The SAAS was part of a radicalized portion of the Columbia student body whose protest roots were hardened in the late 1960s. Its members collaborated with the SDS to stage a series of protests on the New York City campus in 1968, the year before Eric Holder arrived on campus.
Those earlier protests culminated in a separate armed takeover of Dean Henry Coleman’s office in which students held him hostage and stopped the construction of a gymnasium in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, near the campus.
The BSO reported on its website as recently as 2010 that those students were “armed with guns.”
Emboldened by their successes, SAAS leaders continued to press their demands, eventually working with local black radicals who were not college students. A young Eric Holder joined the fray in 1969 as a college freshman.
The SAAS also actively supported the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement, according to Stefan Bradley, professor of African-American studies at Saint Louis University and author of the 2009 book “Harlem vs. Columbia University.” He has described the Columbia organization as being separatist in nature.
“In 1969, SAAS has taken up a new campaign to establish a Black Institute on campus that would house a black studies program, an all-black admissions board, all-black faculty members, administrators and staff and they wanted the university to pay for it,” Bradley told an audience in 2009.
Though Columbia never met all of the black militants’ demands, it brought more black students to campus through its affirmative action program, introduced Black Studies courses and hired black radical Charles V. Hamilton — co-author of “Black Power” with Black Panther Party “Honorary Prime Minister” Stokely Carmichael (by then renamed Kwame Ture).
“The university hadn’t thought of all of this by itself,” said Bradley. “It took black students [in the SAAS] to do this.”
In March 1970 the SAAS released a statement supporting twenty-one Black Panthers charged with plotting to blow up department stores, railroad tracks, a police station and the New York Botanical Gardens.
The SAAS, along with the SDS and other radical campus groups, staged a campus rally on March 12, 1970 featuring Afeni Shakur — one of the Panthers out on bail and the future mother of rapper Tupac Shakur.
The rally’s purpose, The Columbia Daily Spectator reported, was to raise bail money for the twenty other Panthers and to call on District Attorney Frank Hogan to drop the charges. All 21 defendants would later be acquitted after a lengthy trial.
The April 21, 1970 SAAS raid on the Naval ROTC office and Dean Coleman’s office came one month after the Black Panther arrests. The Columbia Daily Spectator released a series of demands from the student leaders on April 23 in which they claimed to be occupying the ROTC office for the purpose of “self-determination and dignity.” They needed the space, they said, because of “the general racist nature of American society.”