As activists attempt to place a symbolic gag on the Alma Mater statue, they are attacked by members of a rival group, who grab the black cloth from their hands and drag them down Low Steps. Two camps have formed on opposite sides of campus, representing activists on strike and supporters of the administration. Clergyman and alumnus Eliot White rallies the activists against their adversaries. "You will probably find expert fighters in this crowd, but you must oppose them,” he yells. “Our ancestors died for free speech, and it is up to you to defend it."
If you asked a Columbian to put a date on this scene, they would find that neither March 2010 nor April 1968 fits. What is perhaps not known today is that 1932 and 1933 were also tumultuous years in the history of Columbia campus politics—simultaneously alike while distinctly separate from more familiar eras of student-activism. Two groups in particular were responsible for much of the tumult: Spectator, under the editorship of Reed Harris, and the Social Problems Club.
Despite the surprising similarities between the activities of the “Old Left”—back when it was simply called “The Left”—and present-day activists on Columbia’s campus, there are also important differences. The relationship between journalists and activists on campus, as well as the relationship between activists across campuses, was once much tighter-knit than it is today. While student-activists and student-journalists have always questioned the nature of their relationship, the history of Columbia shows a variety of different answers.
Spec Goes to Kentucky
At the center of Columbia's 1932-1933 political firestorm developing on Low Steps was the Social Problems Club. But the group’s founding took place far from College Walk.
In early 1931, the City College of New York administration attempted to shut down Frontiers, a publication associated with working-class immigrants. Students at other New York City schools organized around the publication’s cause and, together, their collaborative efforts led to the creation of a more permanent activist infrastructure called the National Student League.
Robert Cohen, author of the book When the Old Left was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, notes that Columbia’s chapter of NSL—named the Social Problems Club—found fertile ground in Morningside Heights. “Within a twenty-block radius of the Columbia campus lived the greatest assemblage of academic progressives and radicals in Depression America,” Cohen writes. The students' activism, however, was not limited to academia.
In 1932, the NSL decided to intervene in Harlan County, Kentucky, where a series of labor disputes in the coal mines had led to civil unrest and violence against civilians by local authorities. On March 23, the NSL sent a delegation to distribute humanitarian aid and investigate the situation; the core of the expedition was made of Columbia students from the Social Problems Club.
Student-journalists also paid a visit to Harlan County. Under the guidance of Reed Harris, then Spectator editor in chief, a reporter named Arnold M. Beichman, who graduated from Columbia College in 1934, embedded himself in the delegation together with three graduate students from the School of Journalism.
Ultimately, Spectator’s work culminated on the front page of the March 29, 1932 paper with pieces about how the NSL delegation had been intimidated and assaulted by local authorities as they attempted to enter Kentucky, highlighting the even worse repression faced by the miners themselves.
While the student-journalists who participated in the delegation were not activists, their role had a political effect.
Beichman writes in his article, for example, that “in the [Social Problems Club] bus the deputy sheriff of Bell County savagely remarked: ‘What someone here needs is a bullet between the eyes.’ County Attorney Smith, noticing that I was writing down this remark on some copy-paper, gently poked me in the ribs and said to me: ‘You didn't hear that, did you? You wouldn't swear that you heard the remark, would you?’”
Smith soon assaulted a graduate student after she asked for proof of one of the attorney's wild accusations, while the deputy sheriff brandished his gun at other passengers who tried to intervene.
Outside coverage of events such as this greatly assisted the activists in their work. By April 4,1932, students had overwhelmed the office of Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon with telegrams asking that he protect them. The American Civil Liberties Union too eventually involved itself in the case.
The incident just goes to highlight how even objective coverage of an issue can, by drawing attention to the incidents at hand, have the effect of rallying sentiment and support around an activist group.
In 1932, there was a strong sense of solidarity between the student-journalists and student-activists involved in the Harlan County expedition. These activists would later come to repay the favor, when Spectator came into a crisis of its own.
The Reed Harris Incident
Under the editorship of Reed Harris in fall 1931 and spring 1932, Spectator adopted an increasingly radical line. Cohen remarks that this was unexpected, as Harris came from a wealthy background and military-style education, spending his first few semesters at Columbia doing “traditional,” as Cohen calls them, Ivy League activities, such as playing football and joining a fraternity.
Nonetheless, the Great Depression suddenly brought on harsh economic circumstances to many of his classmates, which forced Harris to look at institutions more cynically. (He wrote a Thanksgiving-themed editorial in 1931 about watching Columbia graduates shivering as they waited in a free soup line.) Harris himself was later quoted in a September 28, 1961 article that "you couldn't mistake the obvious fact that something was wrong" at Columbia during the depression.
