Although the participants didn’t say this explicitly, it was implicit in the things they did say.  The conviction that much of white racist ideology is based on ignorance or denial of the facts of our history was a major theme in the comments of those who spoke.  It was like a powerful, haunting, refrain that recurs throughout a song and gives meaning and coherence to the separate verses. And, tragically, this ignorance of the heroic character of Afro-American history has psychologically damaged some of our untutored brethren, even if they are rich and famous like Kanye West; who recently said that our ancestors made “a choice” to be slaves!   That silly boy needs to get his ignant ass in a library quick, fast, and in a hurry.   I think we should organize a boycott against him and no black person should buy another record of his until he writes a rap begging the forgiveness of the black community for profaning the memory of our enslaved ancestors.

This is why black students reclaiming their rightful place in the history of the radical student movement of the 1960’s holds such importance.  As one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning, what happened at Columbia is destined for inclusion in the history books.  And the former student activists at the commemoration are determined to insure that when the heroes of the movement come marching into the hallowed halls of history they will be in that number.  Their statements echoed the sentiments expressed by Frederick Douglass, the greatest American moral clarion of the 19th century; who was a reluctant keynote speaker at the unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington during 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War.

**Douglass had ambivalent feelings about the statue, much as he had about the man it was intended to honor.  Created by Thomas Ball, a white sculptor residing in Paris, the statue portrays Abraham Lincoln towering over a black slave on his knees, with the emancipation Proclamation in one hand and the other hand hovering over the head of the slave whose eyes are cast skyward.  Douglass preferred that the now former slave had assumed a more manly posture; he said it looked as if Lincoln was saying “Go and sin no more.”  Douglass thought it added insult to injury. Hence, he began his speech by saying: “I am here today because I will not have it said that the colored man is a man that can show no gratitude.”  But he goes on to point out “Truth is beautiful and proper at all times and in all places, but it is never more beautiful or proper than when speaking of a man who will be commended to history.” Clearly, the black Columbia alumni and movement veterans were there to tell the truth of their struggle and see to it that it becomes a part of the historical record.  And like Othello, they told “a round unvarnished tale.”

The most enduring truth to emerge from their testimonies is that the black student’s actions were the heart and soul of the movement and saved the white student movement from being crushed by the police power of the state, which had already unleashed on the white students that had occupied buildings.  This is because the white students didn’t have the kind of widespread support in their community that the black students had in nearby Harlem, then the unquestioned capitol of Black America, which was percolating with all the volatile tectonic social forces that were erupting in burning cities all across America in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the apostle of peace, just the month before.

In their recounting of the rebellion at Columbia the alums constantly emphasized the connection of their struggle to the wider black movement centered in Harlem.  And in the excerpt from the documentary now in the final stages of production, this point is graphically illustrated with rare film footage of the Black students in real time.  In one scene we see the people of Harlem bringing home cooked food to the black students who had barricaded themselves in Hamilton Hall.  The students were in a jovial mood and declared that the Harlem cuisine was the best food they had eaten since they had been at Columbia!

The film maker, Dr. Paul Cronin, who is British and teaches screen writing at NYU, has been working on this project for ten years and he explained how hard it was to find some film footage of the Black students inside Hamilton Hall.  As I listened to him explain his passion for the project, I thought of how the excavation of Black History – whether in Africa, the US or the broader Black Atlantic Diaspora – has always been a multi-racial project.  Indeed, Dr. Franz Boas, for many years a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia during the early 20th century, inspired the great southern writer Zora Neale Hurston to collect the Folklore of the all Afro-American community of Eatonville Florida where she grew up, when she was a Barnard Student.

These stories were published in her classic folkloric works such as Mules and Men and her important novel on black southern folk preachers Jonas Gourd Vine.   The experience of researching the novel led Zora to conclude “A preacher must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit.”  Had Zora not studied with “Papa Boaz,” as all his students called him, there is no reason to believe that these classic works would ever have been written.  And Afro-American culture would be impoverished by their absence.  Boaz’s researches into West African Civilizations also fired the imagination of WEB DuBois, the premier American humanist intellectual of the 20th century, a founder of black histography and the most influential thinker in the black world.

