Decolonizing Knowledge: Stefan Bradley on the Fight for Civil Rights in the Ivy League

In the 1960s, black students at the Ivies organized and protested for fair treatment, their personal safety, to create black studies programs, and to stop their universities from harming local black communities through expansion and urban renewal.

Jonny Auping | Longreads | November 2018 | 19 minutes (5,155 words)

Being steeped in tradition, by nature, requires a resistance to change; and, as Stefan Bradley points out in the introduction to his new book Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League, seven of the eight Ivy League schools — often referred to as the “Ancient Eight” — existed before the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, making them perhaps “more American than the nation itself with respect to culture and history.” Attending an Ivy League school is and always has been a marker of status in this country, one boasted by many U.S. Presidents, judges, and world leaders. Racial equality was not something that came naturally to these institutions; it had to be fought for. Upending the Ivory Tower documents the struggles of early black Ivy League students as well as the demonstrations and building occupations students in the 1960s took part in to hold these elite universities accountable for their prejudice.

Dr. Bradley is currently chair of the African American Studies program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles (and years ago he was also a professor of mine at Saint Louis University). In 2012, he published Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the 1960s, a book about how, as some white student activists worked to radicalize and restructure the university, black students, joining with local activists in Harlem, sought to stop the university from paving over a public park to build a private gymnasium. The perspective of outsiders allowed them to see beyond internal campus politics; to recognize the university as a force in the world which sometimes must be opposed, not just reorganized. Upending the Ivory Tower covers similar ground but has an expanded scope, covering the postwar period through 1975 and all eight Ivies, adding a new layer of nuance to our understanding of the civil rights and Black Power movements, and recounting the stories of young people who had everything to lose but were righteous in their demands for what they had yet to gain.

Bradley spoke to me by phone from New Jersey, the same day he was to give a talk at Princeton University about the complexity of civil rights issues in the Ivy League, forms of protest, and what similarities and differences he sees between the student movements of the sixties and current campus protests.

Jonny Auping: In 2012, you wrote Harlem vs. Columbia University, and you followed it up with this book, which covers civil rights demonstrations throughout all the Ivy League schools. What has drawn you to researching and writing about this particular area of civil rights history?

Stefan Bradley: The first thing I wanted to do is to see how far civil rights and black power went in the nation. So when we talk about civil rights we have a tendency to talk about the movements of poor black people in the South; the kind of things that Martin King did and Septima Clark and all these great civil rights leaders in the South. I wanted to show that racism extended far into the North, but so did the civil rights movement. It was important to note that the civil rights movement along with the black power movement took place in spaces that maybe we wouldn’t necessarily expect. We love to talk about the [Black] Panthers and we love to talk about the streets of Oakland and New York City. Well, I argue that movement-making occurred in some of the most hallowed spaces in the United States, the spaces where the masses of black people would never visit.

But my argument is that black people struggle where black people are, so the few black people that could attend Ivy League institutions took the struggle of civil rights and black power to those places and transformed the institutions. I thought that was fascinating.

Another thing I tried to find out is what would make these young people, who had the opportunity and privilege of potentially joining the American middle class or upper class, sacrifice their status and potentially expose themselves to the draft?

There’s a difference between desegregation and integration. So these students who found themselves at these very elite institutions were hardly integrated into the Ivy League. And it was very hurtful.

Why do you think so much of what took place at Ivy League campuses at that time often gets overlooked when people talk about the civil rights movement of that time?

Well, part of it is it’s just easier to tell a story of disenfranchised people being mistreated. That narrative is easy to tell. It’s the David versus Goliath kind of thing. It’s harder to think of students who can attend an Ivy League institution as being vulnerable or oppressed in any kind of way. My argument is: because of the nature of racism, these students faced oppression and were vulnerable to isolation, at the least, and certain [kinds of] mistreatment.

Another issue is these institutions have been very protective of their images. That [history of discrimination] can’t be part of the larger story that they tell about themselves. The story that they tell about themselves is, “This person went on to be President and this person went on to be judge. I’m currently at Princeton University and they have an exhibit showing women at Princeton. They talk about Michelle Robinson, who went on to become Michelle Obama, and Judge Sonya Sotomayor. Those are the stories they like to tell. It’s harder to tell the stories of these students having trouble because of their race or ethnicity on campus. That doesn’t sell to alumni or donors the same way.

You mentioned in the preface that you were trying to go into an Ivy League library in order to research for this book, and you were rebuked and told, “We don’t just let outsiders in.” Are you able to speak to the exclusiveness that hangs over these prestigious universities?