As editor in chief,Harris decided that Spectator had to play a more active role in the world. He “wanted to bring the student press closer to the standards of professional journalism,” according to Cohen. This meant moving away from “pandering” relationships with the administration—in which access to administrators was exchanged for unquestioning coverage—and towards a more adversarial style.
Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University at the time, was less enthusiastic. Butler claimed that freedom of expression “relates solely to the freedom of thought and inquiry and teaching on the part of accomplished scholars” but implicitly excluding the undergraduate student body, Cohen wrote.
But Harris and his staff refused to be stifled by this attitude. They wrote editorials uncompromisingly about college athletics, ROTC, and secret societies, making him the enemy of these influential groups, and of the administration.
The wildly divergent views of Harris and Butler, though, came to blows in late March 1932, just as the Harlan County expedition returned to New York. On March 29, Spectator’s managing board published an editorial calling out Columbia for not improving the quality of its dining halls a year after an investigation found that waiters were being mistreated and food was poor. Then, on the same front page that featured Beichman’s exposé on the brutality against students in Harlan County by local authorities, there was another scathing report on working conditions in the John Jay dining hall.
Whether hundreds of miles away, or right in Morningside Heights, the dignity of workers was a cause for concern to Harris.
Furious, the administration retaliated. Dining hall management interrogated student workers, some of whom had allegedly spoken to Spectator. Then, on March 30, Harris was called into the office of the dean of students, who demanded that Spectator name its sources. Harris refused, citing journalistic ethics and the potential for further retaliation against dining hall employees.
Harris was expelled from the University on April Fools' Day—but the expulsion was no joke. Student activists sprung into action.
The April 4, 1932 front page offers a small snapshot into the student-led fight against the administration. The lead headline read: “Meeting at Noon Will Protest Expulsion of Reed Harris.” The managing board wrote a statement against the administration. And the Social Problems Club brought together 1,000 people in a meeting about the Harlan County expedition to advocate for Harris.
The next day, the administration fired back, accusing Spectator of making unsubstantiated claims—the backlash did not stop. Due to the NSL’s citywide network, other groups at NYU and Hunter College organized in solidarity. Other allies of the Social Problems Club, such as the ACLU, also voiced their support in the case.
Two thousand students eventually showed their support by going on strike. They occupied Low Steps, the perennial activity of Columbia protesters and blocked the entrances to campus before 9 a.m. classes. (Evidently, the 8:40 class had not yet been introduced.)
But Spectator didn’t gain the unanimous support of the student body. Angered by Harris’ editorials on college athletics, the football team and its allies showed up in force, pelting the encampment on Low with objects and fighting some of the strikers.
Dodging an egg thrown by a heckler, pro-strike speaker Lief Dahl, shouted, “That man thinks as straight as he throws.”
Protracted negotiations began, and the administration reluctantly started to investigate John Jay Hall dining conditions. Harris was eventually invited back for readmission by the administration on April 20, but he ultimately rejected its offer by publicly resigning.
Through their combined efforts, Spectator and the Social Problems Club forced the administration to back down from an attack on a prominent student. But the events of April 1932 would hardly be the last time either the Social Problems Club or Harris would face controversy.
The Social Problems Club would, in fact, be embedded in a controversy disconcertingly similar to those of 2017. As Dorian Bon, alumnus of Columbia College’s class of 2015, writes in Socialist Worker, the NSL was involved in a boycott movement against the fascist powers that involved the Social Problems Club protesting a December 1933 speech on campus by Nazi ambassador Hans Luther. In a throwback to their activities in the previous year, the protest turned into a riot.
Harris also found himself the subject of administrative scrutiny again when he testified before Senator Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Investigations Committee in March 1953. His writings for Spectator were indeed cited as evidence that Harris, who was the deputy director of the then-State Department-funded radio station Voice of America, harbored secret Communist sympathies.
Harris died in 1982, a year after the administration refused to retroactively grant him a degree. And needless to say, the Social Problems Club is no longer active on campus. Nevertheless, both left a model for student-activists and student-journalists in the decades to come.
The stories of 1930s of course do not stay there; they have further reaching implications. These same dynamics, of administrative crackdown on the freedom of the press, have already begun to play out today on a national stage. With increased restrictions on access to public figures and events, journalists during the Trump administration must now contend with an openly hostile government. The committed defense of such freedoms mounted during Harris’ time may find itself revisited today.
Have fun leafing through our second issue, and subscribe to our new weekly newsletter, As We See It!