According to this great Afro-American scholar, quintessential “race man,” and Pan-African freedom fighter, hearing Boaz lecture on the “Civilizations of the Western Sudan,” inspired him to write the pathbreaking and revelatory book: “The World and Africa.”  And the history department at Columbia trained the great historian of Afro-American resistance Herbert Aptheker, whose “History of American Negro Slave Revolts” and A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, although published before the student revolt 50 years ago, remain unchallenged scholarly milestones in Afro-American histography.

This is but a glimpse of the monumental contributions made by white scholars, in the US and Europe, who were driven by intellectual curiosity fueled by a sense of justice and a commitment to set the record straight about who done what in racial matters.  This is what Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a father of Afro-American history and founder of the venerable Journal of Negro History, intended for Afro-American historiography to become: A multi-racial endeavor conducted by scholars who are committed to challenging the racist Master Narrative of American civilization with objective truth.

Hence it was enlightening and inspiring listening to Professor Cronin discuss his film on the role of Black Students in the great Columbia rebellion of 1968; which from what I saw promises to be a definitive statement that will fill a lot of the historical gaps that was the central concerns of those at the commemoration who participated in the events.  In fact, there was a symbiotic relationship between the showing of the film and the live testimony from the participants.  Especially since some of the voices in the documentary were the same as those speaking from the floor. One of the most revelatory themes in their testimony was the distinctions between them and their white colleagues regarding their relationship with their parents and community.  They pointed out that whereas many of the white students held their parents and the hypocritical values of the society they created in contempt, the black students universally loved, honored and respected their parents; all of whom had overcome monumental obstacles in a sick society that made their skin color a crime.

The black students understood well that it was only by virtue of their parent’s discipline, hard work, nobility of character, and spiritual gravitas, that they had managed to help them “thus far along the way,” as the black bard James Weldon Johnson penned in the Lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an eight stanza art song that was written as the class song for the first black graduating high school class in Florida in 1901 – just 36 years after the end of 250 years of enslavement – and is still known as the Black National Anthem 117 years later because it expresses the hopes and dreams of Afro-Americans struggling against the racial oppression that has marked our entire four hundred year sojourn in America.  In fact, nothing demonstrates the dichotomy in the way whites and blacks have experienced America than the current controversy over black football players taking a knee when the “white” National Anthem is played to protest white police murders of unarmed black men.

Yet, if our history was understood it would make a compelling argument that black Americans should NEVER stand for this white war song, written by a slaveholder – Francis Scott Key – who hailed from a multi-generational family of slave holders, who penned the Lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner – the third stanza of which celebrates slavery and called for the death of black folk who attempted to escape or resist their masters – while being held captive as a prisoner on a British ship during the War of 1812, a war sparked by the British attempt to suppress the African slave trade.  The truth be told, the reason white Americans have gone to such extraordinary lengths to suppress Afro-American history is because it contradicts the central myth of America as “the land of the free and home of the brave” where “all men are created equal.”

Zachary Husser’s eloquent and moving panegyric to his semi-literate father, who was forced to drop out of school in the third grade, set the standard. Over and again we heard the participants sing the praises of their parents, which struck a chord deep in my soul because that’s exactly how I feel about my parents, in fact when I try to describe my feelings toward them and other family members in my extended family, the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare seem suddenly impoverished of suitable superlatives.  It was a public expression of love to America’s unsung heroes, who were truer exemplars of America’s most cherished values than many highly celebrated white Americans have ever been!

