Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (iii)

Two events related to the African-American student movement made an impact on Columbia’s campus: the Orangeburg Massacre and the student occupation of Howard University’s Administration Building.

Student activists and SNCC people who had been involved in resisting racial discrimination at a local bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina were shot at by racist cops. Some students were killed. Hence, the event was characterized as “The Orangeburg Massacre.”

To publicize what had happened in Orangeburg around the United States and to raise some money for bail and other Movement needs in Orangeburg, a meeting was set up at Columbia by Bill and another leader of the Student Afro-American Society, named Ray, in which Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC worker who had witnessed the Orangeburg Massacre, was to speak. Ray had observed Columbia SDS meetings with Bill on a number of occasions and seemed, with the exception of Bill, to be the most politically radical African-American student on campus. In discussions with Ray on a number of occasions during the 1967-68 school year I had often indicated that Columbia SDS was interested in forming a working political alliance with the SNCC-oriented African-American students on campus.

The meeting to discuss the Orangeburg Massacre was scheduled to be held in Harkness Theatre, in the basement of Butler Library, at around 7 or 7:30 p.m. Before the meeting had even begun, the hall was packed and it appeared there would not be enough seats for the predominantly white anti-racist student crowd that wished to join about 30 African-American students, in listening to Cleveland Sellers speak about the Orangeburg Massacre.

Coincidentally, Jeff Shero of the New York SDS Regional Office was scheduled to hold a film benefit showing for his new radical underground newspaper—Rat—on that same night in Columbia’s McMillan Theatre, which had a much larger seating capacity than Harkness Theatre had. In Harkness Theatre, some Columbia SDS people suggested to Ray and Bill that we all should walk over to McMillan Theatre and hold the emergency meeting there, so that everyone who wished to attend could fit into the larger hall and a maximum amount of money could be raised. Bill and Ray thought the idea was logical, and the crowd of 150 students walked over to McMillan Theatre expecting to be seated in the hall that the New York Regional SDS Office had reserved.

When we all arrived at the entrance to McMillan Theatre, however, Shero told Columbia SDS people that since he and other Regional SDS and Rat people had reserved and paid for the hall, “You can’t use it for any kind of meeting, no matter what emergency has come up.” Shero was a white Southern transplant from Texas who was short and fairly thin. He also had a full beard and short hair. Prior to his recent arrival in New York City, he had been a vice-president of National SDS for the 1965-66 academic year.

Outraged, I and a few other Columbia SDS people attempted to argue with Shero for a few minutes. But after Ray saw how much bureaucratic argument Shero was giving us just to avoid letting the crowd walk into McMillan Theatre, he told people that “The meeting will be held as planned in Harkness Theatre.” And as we walked back to Harkness Theatre, Ray scowled and said sarcastically to me: “Is this what SDS means by having an alliance with the Black Revolution?”

Embarrassed by Shero’s bureaucratic white Southern racism in placing his white radical underground newspaper’s need ahead of the emergency needs of SNCC people, I replied quietly: “SDS still has political problems,” as Ray turned his back on me and walked ahead towards HarknessTheatre.

In Harkness Theatre, Bill gave a militant introduction to Sellers, who looked somewhat dazed, almost as if he had just returned home from some kind of war zone. In detail, Sellers then described the atrocity that had been committed in Orangeburg. People were moved and enraged at the deadly repression down there that had produced the massacre. There was little doubt that in early 1968 most white anti-racists at Columbia were solidly behind SNCC, not the SCLC or CORE. The Orangeburg Massacre of African-American students once again seemed to confirm that racism in the U.S. could only be ended by mass armed resistance of the Black masses, and not by non-violently singing “We Shall Overcome” and imitating the tactics of the non-African Mahatma Gandhi.

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