In many ways, March 22, 1987, was an ordinary Friday night. A crowd of students congregated in Ferris Booth Commons, with the usual noise and rush of excitement in anticipation of the weekend. On any other Friday night, you might not have noticed Mike Jones, a junior at Columbia College. Jones’ friends describe him as short and unassuming in build but with a toughness and sense of self-assurance. But on this particular night—a night that would shape the months to come—Jones walked into the dining hall with the urge to be heard.
For weeks, a group of white football players repeatedly harassed Jones, who is Black. A friend recalls instances of the football players physically obstructing Jones’ path in the stairwells of campus. Jones had grown tired of the constant intimidation and expressed his frustration to a group of friends, who encouraged him to seek out the football players, confront them, and demand that they leave him alone. On that night, Winston Grady-Willis, a Columbia College senior at the time, was one of a handful of Jones’ friends who agreed to accompany him to Ferris in an attempt to identify the perpetrators. “I was out there; we were all out there, several of us,” says Grady-Willis. “Not to throw down but to literally just observe what was going to happen, take some names.”
Grady-Willis says that they planned to follow the University’s protocols and bring the football players’ names to the dean. JacQuie Parmlee-Bates, CC ’89 and former Black Students Organization president, was also there that night. “[Jones] didn’t come out fighting,” she says. “He was trying to just tell [the perpetrator], I’m tired of your crap.” Before Jones could confront the students civilly, witnesses recall that a circle of 10 to 15 white football players began to form around him. According to Parmlee-Bates, Jones had not registered that there were people behind him when he was suddenly punched in the back of the head.
Grady-Willis says he has never been a fighter, but he still entered the action to pull Jones away from someone holding him in a headlock. A crowd formed around the scene as the fight spilled onto Broadway. Parmlee-Bates remembers with dismay that many of the onlookers immediately took sides without knowing what was happening. The crowd contained more than 50 students, many attracted by the spectacle, and soon, the initial punch launched at Jones had launched the peaceful Friday night into unadulterated chaos. The horde of people grew so loud that first-years leaned out of their dorm windows in Carman Hall to see the cause of such commotion. The altercation reached its point of no return when a few of the football players yelled threats and racial slurs at the Black students. Both Grady-Willis and Parmlee-Bates have yet to forget it.
“And then,” Parmlee-Bates says, “then it was a fight.”
A fight that landed Mike Jones at St. Luke’s hospital for medical treatment.
In the early hours of the next morning, a group of Black students convened in the Malcolm X Lounge to recover from the incident and form a new campus activist organization: Concerned Black Students of Columbia.
Grady-Willis was one of the Black students who went to the Malcolm X Lounge that night and became directly involved in the CBSC’s formation and operation. “What do we do?” he remembers the group members asking themselves. “One of the key things that we realized is that we have to organize, and we have to make a statement that’s bigger than the incident itself.”
The CBSC initially focused on directly responding to the previous night’s fight. It filed witness reports to the police and called for disciplinary action against the following four white Columbia College students involved in the altercation: Matt Sodl, Drew Krause, Don Chiesa, and Michael Bogacki. It then expanded its focus to promote a list of larger demands that aimed to advocate for the Black community on campus. These demands included the creation of an Africana studies department and the hiring of more Black faculty members. “We knew that this incident was just a precipitation of a condition that was already there,” Parmlee-Bates states.
In the weeks following, the CBSC hosted informational meetings in residence halls where students could learn about the organization and voice their concerns. One such meeting occurred on April 14, when members of the CBSC updated attendees on the lack of progress with the police statements they submitted immediately following the fight. Members also addressed concerns regarding the perceived exclusion of white students in the movement. In a Spectator article published the following day, Dorian Scott, a steering committee member and a sophomore at Columbia College, responded by clarifying that the CBSC welcomed the support of white students. However, she also asserted the importance of Black leadership by adding that “[Black people] should be in the leadership of a black movement.”
The CBSC also organized various rallies and marches on campus. A march held on April 4, 1987, drew a crowd of approximately 600 protesters. In addition to advocating for the CBSC’s causes, the rally commemorated the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the second anniversary of the 1985 Hamilton Hall blockade.
Grady-Willis remembers detritus being thrown at protesters from nearby windows during a march held by the organization. “What we saw on campus was this really visceral response to the activism of Black students and white allies,” he says.
On April 21, the CBSC organized a sit-in in front of Hamilton Hall, chaining the doors closed for roughly 12 hours before being broken up by the New York Police Department. Students identified from videos of the protest received disciplinary action, with the arrested students spending their summer on campus while anxiously awaiting a court date. “What ended up happening is that we became the victims, or we became victims again, because we were already victims the first time,” says Parmlee-Bates.
The judge ultimately dropped the students’ cases, but the anxiety and the injustice associated with the summer of probation still remain with Parmlee-Bates to this day.
Emira Woods, a senior in Columbia College who was a University Senator and a member of the CBSC, points out that the University’s hostility to the Black student protesters stood in contrast to its relative inaction against the white students involved in the original incident. To her, this hypocrisy was also reflected in the racial bias of campus discourse, including Spectator’s coverage.