A 20 Year Old Zach Husser Holding Sign

The sign depicts solidarity between the Vietnamese and the Black struggle

Following closely behind was their expressions of love and kinship for the black community of Harlem. But this identification of Harlem as a nurturing refuge is an old story with black students studying at Columbia.  Paul Robeson – who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and class Valedictorian at Rutgers, four letter athlete and All-American football player, a first-rate scholar/athlete who was the embodiment of the ancient Greek ideal of mind body perfection – enrolled in Columbia Law School, where the commemoration was held, in 1920, and was very much influenced by events in Harlem. This was the period in which a cultural movement known as the “Harlem Renaissance,” was beginning to flower and the black students of that day were affected by it just like the Black Power/Arts Movement influenced the students who were studying at Columbia in 1968.

 The Great “Robeson of Rutgers”

Paul Was Easily the Most Famous Student on Campus


Zora Neale Hurston:

Barnard’s First Black Graduate

One of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes

He went on to become “The Poet Laureate Of Black America

Zora Neal Hurston, the first black graduate of Barnard, Columbia’s women’s college, arrived on campus in 1925, two years after Paul Robeson graduated law school.  Hence, she entered the Columbia scene at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, a period when black leadership was divided between the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a Black Nationalist movement led by the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, and the Integrationist Movement led by the likes of Walter White, Dr. WEB Dubois and James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, Dr. Charles Johnson of the Urban League, and Mary Church Terrell, of the hugely influential National Association of Colored Women. 

Ironically, while the Garvey movement was nationalist in its political philosophy it was very British in its cultural orientation, which led Dr. Wilson Jeremiah Moses, the reigning authority on the subject, to label them “assimilationist Black Nationalist” in his path breaking book “On the Wings of Ethiopia.”  On the other hand, the integrationist leaders were promoting the Afro-American cultural nationalist trend that characterized the Harlem Renaissance, which was driven by the belief that Afro-Americans could advance their movement for full human rights in the US by demonstrating excellence in the cultural arts.

This may seem naïve, or even a bit silly by today’s standards. But when viewed within the context of the times, a period when the belief that black people were an inferior species was widely held by the white majority this strategy takes on a different meaning.  In any case Harlem was bustling with cultural activities promoted by people felt they were uplifting the race.  As the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Afro-American historian David Levering Lewis shows in his seminal book on the period,” When Harlem Was in Vogue,” even black gangsters like Casper Holstein, and wealthy entrepreneurs like Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter Alia, financially supported the aspiring artist. 

We can see in the influence of these ideas in the subsequent careers of Robeson and Hurston.  For instance, Robeson soon abandoned a career in the law for a career as a singer and actor.  Only a year after leaving Columbia Robeson describes his belief in the power of black artists to advance the Afro-American struggle in an October 1924 article in The Messenger – a Harlem based journal published by A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, which billed itself as “The Only Magazine Dedicated to Scientific Socialism Published by Negroes in the World.”

Robeson wrote: “One of the great measures of a people is its culture, its artistic stature.  Above all things, we boast that the only true artistic contributions of America are Negro in origin.  We boast of the culture of ancient Africa.  Surely in any discussion of art or culture, music, the drama and its interpretation must be included.” Based upon this argument on the importance of cultural production Robeson cites the example of a great Afro-American singer, a classically trained tenor, who although barred from the grand opera stages has won world renown singing the great arias in recital: “So Today Roland Hayes is infinitely more a racial asset than many who “talk” at great Length.  Thousands of people hear him, see him, and are brought to a clearer understanding of human values.”

Two years later, in 1926, Langston Hughes – poet, essayist, playwright, novelist/short story writer and memoirist – published his now famous statement on the role of black artist “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which is widely regarded as a blueprint for black artist who are searching for a genuine racial aesthetic, and rightly so.  He writes:

So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features… We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Hughes had also attended Columbia University’s School of Mines, Engineering and Chemistry in 1921, at the insistence of his businessman father who refused to pay for an education in the liberal arts. He left after the first year, published his first volume of poetry “The Weary Blues,” and dashed “off to see the world.”  Hughes who would become a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, raised questions and took positions on Afro-American artists and the role of culture in our struggle that resonated with the 1960’s “cultural revolutionaries” who launched the Black Arts Movement.

