When most think about Columbia in 1968, they think about those days when the frustration of over 700 students boiled over into visceral retaliation.
I think about basketball, a guy named Jim McMillian, and what could have been.
The story starts like this: In 1960, University trustee Harold G. McGuire raised the need for a new gym—the complex at the time, which consisted of Uris Pool and the Blue Gym, was inadequate. Morningside Park seemed like the logical choice, as it already hosted outdoor athletic games, and Columbia's presence would do much to improve security in the area. Public sentiment was originally in favor of the project, and the New York Times published an editorial in 1961 encouraging the project. Internal delays slowed progress—the University not only needed funding, but it also faced disagreements over the best use of the funds.
Times changed, and politicians with them. Members of the city government were no longer as friendly and the project stalled. An attempt to break ground in 1967 failed, and University trustees finally approved the project in 1968—February of 1968.
Two months later, all hell broke loose.
Columbia's design had two doors, one on the campus level for students, and the other inside the park for the neighborhood. The gym itself was two gyms, one for the community, and one for the students. It's not difficult to see where this went.
Late '60s civil rights politicians of the opportunistic sort took control of the opposition to the gym. The neighborhood entrance became racist and segregationist. The Columbia Black Students Organization Web site still lists it as a "back door" entrance, when in fact it was just a park side entrance. What was an issue of money and priorities became "Gym Crow," a rallying cry for radical race relations.
That same year, Columbia men's basketball found themselves a superstar. Jim McMillian, a forward from North Carolina, had Columbia in a one-game playoff for its first Ivy Championship ever. For the only time in the program's history, they won.
A few years back, McMillian returned from his own self-imposed exile from New York.
Never much of a fan of the city, he had returned to be inducted into the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class. At the urging of someone in the department, I had a chance to speak to him about that turbulent year. As thoughtfully as possible, he put their season in context for me.
"You had the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], a very radical group, you had people making political rallies, you had the Black Panthers on campus doing their thing, you had activists coming in from Harlem," he said. "And now you have the basketball team trying to win the Ivy title.
"People who had other political objectives, people who were in all kinds of things, all came together for that game to cheer us on. It really brought people back together, in that moment. For a time, it made you forget that someone was very conservative politically, someone was very liberal, very radical. Everybody was out there acting crazy trying to help us win. It carried on after that. It had a calming affect on the campus because they were talking about, it was such a great victory."
But the draft and Vietnam loomed over students. War was bad. The gym became Columbia's civil rights issue. The occupations happened.
Over 700 students were arrested.
What isn't discussed as often in the history of the protests is what happened the first night. The occupation of Hamilton Hall was led by the predecessor to the BSO, the Student Afro Society, and Mark Rudd and SDS. At some point in the night, the black students informed the white students that they were no longer wanted. As white students were obviously unable to understand or even properly sympathize with protests to the gym, they had to go somewhere else, which led to further building occupations.
To be fair, the BSO Web site says that the SAS told white students to go occupy other buildings in order to further the cause. This is the only place where such a narrative is mentioned.
In a year where a black All-American brought Columbia's campus together, racial unrest was tearing it apart. Over a gym. The sort of place where black and white becomes an afterthought, where race takes a backseat to talent. The SAS aggravated an open wound that still hasn't healed, ingrained in the institutional memory of its successor in the form of a faulty narrative.
The irony is impossible to miss. Better facilities for a team that didn't concern itself with black and white were rejected as racist. Sports, still one of the most important vehicles for improving minority education, would suffer. A program that could have soared, with a new gym and a championship under its belt, became an afterthought.
Part of the appeal to me about American sports is that it has addressed its racial tensions in a way American society only wishes it could. A white basketball player can still idolize Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson without any cultural backlash, and it would hardly be a shock to see a black left-handed pitcher emulate Sandy Koufax. It took decades—baseball was unabashedly racist, the NBA was criticized for being "too black."
Yet things progressed, and people moved on.
I'm not trying to suggest that it's free from bias. The media still latches on to great white hopes, and black athletes are more likely to be pegged as having attitude problems. But it's far beyond the rest of society.
In 1968, basketball at Columbia was given life, and then dealt a near fatal blow. As a sports fan, that disappoints me. What disappoints me further is that race was used where it had no place. It still is today.
A few days ago, a friend of mine told me she walked across the steps and noticed that it was segregated. Self-segregated, which is perhaps more disturbing. It's clear that this campus hasn't learned much from '68. For me, sports dispelled the notion at an early age that race should dictate my identity. Most of my teammates were white or black, and I became friends with them simply because we shared an interest.
I searched the BSO Web site in researching this column, to get an alternative perspective on 1968. What I read was a clash of civilizations narrative, highlighting opposition between white and black as explicitly as possible, exaggerating the racial undertones of an event that should have been racially unifying. The idea is foreign to me, but apparently skin color is still more important in identifying oneself than interests and personality. Perhaps their photo says it best—showing a rally of students, it highlights the organization's history of protest. But the point of a cultural organization isn't to protest and search for conflict, to remain insular and angry, but to integrate and educate the rest of the campus.
Basketball has moved on from '68, though I can't help but wonder what would have happened with a new gym. Most importantly, I wish the rest of the campus could move on, too.