As a freshman at Columbia University in 1970, future Attorney General Eric Holder participated in a five-day occupation of an abandoned Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) headquarters with a group of black students later described by the university’s Black Students’ Organization as “armed,” The Daily Caller has learned.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has not responded to questions from The Daily Caller about whether Holder himself was armed — and if so, with what sort of weapon.
Holder was then among the leaders of the Student Afro-American Society (SAAS), which demanded that the former ROTC office be renamed the “Malcolm X Lounge.” The change, the group insisted, was to be made “in honor of a man who recognized the importance of territory as a basis for nationhood.”
Black radicals from the same group also occupied the office of Dean of Freshman Henry Coleman until their demands were met. Holder has publicly acknowledged being a part of that action.
The details of the student-led occupation, including the claim that the raiders were “armed,” come from a deleted Web page of the Black Students’ Organization (BSO) at Columbia, a successor group to the SAAS. Contemporary newspaper accounts in The Columbia Daily Spectator, a student newspaper, did not mention weapons.
Holder, now the United States’ highest-ranking law enforcement official, has given conflicting accounts of this episode during college commencement addresses at Columbia, but both the BSO’s website and the Daily Spectator have published facts that conflict with his version of events.
Holder has bragged about his involvement in the “rise of black consciousness” protests at Columbia.
“I was among a large group of students who felt strongly about the way we thought the world should be, and we weren’t afraid to make our opinions heard,” he said during Columbia’s 2009 commencement exercises. “I did not take a final exam until my junior year at Columbia — we were on strike every time finals seemed to roll around — but we ran out of issues by that third year.”
Though then-Dean Carl Hovde declared the occupation of the Naval ROTC office illegal and said it violated university policy, the college declined to prosecute any of the students involved. This decision may have been made to avoid a repeat of violent Columbia campus confrontations between police and members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968.
The ROTC headquarters was ultimately renamed the Malcolm X lounge as the SAAS organization demanded. It later became a hang-out spot for another future U.S. leader, Barack Obama, according to David Maraniss’ best-selling “Barack Obama: The Story.”
Holder told Columbia University’s graduating law students during a 2010 commencement speech that the 1970 incident happened “during my senior year,” but Holder was a freshman at the time. “[S]everal of us took one of our concerns — that black students needed a designated space to gather on campus — to the Dean [of Freshmen]’office. This being Columbia, we proceeded to occupy that office.”
Holder also claimed in his 2009 speech that he and his fellow students decided to “peacefully occupy one of the campus offices.” In contrast, the BSO’s website recounted its predecessor organization’s activities by noting that that “in 1970, a group of armed black students [the SAAS] seized the abandoned ROTC office.”
While that website is no longer online, a snapshot of its content from September 2010 is part of the archive.org database.
In a December 2010 GQ magazine profile of Holder, one of his Columbia friends confirmed that he and Holder were both part of the ROTC office takeover.
Holder particularly “connected with four other African-American students” at Columbia, correspondent Wil S. Hylton wrote. “We took over the ROTC lounge in Hartley Hall and created the Malcolm X Lounge,” said a laughing Steve Sims, one of those students.
Hylton described Sims as “the attorney general’s closest friend” and “a man Holder describes as his ‘consigliere.'”
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.”
In their statement, the SAAS leaders also decried “this racist university campus” — in particular its alleged “involvement in the continued political harassment of the Black Panther Party” — along with what they called a “lack of concern for Black people whether they be students or workers” and a “general contempt towards the beliefs of Black students in particular and Black people in general.”
“Black students recognize the necessity of not letting the university set a dangerous precedent in its dealings with Black people,” the statement read in part, “that is letting white people direct the action and forces that affect Black people toward goals they (white people) feel are correct.”
Among the black professors who publicly supported Holder and the SAAS during this period was Black history teacher Hollis Lynch, who is one of four professors Holder later said “shaped my worldview.”
Entering Columbia Law School in September 1973, Holder joined the Black American Law Students Association. Less than a month later, that organization joined other minority activist groups in a coalition that demanded the retraction of a letter to President Gerald Ford, signed by six Columbia professors, that argued against affirmative action and racial quotas.
“Merit should be rewarded, without regard to race, sex, creed, or any other external factor,” the professors wrote to President Ford. Following a campaign marked by what two of those professors called “rhetoric and names hurled” at them, they changed their position and denied they actually opposed affirmative action.
The Columbia Spectator’s editorial page later argued against affirmative action as a factor in university admissions, touching off another controversy with the coalition that included the Black American Law Students Association. “Affirmative action is just a nice name for a quota, and quotas are just a nice name for racism,” the editorial board wrote.
In response, the minority students’ coalition responded that “traditional academic criteria have a built-in bias” that leaves many minority students “automatically excluded.”
“[A]ffirmative action is neither racist nor sexist,” they wrote. “Rather it is opposition to it, which fails to provide alternative means for eradicating bias, that supports the racist and sexist status quo.”
As attorney general, Holder has defended the affirmative action policies that are now the status quo. In February 2012, Holder said during a World Leaders Forum at Columbia University that he “can’t actually imagine a time in which the need for more diversity would ever cease.”
“Affirmative action has been an issue since segregation practices,” Holder said. “The question is not when does it end, but when does it begin. … When do people of color truly get the benefits to which they are entitled?”
Holder has also come under fire for presiding over a Justice Department that declined to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party who allegedly intimidated white voters outside a Philadelphia polling precinct in 2008.