Hughes and Robeson would become activist on the left and supported many activities organized by the Communists, who were the only American political party that militantly denounced racism, offered top leadership to black members, and supported Afro-Americans right to self-defense against violent white racist. Although the American cultural establishment, which is funded by the great capitalist corporations, has done an effective job of expunging this history, Dr. Gerald Horn –  the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, who holds a Ph.D. from Columbia – has done a heroic job of resurrecting this story in a series of Brilliant scholarly texts.

Hughes and Robeson became leading voices in the movement against Fascism – which would metastasize into the Axis Alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan, launching a world war that killed 50 million people –  travelling to Spain to support the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, which they correctly perceived as a rehearsal for World War II  Both were ardent supporters of the black Americans who fought on the front lines against the fascist in Spain, and Robeson, who had become a prominent actor on stage and screen, wanted to make a movie about Oliver Law, the Afro-American Communist who first commanded the machine gun unit and rose to Commander of the entire Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American contingent in the Spanish Civil War, before being killed in battle.  This is the rich legacy of militant thought and struggle that the radical black activists of the 1960’s inherited, especially the young intellectuals like the students at Columbia, whether they were conscious of it or not.  This heroic legacy so permeated the atmosphere around the struggle they absorbed it by osmosis.


When former student rebel Ray Brown, now a prominent New York attorney, took the floor to reminisce about the atmosphere among black students on Columbia’s campus in 1968, the influence of the wider black movement centered in Harlem was evident. As one who had been a participant in that movement for eight years at the time of the Columbia Rebellion , much of what he said had a powerful familiarity; especially their insistence upon having an independent black position on the issues in question at the university.

In this they were reflecting a growing black nationalist trend throughout the national movement, even in Civil Rights organizations that were staunchly committed to interracial cooperation like CORE and SNCC.  The influence of this nationalist trend on the Columbia students became irrefutable when Brown recounted how “You couldn’t walk across this campus without hearing people discussing the writings of Franz Fanon or talking about colonialism.” The interest in colonialism, and especially the writings of Dr. Fanon, reflects the degree to which black radicals identified with the anti-colonial movements in the “Third World” – Africa, Asia and Latin America – whom we viewed as our comrades in the struggle against the world-wide domination of the colored peoples by a racist white “imperialism.”  By 1968 this feeling of solidarity was universal in the Black Liberation Movement.

Dr. Franz Fanon

The Leading Theoretician of the Algerian Revolution

This explains why Franz Fanon, a black psychiatrist from the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, had mesmerized radical black activist all over the country when Grove Press published “The Wretched of the Earth,” a unique treatise on anti-colonial revolution written in the heat of an actual revolution in progress on the African continent.  Since the original text was written in French, Grove, which was located just downtown from Columbia’s campus, played a pivotal role in making Fanon’s idea’s available in English.   Among the ideas that intrigued radical black activists was Fanon’s analysis of the positive role of violence in the great Algerian Revolution, and especially his conclusion that killing one’s oppressor was therapeutic!

This was a welcome message to the ears of Afro-Americans that had rejected the non-violent preachments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a form of collective masochism. In fact, Harlem based revolutionary activist /artist Elombe Brath had portrayed the non-violent struggle in his irreverent illustrated book of radical cartoons “Color Us Cullud.”  Elombe had drawn a cartoon of non-violent black demonstrators being attacked by violent whites, who held up a sign proclaiming: “Masochism is our Stick Baby!” Malcolm X used to say “Color Us Cullud” was his favorite political cartoons.

Elombe was a very influential figure in the black radical movement of the 1960’s; he was a Pan-African revolutionary and major organizer of US support for African Liberation Movements.  He was an important force in organizing  boycotts against South Africa, and Nelson Mandela would personally express his gratitude when he visited Harlem after he was released from prison.  Elombe introduced Mandela when he spoke to the people of Harlem.  Elombe was also deeply committed to local struggles of Black people, and no one among the Harlem activists supported the black student movement more than him.