Yeah, I think there’s a certain mystique. There’s no doubt about that. You can go to the most poverty stricken neighborhoods in America and if you asked somebody to name three universities they could probably say Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Everybody knows what these institutions are and what they can get you in terms of status and that kind of thing, but becoming an insider is not so altogether easy because these places have been so steeped in tradition and often times, at least up until the 1960s and 1970s, so steeped in maybe a kind of nepotism. My father went there. My grandfather went there. Because of that it’s natural for me to go there. The nepotism came in the way of the students from Hanover and St. Paul Academy that were funnel schools for these institutions, so the same students kept coming generation after generation.

That was a revelatory moment for me when I was trying to go into that library. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I didn’t want to do anything but to find out more about the institution. It was kind of a curt conversation where the person said, “We don’t just let outsiders in.” I was trying to figure out What do you have in there that’s that important that you just don’t let outsiders in to view your books? But that spoke volumes to me.

I indicated this in the book, but the majority — 95 percent — of the archivist librarians and service staff were wonderful. But I do remember quite well that one incident. That’s a testament too, though, that’s also revelatory in a way. One bad incident can color your vision of an institution. That’s what these students, faculty and staff were going through in this period that I discussed.

A point that you reference throughout is the burden that these early black Ivy Leaguers had to carry, what W.E.B. Dubois called, “being at but not of Harvard.” We always hear these stories of this extreme stress that is put on Ivy Leaguers by their professors or their parents or themselves and how it can crush their psyche. Can you speak to how much more difficult that was for black students dealing with isolation and racism?

Absolutely. I have a chapter called “Surviving Solitude.” It speaks directly to that. People like Dubois come to Harvard but lived a very difficult life because people didn’t want to speak to him. One white alumnus, when faced with the prospect of a black student living on campus, said, “Maybe there will be a time when eating with blacks will be happening under the same roof, but to sleep with a nigger is a horse of another color.”

Seven out of eight of these institutions were able to desegregate before the Second World War, but there’s a difference between desegregation and integration. So these students who found themselves at these very elite institutions were hardly integrated into the Ivy League. And it was very hurtful. I talk to J. Saunders Redding at a time when he and another black student tried their best to deal with their isolation and the small slights that they felt. It ended up being too much for the friend of Redding who dropped out of school and committed suicide.

One of the things that worked best, and this is something that I think should be informative for today’s recruiters, is they needed black recruiters. That started with black students themselves recruiting black students. Once there was a critical mass of black students, they ended up protesting [to hire] black recruiters.

It happened at every level. I also wrote about a Dartmouth black student who played on the football team and came on the field against Princeton. Now Princeton was the last Ivy League school to even desegregate and that didn’t happen until World War II. Well, this student came out and not more than a few minutes later his collarbone was broken. One of the Princeton players said, “Who do you think you are bringing colored men to play against us?” So they intentionally injured this player and ended his season. These are the kinds of things that these early black pioneers had to deal with.

A premier historian, who led Bill Clinton’s race initiative during his presidential years, had talked about his professors telling “darkie” jokes in class. I can’t imagine being in class and having to perform while my professors told jokes like that.

While taking some of the most difficult classes in the country.

Right. They still had to perform. That was a highlight of that chapter, finding out how many of those students came out Phi Theta Kappa and who graduated with honors or, if they were in law school, ended up working on the law review. It took a special effort, but I think they saw themselves as people who would uplift the race. They were the ones that had the privilege so they had to make good, almost like Jackie Robinson did in the major leagues.

The most obvious civil rights issue in the Ivy League is the admission of black students, but it was a lot more complicated than just agreeing to admit black students. What about the admissions process needed to change to begin to resemble some form of equality?

A lot of them didn’t know how to recruit well because they were so prestigious that people naturally applied. They never had to recruit the way some universities had to. The best students knew that they were applying to these institutions. So to them, the prospect of having to recruit black students was something outside of their realm of thought.

They took different approaches. The first approach was not recruiting at all. The second approach was Well, maybe we can grow black students. They would try to get black students from the south or rural areas to come to predominantly white institutions. Or they would take high school students and put them in these preparatory day schools and feed them into these universities.

I don’t think any of that really worked. So one of the things that worked best, and this is something that I think should be informative for today’s recruiters, is they needed black recruiters. That started with black students themselves recruiting black students. Once there was a critical mass of black students, they ended up protesting [to hire] black recruiters and they did the heavy lifting of recruiting black students, and they were able to get numbers up.