“It wasn’t an equal representation,” says Woods. “It was almost like, in spite of the impediments, we’re going to try to force to be heard. It wasn’t a level playing field.”
From the very outset, the CBSC clashed with both the Columbia administration and popular campus discourse. The first opinion segment critiquing the organization was printed in the Columbia Daily Spectator on March 24.
An op-ed titled “Rationalism, not radicalism, is the way out of racism” inaccurately describes the incident outside of Ferris as “a confrontation between several white students and a crowd of blacks [that] took place outside Ferris Booth Hall.” People on both sides of the altercation were Columbia students, but the statement refers to the Black students only as “blacks.”
The article further frames the CBSC’s flyering and public statements as an “explosion of propaganda.” The writer, Niloofar Razi, claims that “the allegations made by this group occurred on the first day of Black Power week.” With a sarcastic tone, Razi poses a question: “A coincidence? My sense of morality forces me to say yes.”
This cloud of doubt surrounding the CBSC’s political motives was present from the very beginning. As the CBSC planned actions and protests in a matter of days after the incident, students were skeptical that such swift organizing could happen organically. They assumed that the protests must have been planned in advance to observe Malcolm X Day, but Parmlee-Bates says that the holiday had no part in the CBSC’s organizing.
“We wanted to address the issue immediately, and that’s how we organized,” Parmlee-Bates says. “We just did it that next day and anybody who wanted to participate did.”
Razi’s article continues to question the legitimacy of Black students’ characterization of the initial altercation. “The events surrounding the outbursts are hazy; the conflicting accounts of the story make it unlikely that what happened will ever be resolved.” A few sentences later, Razi offers her own interpretation of the incident asking, “if, as Sodl, Krause, and others maintain, the white students were surrounded by a group of blacks—an obviously intimidating situation, who then is doing the assaulting?”
Woods reflects on the discourse surrounding the CBSC. “It’s almost like a presumption of guilt for the person of color, which is wrong,” she recalls.
The next day, Spectator published a rebuttal to Razi’s article written by Ubah Hussen, a Barnard senior. The opinion piece directly responds to Razi’s misplaced blame on the Black victims, while also making a statement to the larger community. Hussen writes, “Razi offers the tired-ass argument that black people should be “rational” in the face of physical, life-threatening violence. Based on the racist assumption that we somehow deserve what we get since we must have somehow instigated it, this farce also runs in the face of rational human nature.”
The critiques against the CBSC only mounted following Hussen’s rebuttal, however, with further editorials sharing the sentiment that the CBSC was too radical and that adopting a more moderate, reformist tone was in its best interest. One such editorial was published on March 30 by Spectator’s managing board, highlighting the so-called “misdirected militancy” of the organization. “If the CBSC’s efforts are to be truly productive, it will need a wide base of support,” the piece reads. “The group’s tactics have already left some students alienated and threaten to alienate more.”
On April 9, 1987, Spectator published a To the Editor opinion by Lawrence Temlock, a white Columbia College sophomore, who encouraged the CBSC to be more welcoming of students who do not support its “over-radical tactics.” In essence, this brief piece demands that the CBSC “stop fighting invisible enemies and start fighting the real racists.” A few weeks later, an editorial by Tim Gershon titled “Standing up for Columbia” describes the CBSC’s work as slanted, exaggerated, and full of inflammatory falsehoods. He writes, “[the CBSC’s] tactic may succeed in radicalizing some who feel guilty for the racism that still has not been eliminated from society. But the strategy also alienates many who object to the destructive abuse of this university’s tolerant spirit. Several of the CBSC’s demands are absurd.”
Parmlee-Bates clarifies that the marches, sit-ins, and demands that some detractors referred to as extremism were necessary to raise awareness of the incident with Jones. Without these protests, the CBSC felt that its calls for change would be overlooked and ultimately dismissed.
“I could see them saying that we were revolutionary in the types of things that we were doing, but what we were trying to explain to them was that they were going to sweep it under the rug. That was very clear early on,” Parmlee-Bates says. “So we had to do things that would keep it front of mind for them, keep it at the top of their minds. We weren’t damaging property, we weren’t snatching people up. We were just doing the traditional ways of protesting.”
Exclusion was another key accusation hurled at the CBSC. On March 31, Spectator featured a To The Editor titled “Racism is no excuse for racism” that equates the experience of two white students being turned away from a CBSC meeting to Jim Crow segregation. The piece closes with the lines, “although I understand how Sunday’s incident might cause such a reaction on the part of Columbia’s black community, I cannot sympathize with such blatant discrimination.”
According to former members, certain CBSC meetings were specifically for Black students to come together and heal, while others were open to all members of the Columbia community to attend. Grady-Willis remembers tension surrounding the perceived exclusivity of such CBSC meetings, and his inability to articulate the importance of having a safe space for Black students at the time. “We didn’t have that kind of language [to explain it], we didn’t have that toolkit,” he says.
Once claims of being radical and exclusionary against the organization were seemingly exhausted, Johnathan Sobel’s piece on April 3, “The fiction and the fury,” unleashed yet another critique.