Despite the fact that Amiri Baraka is often cited as the founder of the Black Arts Movement, it was Elombe along with his photographer brother Kwame, were the true founders of the “Black Arts Movement,” which was the vanguard of the national “Black Consciousness Movement” that swept the country and the black world.  Just as one could point to the Café Voltaire in Switzerland during 1917 as the incubator of the “Da Da” art movement in Europe, or Minton’s Playhouse as the birthplace of the “Be Bop” revolution in music, the founding of the “African Jazz Art Society” in Harlem during 1958 by the Brathwaite brothers in conjunction with the revolutionary musicians Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, signaled the birth of the Black Arts Movement; where art became a vehicle for revolutionary politics.

Elombe Brath Welcoming Mandela to Harlem
Elombe is Wearing Brown Nehru Suit Standing to Mandela’s Right
Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln

The First Couple of the Black Arts Movement

This movement produced such seminal cultural thinkers and innovative artists in literature, theater, visual arts and music such as Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka aka Leroy Jones, Askia Muhammad Toure, Yusef Rachman, Don Pullins and Milford Graves, Archie Shepp, Ed Bullins, Ademola Olugbefola, Sonya Sanchez, et al.  And standing like colossus over it all was the titanic figures of Katherine Dunham and Pear Primus, who, although of an earlier generation, the influence of their contributions to the esthetics of black dance was everywhere. It is no accident that Max Roach – an innovator and arguably the greatest improvisational percussionist of the 20th century – and his beautiful actress/singer wife with here au naturel hair style, were regarded as a heroes and comrades by those of us who were advocating armed struggle in the Revolutionary Action Movement.

RAM was founded in Philadelphia during 1962 and spread across the country as a largely underground organization.   But by 1964 one of it’s co-founders and leading theoretician Max Stanford, aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, had relocated in Harlem.  And it was from there that he would organize the first Black Panther Party outside of the South – taking the name, “Black Power” slogan, and Black Panther symbol from the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee in Selma Alabama, who created the original BPP, and replacing its reformist program with a revolutionary ideology that advocated armed struggle. Hence, RAM was one of the main disseminators of the ideas of Dr. Fanon on the role of violence in the liberation struggle against European colonization.  Not only did we reference “The Wretched of the Earth,” but also Fanon’s other books on the struggle against colonialism and its effects on African peoples such as “Black Skins White Masks,” “Studies in a Dying Colonialism,” and “Essays Toward the African Revolution,” which was a collection of Fanon’s writings after he fled Algeria and became the editor of Al Moujahid, the principal ideological journal of the FLN, the National Liberation Front of Algeria.

All of these radical ideas about politics and culture informed the rich environment of struggle that existed in Harlem when the Black Students revolted on Columbia’s campus in 1968, two years before the climax of a decade that was among the most turbulent and consequential in American history.   Hence it is no wonder they were reading Dr. Fanon and talking about “colonialism,” and organizing cultural institutions in Harlem.  They were reflecting the ideas swirling around in the larger black community. Viewed from this perspective, it is unsurprising that the students received the kind of support from the Harlem community that they recounted at the commemoration.

Looking at the film footage from the revolt I saw seasoned activists that I knew from the radical movement such as Sam Anderson.  And the presence on campus of two of the most influential black radical activist in the nation, Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown – SNCC leaders and founders of the original Black Panther Party in Lowndes County Alabama – was irrefutable evidence of the student rebels’ organic connection to the national Black Liberation Movement. And Professor Bill Sales’ recollection that they received a letter expressing solidarity from Mao Tse Tung – the “Great Helmsman” who led the Chinese Revolution, the most powerful mass transformative movement in history – verifies the fact that the black student revolt was part of the revolutionary zeitgeist sweeping the world in the mid twentieth century.