People complained of the same thing that people complain about affirmative action today. They said oh we’re lowering standards and losing our tradition, which all of course wasn’t true. There was still a very large number of sons of the alumni at the institutions. That’s the original form of affirmative action in higher education.


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Those same students in the sixties had to actively fight for the creation of black studies programs. Obviously some of the resistance was the product of blatant racism, but some of the professors and administrators claimed to be worried that it wasn’t a degree that would actively help students after graduation. As a chair of an African American studies program, why were the creation of these programs important in a way that these students were able to foresee?

That’s probably the best question I’ve heard on that, because you’re drilling down on the nuance of that. Some people thought there wasn’t enough to study for a black studies program. That’s a certain kind of racism, and a fairly blatant form of racism in my opinion, especially because black people have been in America as long as white people.

But what you were speaking to was the nuance of what could happen after graduation if you took up a degree or concentration in what you call black studies or Afro-American studies. This was a deep concern and something that actually split black scholars. There were some black scholars who didn’t believe in the idea of an interdisciplinary degree. They thought maybe it would be better if black students took up economics or took up physics. There were some scholars black and white — mostly white — who wondered about the seriousness of these programs.

Essentially what we’re talking about is who gets to occupy a space. Is it the future leaders of the nation and the world or is it black and brown and poor people who want affordable housing?

There was one white scholar who had grown up in Eastern Europe, he had made the point that when the Cold War came there were all kinds of Russian studies programs and Soviet studies programs and Chinese studies programs because it was in the interest of the nation. And he made the point — and it was a very cogent one — that wouldn’t it make sense, with all of the things going on in the nation with regard to race relations and racism and discrimination, that there be an academic analysis in the role that black people paid in contributing to the nation?

In the end, the students might have been the most insightful of anyone because these departments still exist. People like Armstead Robinson who fought for them at Yale — and Yale was the first of the Ivy League to have a black studies program — he was as much an advocate of black power as was Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown and those kinds of people because these students were able to decolonize knowledge in a way that hadn’t been done at institutions in centuries.

A huge issue that I think most readers might not have previously thought about is Ivy League universities in urban settings expanding and displacing residents in surrounding neighborhoods. You refer to them as Space Invaders. Can you explain that and why black students felt the need to demonstrate so fiercely against that expansion?

Yeah, this is actually one of my favorite parts because what it does is turn the institution away from education into policy influencers and beneficiaries of federal largesse.

Ostensibly these institutions are there to educate the future leaders of the nation and world. That’s all well and good, but these institutions are in competition with one another so they feel the need to expand physically. Some of these institutions find themselves in essentially black and brown and poor neighborhoods. Here is where private industry meets with federal policy. So taking advantage of urban renewal, institutions like Columbia and University of Pennsylvania and even Harvard and Yale were able to expand into their cities. This was traumatic in some ways for the neighborhoods that surrounded particularly Columbia and Penn.

Columbia expanded into West Harlem and Morningside Heights. Over the course of a decade they had essentially displaced 10,000 residents, most of those being black and brown and poor people. That’s actually social engineering. That’s engineering neighborhoods.

At University of Pennsylvania there was once a neighborhood called Mantua, which no longer exists because the neighborhood is now called University City because the university wanted to create a science center so they started clearing a pathway of land. Essentially what we’re talking about is who gets to occupy a space. Is it the future leaders of the nation and the world or is it black and brown and poor people who want affordable housing? To me, I think that was one of the best contests to highlight in the book.

Students, black and white, were able to push against their institutions and try to check their expansion into neighborhoods. At Columbia students aligned themselves with people of Harlem. They took over campus buildings and protested against the university’s plans to build a gymnasium in a public park. At the University of Penn radical white students and black students and black community members protested the university pushing into West Philadelphia and ended up taking over a campus building as well. The result of that was Columbia never built its gymnasium in the park and at Penn they agreed to allocate millions of dollars to relocation expenses.

But that didn’t come naturally. That wasn’t the thought originally. It took students to push for that. It took students to make these institutions realize Look, you’re being the worst kind of bully. An institution meant to help people was actually hurting people. And it was doing so with the benefits of the federal government subsidizing these institutions. Urban removal among black people was referred to as “negro removal.”

It was interesting reading about the students being so passionate about that, because I imagine it’s something college students rarely think about. I like to think pretty fondly of [my alma mater] SLU based on the philanthropic atmosphere that it encourages compared to other universities I’ve been around, but it being located in the heart of St. Louis, I imagine it’s been pretty guilty of that sort of thing.