Sobel accuses the CBSC of lying about the incident outside of Ferris to serve its own self-interest, writing in opposition to the demand for the creation of a mandatory Core Curriculum course that educates students on racism and “racially motivated violence against people of African descent.”
An illustration accompanying the article depicts a white man inflating a massive balloon emblazoned with the word “HYPE,” directly implying that the CBSC’s claims rely on the momentum of popular attention rather than merit or value.
While the CBSC’s demand to institute a new Core Curriculum class ultimately fell short, its demands were included in a proposal that led to the Columbia College Committee on Instruction’s approval of a new interdepartmental program in African American studies. Parmlee-Bates recalls, “My major came out of [the CBSC’s work]. There was not an African American Studies major and I became one of the first people to get that major. That’s one of the key things I remember.”
The majority of opinion articles run by Spectator in the weeks and months following the fight involving Jones characterize the CBSC as a group of militant, radical, exclusionary Black students who brushed past the evidence to serve their own personal causes. But these descriptors are not how former CBSC members recall their experiences with the organization, which became a vital network during their time at Columbia.
Though the group disbanded about two years after its formation, former members of the CBSC still hold onto vital pieces of the group’s collective identity. In fact, the enduring power of the CBSC’s mission is perhaps most strongly manifested in the way that its members still speak of their time in the group with the same passion and dedication to fighting injustice as they did in 1987.
According to some former CBSC members, much of the organization’s actual mission centered not around revolution, but around education. In addition to making demands for institutional change, members advocated for social education on issues of race within the Columbia community. Parmlee-Bates recalls, “We had to educate even the Black people on campus. You’re either with us or you’re not, you know, but we had a bigger fight to fight.”
The larger effort to undo inequities and further diversification and sensitivity at Columbia predated the CBSC and persists today. Woods explains that the manifold challenges the CBSC faced in educating the student body and making the group’s points heard were partly due to a bastion of conservatism on campus in the 1980s that arose in response to the first class of women admitted in 1983 and the emergence of progressive leaders of color in the anti-apartheid divestment movement of 1985.
Contrary to the popular depiction of the CBSC as uncooperative and fixated on radical shows of protest, the CBSC made concerted efforts to affect change through the University’s established channels: its members met with administrators to discuss their demands and activists like Woods advocated for a racism resolution drafted by the Student Affairs Committee in response to the incident. When the racism resolution was proposed to the University Senate, however, it was rejected on the spot, and the meeting with administrators was deemed unproductive by both the CBSC and the administrators.
Woods recalls that exerting pressure from within the system was nearly impossible when spaces like the University Senate were dominated by “entrenched forces, both within the faculty, within the administration, as well as the student body, the alumni networks, [working to] maintain the status quo without a real reckoning of why there was a need for change.” It was only after the CBSC’s attempts at internal pressure proved largely futile that the organization turned toward forms of active protest on campus, a maneuver that Woods calls “outside strategy.”
The accumulation of attacks, unfair treatment, and racial bias from the University and campus discourse left the CBSC battle-tested in the face of constant criticism during Grady-Willis’ senior year. “We knew what it meant to speak truth to power and that was our intention this time as well,” Grady-Willis says.
He also admits that in response to the constant attacks taught him to ignore Spectator articles. “It just becomes about self-care,” he says. Self-care was important for student activists like Grady-Willis who were still healing from the incident: “I wasn’t thinking this at the time but I think I was depressed in the midst of the movement in 1987. I just felt alone, just kind of fragile, vulnerable, as a graduating senior. I mean the situation was just intense.”
The feelings of isolation engendered by the University and its institutions persisted all the way through graduation, Woods recalls. As senior students within the CBSC grappled with the bittersweet culmination of their Columbia experience, many of them were still under academic probation from the University for protesting in Hamilton Hall.
“We were facing issues of, as you go toward graduation, do you want to walk and why? Does this campus reflect your values?” Woods says. “It went to that point, even at graduation, of expressing discontent to how issues of race and issues of justice were playing out both on the campus, and in areas off the campus that the university had influence on.”
The CBSC’s spring 1987 activism culminated with seniors walking out of the graduation ceremony in an act of protest. A Spectator article published on May 20, 1987, states that more than 30 students marched out of commencement in favor of their own graduation ceremony, which they held in the courtyard outside of Hamilton Hall.
These shared acts of solidarity ultimately molded the CBSC into a network of Black students who came together to process trauma, heal, advocate for themselves, and enjoy social support. The Malcolm X Lounge was critical for this network, with Grady-Willis describing it as “a place where we had one another’s back when things really really got challenging.”
“We got to dance together,” he wistfully recalls. “[We] got to sweat together and just establish bonds that are so tremendous.” The community that the CBSC established remains strong—one of Grady-Willis’ friends from his years in the CBSC is now the godfather of his youngest child.
In the face of mounting critiques and a lack of institutional support, the CBSC mobilized in the spring of 1987 to build a community that would last beyond the group’s existence. “Some amazing things happened because we have the audacity to really kind of care about one another even if it meant that it was a really adversarial relationship with the university itself,” Grady-Willis remembers. He smirks before adding, “And I mean adversarial, all-caps underlined.”
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