Other testimony from students about debates that they engaged in around the efficacy of starting cultural programs in the Harlem community emphasizing the arts, demonstrate the indelible influence of the Black Arts Movement on student aspirations, and the program begun by Akosua Brathwell Evans, to recruit more black women to Barnard that expanded their numbers from four to one hundred, reveal a budding feminist consciousness in the student movement. Akosua, now a successful businesswoman in the financial industry, was in the avant garde; as the black movement in general was so completely involved in the struggle against the devastating effects of racial oppression we were tardy on the gender issue.

Although, it must be said, the National Organization for Women, NOW, was only founded two years earlier under the prodding of Betty Friedan, and the founders readily admit that their movement was inspired by the black struggle for Civil Rights.  But, as in all matters of importance in American history, the Afro-American contribution is either muted or erased in most accounts of the rise of the Feminist Movement.  This is why it is so important that the pivotal black student role in the historic Columbia uprising be enshrined in the historical record.

Professor Cronin’s documentary film is a giant step in this effort.  For not only are the powerful voices of the black student activists prominently displayed, but there are also compelling interviews with white students and faculty that provide solid verification for the revisionist narrative provided by the black students.  All of the white witnesses testified to the central role played by black students, pointing out the fact that they were restrained from unleashing the police on them because they were terrified of the possibility that black Harlemites would storm the university and burn it down!  Like everybody else in America, they were witnessing enraged black mobs setting fire to American cities from coast to coast and didn’t want to press their luck.  Their fears must have reached the brink of hysteria when H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael – the pesonification of militant black anger – showed up on campus to support the Black Students!

The white participants in the student revolt as members of Students for a Democratic Society also agree that accounts of the outsize leadership role of Mark Rudd was a fiction, a creation of the press led by the august New York Times.  Given the role that the Times played in creating the Rudd Myth, it is only fitting and proper that this powerful publication should play an important role in correcting the record 50 years later.  That debt to posterity received a substantial down payment when they published a reflective Op-Ed essay by Mark Rudd, appropriately titled “The Missing History of the Columbia 68 Protests.  He tells us:

“We entered Barnard and Columbia in the mid-1960s optimistic, eager to learn and proud of our new schools. By the end of May 1968, almost a thousand of us had been arrested, beaten or expelled (as I was) by our beloved university.”

That said, Rudd moved quickly to the raison d’etre of his essay.  In an amazingly candid statement he recounts:”

“We had grown up in the wake of World War II and watched the civil rights movement take shape in the South, and the university’s support for the war and its institutional racism shook us to our core. We had often wondered whether we would have been “good Germans” under Nazism, or whether we had the moral courage of the civil rights protesters, many of whom were black students our own age.

By April 1968, S.D.S. had joined in a loose alliance with the Student Afro-American Society, comprising the more politicized of the few black students at Columbia. On April 23, both organizations found ourselves occupying Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate classroom building. For a time, we even held the dean of the college hostage in his office.

There was a difference between us, though. We white kids were ragtag, messy, arguing constantly with each other. We were unsure of what to do once we had occupied Hamilton. But the black students, inspired by the civil rights movement in the South and by their own parents’ lifelong struggles, were certain that they had to barricade the building as their own disciplined statement.”

Mark Rudd’s statement goes on in this remarkably candid fashion. It is distinguished by what strikes me as a genuine humility that calls into question charges that he is some sort of ego-maniac, who has claimed for himself a larger role in history than the evidence supports. He may have been that guy once upon a time, but that’s not who he is now.  And his essay is well worth reading, as it corroborates the black student’s critique and helps insure their narrative of events will prevail. Mark Rudd’s final comments come across as the testimony of a man who sincerely wants to set the historical record straight; while giving some solid advice to the present generation of student activist who face even greater obstacles. And we are all the richer for it.