Yes. Here again, at the institution that I taught at and that you spent time at, there was once a neighborhood called Mill Creek Valley that, because Saint Louis University expanded, no longer exists. It’s SLU campus now. And SLU just purchased another 400 acres.

The cost of living goes up in a way that somebody’s grandma who stays there can’t afford to live there anymore. It becomes a situation where these neighborhoods shift and become something else.

The idea, though, that college students would care about something other than themselves — this was a situation where they weren’t necessarily taking up protest because of how they were being treated, but how vulnerable, disenfranchised people were treated. These students lived on campus. They had homes. They were going to have degrees that could buy them middle class privilege. They pushed against the institution to get it to act better. They were often pushing for things that benefited people they would never meet. To me, that’s the epitome of righteousness.

These students were pushing against these institutions that were supposed to be paving the way to their success.

All of that gets to the way in which black students demonstrated for these issues. Sit-ins and walkouts were common, but the strategy that got the most attention was the occupation of university buildings. At Cornell there was an occupation that involved firearms. An embellished account of the Columbia occupation told of a faculty member being taken hostage. These are drastic measures. Can you speak to what these students were risking over these issues.

Definitely. These were no small things. The idea that anyone would push against an institution, that’s not natural. We don’t do these kinds of things typically in our days. The fact that these students were pushing against these institutions that were supposed to be paving the way to their success, I think it’s noteworthy.

At a place like Columbia, students had taken over a building and the dean stayed in his office. Well, they really walked the line of kidnapping.

By occupying a building that he didn’t leave?

Yeah. He just decided not to leave his office. In him making that choice on his own volition he actually removed the charge of kidnapping. Trespassing was an entirely different thing. Many were charged with trespassing.

The risk is this: If arrested or expelled the men opened themselves to the draft. There was a war going on. They would get to the front of the draft fairly quickly with something like that.

I think there’s other things involved too though. Out at Cornell University when a cross was burned on the lawn of the black women’s cooperative, black students took over the student union in protest of this terrible act of symbolic racism. In doing so they upset some of the white counter protestors who happened to be in a fraternity. Some of those white fraternity members rushed the building and tried to physically remove the students from the student union building. Things become dangerous in that way. The black students were receiving death threats. So they armed themselves. If you just look at the pictures you might think, “My goodness, this black power/black militancy thing has gone too far.” But some of the things that nobody ever takes into account is if you’ve ever been to Cornell University you understand how country and rural that area in the Finger Lakes is. Everyone had rifles on campus because they hunted and what not, so they weren’t the only ones with firearms. There were death threats going around. It’s difficult for people to envision black people as being afraid. That’s one of those things we don’t allow for. We don’t allow black people to be afraid. Trayvon Martin couldn’t possibly have been afraid of George Zimmerman. He had to be the aggressor. Here these students were afraid for their lives and they thought to defend themselves. And they came across as terribly offensive to the sensibilities of so many people throughout the nation and at the institution. So they risked their lives in some ways.

The student body at Columbia actually had physical confrontation with police officers. They could have been killed. White students and black students. So they risked quite a bit doing all this. And I think they did so believing they were freedom fighters, that they were a part of a larger black movement, a larger third world coalition, a larger movement towards decolonization.

I’m sure some described these demonstrations as anarchy at the time, but you described them as actually meticulously organized. What kind of decisions did these students have to make to accomplish their goals and ideally not end up in prison or any other severe punishment?

These students had to think about what kind of protest they would be doing.

At Brown University, they wanted higher black admission. So they thought, “Should we do it the way Columbia did it and take over five buildings?” They thought, “No, that’s not going to work well for our campus.” So instead they actually did a boycott of the university. “We’ll walk off and stay off campus until the university decides that it wants black students on campus.” That was genius. It worked well, because that was a form of moral suasion that actually worked. They went to the local black church and holed up there for about a week.

At Princeton University, where students were demanding the university divest itself of investments in apartheid South Africa, they actually occupied the building where the comptroller’s office and payroll offices were and the argument was, “If you cannot afford to divest money in an immoral system then you won’t be allowed to pay anyone else.”

Anarchy? No I wouldn’t say that’s it. Sometimes demonstrations happened that weren’t necessarily planned, but by and large these demonstrations that occurred on campus were relatively well thought out. In any circumstances you have to do things on the fly, but occupying certain offices and taking over the office of the president or the student union on Parent’s Weekend, these things were well thought out and they got results often times.

Black students were receiving death threats. So they armed themselves…. It’s difficult for people to envision black people as being afraid. That’s one of those things we don’t allow for.

