Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories–Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (x)
In the two weeks during which Columbia Vice-President Truman (who was expected to succeed Kirk as President of Columbia and was handling the decision-making process with regard to how to stop New Left student protest at Columbia) was deciding how to punish the IDA 6, Columbia SDS hard-core activists remained busy. Ironically, in a speech earlier in the academic year in Low Library rotunda, Truman had attacked the New Left and made the following vow: “We will not let the University be turned into an instrument of Revolution.”

Yet upon hearing this, Mark had, subsequently, argued at a Columbia SDS steering committee meeting: “Truman says he won’t let the University be turned into an instrument of Revolution. Our political goal should become exactly that: turning Columbia from an instrument of the corporations into an instrument of Revolution.”

Mark’s next dramatic move was at the Administration-sponsored April 9, 1968 memorial to Martin Luther King in St. Paul’s Chapel, at which Columbia President Kirk was present.

Given Columbia’s record of institutional racism in relationship to the thousands of African-American and Latino tenants it forced out of the West Harlem neighborhood surrounding it and to its non-unionized, predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican cafeteria workers, as well as its continued commitment to push ahead with its gym construction project in Morningside Park despite the objections of Harlem community activists, it was understandable why Columbia SDS people leafleted outside the chapel to protest the hypocrisy of Kirk and Company paying tribute to the assassinated King. The African-American students at Columbia and Barnard, despite Bill and Ray’s interest in radical activism, were still ambivalent about the productiveness of, themselves, handing out leaflets at such hypocritical events, on a predominantly white campus.

Mark, Stu and a few other Columbia SDS people were dressed up in suits and ties as I watched them walk into the chapel on a warm spring day. I assumed that Mark and the others were just going into the memorial service to hand out leaflets and, although I was not dressed up, I followed them into the chapel and sat in a back row.

Just before a few of the usual anti-racist platitudes were to be mouthed by Columbia Vice-President Truman, Mark suddenly walked up to the altar and, before a quiet, shocked crowd of a few hundred, said the following: “This memorial service is a moral obscenity. Martin Luther King was killed while fighting for the right of Black workers to be unionized. The Columbia Administration still refuses to let its Black and Puerto Rican cafeteria workers be unionized.”

He then led a walk-out of about 20 people from the memorial service.

I hadn’t expected such an audacious protest by Mark. But, again, he had shown both white Columbia SDS hard-core activists and the most politically conscious African-American students that the issue of racism could be raised dramatically if just one Movement activist-leader was willing to disrupt university functions in a dramatic way and assert, by his actions, that business as usual deserved to be disrupted until there was racial justice.

The Administration was appalled that Mark had been willing to go inside a chapel at one of their most solemn functions and so impolitely disrupt it. He was immediately threatened with more disciplinary action, even though the Chaplain of Columbia—a guy named Cannon—defended the right of Mark to speak if the spirit moved him, although Mark had disrupted a sacred religious service.

There was much debate on the pages of Spectator about whether Mark had the right to disrupt the King Memorial Service. And many writers were more worried about the religious service being disrupted than they were about Columbia’s policies of institutional racism, complicity with the Pentagon’s IDA or political repression of its student activists.

To answer some of the liberal criticisms of Mark’s decision to disrupt Columbia’s official King Memorial Service, I wrote a short essay titled “In Defense of Disruption,” in which I echoed SNCC Chairman H. Rap. Brown [n/k/a Jamil Al-Amin and presently imprisoned in a Southern prison]’s argument that those of us who, unlike Kirk and Truman, valued justice over order and tranquility, must be willing—in the absence of justice—to disrupt an oppressive order just like Mark did, to expose injustice and end injustice.

I brought the essay over to Mark’s apartment and, while he read my essay, I read an “Open Letter to Uncle Grayson,” that Mark had just finished writing himself for a Columbia SDS underground newspaper special edition that he was going to get published for distribution around campus on April 22, 1968.

Mark liked my “In Defense of Disruption” essay, although he altered a few sentences at the end of the essay to re-emphasize the criminal nature of the Columbia Administration’s institutional policies. He then included the piece in Columbia SDS’s Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker underground newspaper. The name of Mark’s newspaper was taken from a line in the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka poem that inspired Mark’s activism at this time. Like Mark, Jones/Baraka had grown up in New Jersey.

I laughed while reading Mark’s “Open Letter to Uncle Grayson” and complimented him on the skillful, humorous way he had summarized the political differences between Columbia President Grayson Kirk’s corporate liberal ideology and institutional policy positions and interests and Columbia SDS’s New Left view of the world and vision of a democratic society. I felt that Mark’s open letter persuasively indicated why Columbia and Barnard students should mobilize behind Columbia SDS en masse in opposition to the Columbia Administration.

Until Columbia SDS’s Up Against The Wall, Motherfuckernewspaper appeared on campus on April 22nd, Mark (helped by Sue) spent much of his time putting the newspaper together and arranging for it to be published. Mark had apparently been an editor of his Columbia High School newspaper in Maplewood, New Jersey, so he had no difficulty in doing most of the work required to put the Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker newspaper out.

On the Saturday before the underground newspaper was to appear, I bumped into Mark and Sue at the W. 115th St. and Broadway campus entrance, while they were on their way into Ferris Booth Hall. With a twinkle in his eye and Sue standing behind him, Mark suddenly gave me an affectionate kiss on the cheek before he walked into Ferris Booth Hall. He seemed to be in touch with some mystical life force that was driving him to pour all his energy into being Columbia SDS chairman and preparing for a final spring confrontation with the Columbia Administration. More so than any other Columbia SDS activist, he seemed to be quite willing to get thrown out of school for the sake of his politics of liberation. He seemed completely fulfilled in his role as Columbia SDS chairman and totally present-oriented, not future-oriented or security-oriented.

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