The events at Columbia became a symbol and a model of student rebellion for the next two years. I often run into people who tell me that Columbia ’68 changed their lives. As for myself, after a rocky few years pursuing the fantasy of anti-imperialist and socialist revolution, I settled into a lifetime of teaching and organizing. Most of us have spent our lives in professions committed to the common good such as health care, the law, education, social work and labor and community organizing.  I do not regret what we did that spring; I hope that young people today can draw inspiration as they design protests around gun control, mass incarceration, racist policing and climate change. But in doing so, it’s imperative that they learn from our mistakes as well.”

For those who wish to understand the nature of leadership in mass movements, perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from studying the historic uprising of the 1960’s is that both Marx and Malcolm were wrong.  Neither the “proletariat” nor the “field Negroes” emerged as leaders of the struggle.  In the first instance it was, as is always the case, discontented, alienated or declasse intellectuals who seized the helm. And in the second instance, it was the “House Negroes” who organized the successful slave rebellions. Neither Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey, Toussiant L’Overture, nor Fredrick Douglass were “field Niggers.”  And virtually all of the leaders of the Radical movement – the 20th century counterparts of those who led the slave rebellions or the abolitionist movement – became professionals or career intellectuals – mostly academics, writers or lawyers….and an occasionally business person here and there. And most have remained engaged with the problems they sought to solve in their activist youth, which remains the best way to honor that struggle.

Although it goes against long standing romantic notions about the special revolutionary insights and virtues of the masses, which is conventional wisdom on the left, those farthest down seldom organize effective movements. There is no mystery here; for it requires a certain level of education and leisure to successfully plot a complex revolt.  Alas, those advantages are generally not available to the poorly educated toiling masses but are quite accessible to middle class intellectuals.  Like the engaged young intellectuals that led of the Columbia student movement in 1968.

                                               A Hero’s Gallery


The Master of Ceremonies

Zachary Husser:  1968 Student Protester


He Went from Columbia Basket Ball Star

To Wall Street Investment Banker


Ray Brown In a Contemplative Mood

He Went into the Practice of Law


Intellectual Amazons
They Were on the Front Lines of Battle


Watching Moving Pictures of the Way They Were

Akosia started a program to recruit Black Women to Barnard


Women of Substance

Commiserating on the State of the Race


Professor Bill Sales Holds Forth

Recalling the Letter of Solidarity from Chairman Mao


Sharing Priceless Memories

Of Halcyon Moments Back in the Day


Setting the Story Straight


Litigating the Strategy and Tactics of the Revolt

Airing Age Old Grievances against the Theoreticians
Yet Others Seemed Content with the Course of Their Movement

The Know they Were in the Right


It is Evident in Their Smiles

She Exuded a Calm Wisdom


This is How You Look…

When You Know You Helped Make History


All of the Avant Garde Had that Look

They Understood their Place in History


The Pride in their Accomplishment was Evident in their Smiles

As they Mixed and Mingled at the Reception


There Were Sophisticated Ladies


Elegant of Style and Manners

Spirit Children of the Vanguard


She Brought a Feminist Dimension to the Movement


Professor Paul Cronin

The Film Documentarian


Getting the Inside Dope from the Source

And They Are Setting the Historical Record Straight


Photographs and Text by:
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem,New York
June 10, 2018

AUTHOR’S NOTE: My concern with the relationship of black folks with Columbia University runs deep into my family history.  My favorite Uncle, James Strawder Sr. was denied admission to study journalism  upon his discharge from the army in World War II.   The fact that he was a combat officer WITH BATTLE DECORATIONS and performed outstandingly on the entrance exam wearing his uniform meant NOTHING!!!!   He once showed me the letter they wrote him.  The congratulated him on his outstanding service record and test scores,then said unceremoniously: “However, Columbia college has its quota of Negroes.”   Well, Uncle Jimmy, a never say die soldier, took the position that “Columbia Owes this family a degree.  Well several members of the family have attended Columbia since then, and MY SON WILL BE ATTENDING THE COLUMBIA GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM IN AUGUST!!!!  Although Uncle Jimmy  danced and joined the ancestors at 93, I am sure his spirit is dancing!!!  To read about this story of black triumph see:,