Basically all the demonstrations you described enacted some important change. Why were the administrators forced to give in to the demands in pretty much all these cases?

Sometimes it didn’t take all of that [level of demonstration]. I don’t want to give the impression that it always took that. At Dartmouth College, because Columbia students and Cornell students took over buildings, Dartmouth College officials were like, “Maybe we don’t have to have all of that. Maybe we’ll just meet with students and they can tell us what they want and we can enact changes without going through the tumult of what these other universities went through.”

They were trying to avoid what they’d already seen in the news?

Yeah, it’s easy to read the New York Times and to see these things. At Dartmouth the trustees met with the students. That’s unheard of. Students don’t meet with trustees. They wanted to avoid the drama and the trauma of things like building takeovers.

These institutions are critically aware of their reputations and they thrive on their reputations. [Being] in the news about these protests is just negative press to them. Mind you they have to compete with each other for the top students in the nation. In addition, they rely on the money of trustees. It’s not like a state university where they get money from the government. They get money from donors and alumni. To shorten these demonstrations, administrators would agree to things.

But sometimes these administrators finally realized, “Maybe we haven’t done right by black students. Maybe we could do better. And maybe what they’re asking for is not so unreasonable.” The result of that is they conceded on some points.

At a couple different places, administrators claimed that they conceded to some of the demands because they were fearful of violence. Whether that was real or not — I think it was legitimate in some ways. At Cornell, where students had taken up arms to protect themselves, the president of the university knew those death threats had been made [against] them. He knew that white fraternity students had rushed the building before. So his mindset was, “We’ll just agree to this and at least everybody will live to tell the story about it.” That didn’t sit well with everybody in the university. Some people resigned their post because of it.

Out at Columbia, because these demonstrations took place a couple weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the mayor called the president of the university and said, “Listen, I don’t want another set of uprisings in the way that we saw in Harlem after King died, so negotiate with these students and figure something out.”

But this is how things work in life. Water often takes the path of least resistance. Once students started pushing in an organized way it just became easier to give them what they wanted.

Are there comparisons to be made between the demonstrations in this book to the college protest politics currently?

One key difference is that there is not a war going on that calls for a draft. There is of course a war going on, but the military is a voluntary option for young people. The difference between now and then is that young men protesting, if they got kicked out, would be exposed to the draft. Today, many students could get kicked out and go to another university if they wanted.

In terms of similarities, some of the issues students are facing as far as race are not quite as blatant as students faced in the decades after World War II, but they are still facing a lot of the issues. These minor things add up. In the book I talk about a certain type of racial fatigue that afflicts black students. I think that still exists in predominantly white institutions and particularly elite predominately white institutions. Students are pushing back in ways that they did in 1960s and sometimes even using the same demands.

Some of the things they’ve been pushing for have been terribly legitimate. These students today are pushing for the renaming of buildings. To some people, they think, “Oh that’s ludicrous. Why are we changing history and who cares what the name of the building is?” Well, up until the 1960s and maybe even into the 2000s, nothing about these institutions would give you the sense that black people had ever been there or contributed anything to the world. You look around at statues of ancient Greeks and Romans. You look at the French and Italian paintings on the wall. You look at the Latin on the walls. We know that black people contributed greatly to these institutions, let alone the world.

There are demands for higher numbers of black professors and changes in the way they do these eating clubs and residential houses. I think those are cultural changes, and it is harder for people to envision why they are important. People can get policy changes. Cultural changes? That’s more difficult to understand but no less important.

One thing I noticed was that there were almost no mentions of United States Presidents despite it being a book about striving for and achieving progress in American institutions.

One of the takeaways from the book is that when young people are able to organize and move in one direction it’s very difficult to stop them from achieving their goals.

In terms of presidents and presidential politics, it was a situation where students weren’t satisfied with any of the presidents, especially during the war. One of the things I talk about in the book is that students pressed against and pushed up against liberal politicians as much as they did conservative politicians, because liberal politicians are the ones who had been in office to accommodate Jim Crow and hadn’t pushed against it with the sense of urgency that these young and radical and militant students wanted. They were tired of these policies and cultures of oppression. They couldn’t stand the idea of liberalism or conservatism.

You have to think about the presidents as people who were authorizing the deaths of millions of people abroad, but also the way these students saw it, in some ways authorizing the deaths of their peers who went on to fight in these wars. So there wasn’t a whole lot of love for any of the presidents at the time amongst those who were protesting on campus.

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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas MonthlyThe New YorkerVICENew York MagazineSlateand McSweeney’s.

Editor: Dana Snitzky