The Ongoing Struggle of the Black Ivy League

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with the Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Stefan M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League

Columbia University (Flickr: Jan Ingar Grindheim)

On June 12, 2019, Elizabeth Lederer, the notorious prosecutor of the 1989 Central Park Five case, announced her resignation from her adjunct position as Clinical Professor of Trial Practice at Columbia Law School. Lederer’s resignation came amid a storm of renewed negative publicity from Ava Duvernay’s Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us,” a dramatized depiction of the trial, which led to the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers for the brutal rape of twenty-eight-year-old Trisha Meili, a white female investment banker. In her resignation, Lederer noted her “portrayal” in the film as the primary reason why she would not renew her application for employment, but she failed to mention the role of Black students and alumni in forcing her from her position. The day before Lederer’s resignation, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) of Columbia University sent a letter to the law school community demanding that Lederer be fired, that the law school explain itself in its failure to hold Lederer accountable, and that mandatory anti-racist trainings be held for all educators at Columbia. Concerned alumni drafted their own letter affirming the concerns of Columbia’s BLSA and further demanding their alma mater be held accountable.

The successful petition of Columbia Law School’s Black Law students follows in the legacy of the activism and persistence of the thousands of Black Ivy Leaguers that Stefan Bradley so thoroughly details in his new monograph, Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League. In nine chapters — the first focusing on pre-World War II Black students at Ivy League universities such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Ralph Bunche — Bradley excavates the efforts of Black students during the long civil rights era to fight for more Black faculty and students, diversified curriculum, Black studies classes, integrated housing and facilities, and the right to simply pursue their education with dignity. Bradley argues that the legacy of Black students in the Ivy League has been largely ignored in the history of student activism. While universities like Rutgers University and University of California are known for the massive student protests that led to the establishment of Africana Studies and Black Studies programs, the occupation of campus buildings and petitions by Ivy League students have largely been ignored. Where in the studies of post-World War II campus activism is the Association of Black Collegians of Princeton University’s occupation of the New South building or Columbia University’s uprisings of 1968?

In considering these silences, Bradley’s first successful hurdle is to convince those outside of the Ivy League that the history of Black student activism inside the Ivory Tower matters. Student protests outside of the Ivy League — like the ones at Merritt College, University of California, and San Francisco State — are more referenced by academics and more deeply solidified in public memory. But just as the administrators, alumni, and students of the Ancient Eight assert, those who graduate from these institutions become future leaders of the world, and there are statistics supporting this assertion. On page one, Bradley notes that the vast majority of Executive Branch cabinet members, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and U.S. Presidents since the Second World War have attended Ivy League schools. As these student activists realized forty to sixty years ago, in order to have a diverse group of decision makers, diversity in admissions and retention of students of color is critical. As Bradley makes clear, when these institutions demand diversity, their feeder schools — elite day and prep schools — are forced to change their admissions policies as well (16). In order to remain competitive, each of their incoming classes must also be less white.

Second, Bradley successfully links his study with a growing body of scholarship on Black intellectual history. At its core, this book is about the relationship between how Black Ivy League students processed their experiences in conjunction with the world around them. As Bradley immediately states, “Institutions do not exist in vacuums; instead they operate in a historical context” (4). That historical context was one in which Black Ivy League students, while navigating social isolation, microaggressions, and white supremacist curriculum, looked outside of their own institutions to the nation and the world for inspiration and guidance. Students at Princeton, Columbia, and Cornell saw themselves following in the footsteps of national organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and leaders like H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael as they demanded Black studies curriculum, divestment of university investments from South Africa, and an audience with Black Power leaders who dismissed them as disconnected. Their politics were deeply influenced by decolonization, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and the Vietnam War, among others. But the ideas that they explored in the classroom, from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth to Carmichael’s “Black Power,” also formed the ideological basis of their protest. In doing so, they demonstrated that like so many other Black intellectuals in the African diaspora, their politics and personal lives were intertwined.

Finally, Upending the Ivory Tower, through its use of oral histories, campus newspapers, and official university archives, effectively juxtaposes the emotions, attitudes, and motivations of Black Ivy League students with the anxieties of white students, alumni, and administrators. Bradley’s use of these materials is overall extremely compelling, but the most effective use of materials stems from the oral histories that Bradley uses and conducts himself. These oral histories and testimonies give his historical subjects the opportunity to speak for themselves in a way that would be difficult or nearly impossible otherwise. In addition, the fact that these informants are still living reminds us that the active desegregation of universities in general, and Ivy League universities in particular, is recent history.

A few questions still remain after reading Bradley’s monograph. First, what is alluded to but not explored fully are the tensions within the Black community on the best strategies for educational diversity and racial advancement. In his introduction, Bradley notes that there have always been conservative Black students like Alan Keyes and Thomas Sowell, who opposed the demonstrations and protests of their more liberal and radical classmates (14). Indeed, even among those who identified as liberal and progressive, Bradley notes that not every Black student was totally engaged in fights for Black visibility. For example, during the 1969 fight to implement a Black Studies unit, Bradley notes that some students “merely watched the campaign for the Afro-American Studies program unfurl, while others eschewed the issue altogether. Still other students remained intently focused on their studies in an effort to achieve … graduation” (278). Bradley perhaps lets students who were just “focused on their studies” off a bit too easily, but what about the conflicts between radical student groups with the same ultimate goals? How did members of the Association of Black Collegians differ on their approaches to apartheid, for instance? (69-76) Or the Afro-American Society of Dartmouth’s campaign to open Dartmouth to Black women? (161)

Second, I believe Bradley misses an avenue for exploring the power of the Black alumni voice in supporting these students and pushing forward an agenda of diversity. Multiple times, he notes the power of white alumni in maintaining conservative institutional cultures at the Ancient Eight and the prevalence of legacy admissions. But as Black alumni of these institutions increase, they too have collective power over the institution’s policies. Bradley notes that the Association of Black Princeton Alumni ran a survey exploring the experiences of Black alumni and the correlation to future donations. The issue may be that the numbers of Black alumni have only recently reached a critical mass or that the majority of Black Ivy League graduates are only very recently settling into leadership positions. Regardless, an exploration of the ways that Black alumni functioned in opposition, or perhaps in support, of their white counterparts would have been interesting.

Ultimately the brilliance of Upending the Ivory Tower lies not only in its illumination of an understudied part of African American history, but also in how it makes clear that the struggles that Black students fought in the Ivy League in 1945 or 1968 or 1975 are far from over. With every slight, every “darky” joke, and every recounting of loneliness and isolation from one of Bradley’s informants, students and academics of color are likely to recall their own similar experiences. Indeed, the mere fact that it was necessary for Columbia’s Black Law Students to protest the employment of Elizabeth Lederer is a sad statement on the persistence of institutional barriers to the diversification of faculty, students, and curriculum. This book is essential reading for African American and Black Studies courses in all universities — Ivy League and community college alike. It is the type of book which has the power to motivate students to action by showing them the power of collective protest. I wish this book was written twenty years ago, but I am grateful that Bradley has written it now.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Alaina Morgan

Alaina Morgan is a historian of race, religion, and politics in the African Diaspora. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Islam in North America in the Department of Religious Studies and the Sohail and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University. She is currently editing her book manuscript, Atlantic Crescent: Black Muslim Internationalism, Anti-Colonialism, and Transnational Community Formation, which explores the ways that Islam and ideas of Blackness were used by Muslims in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Anglophone Caribbean to form the basis of transnational anti-colonial and anti-imperial political networks.

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