restricted access 2. The Reed Harris Affair: Youth Claim Their Rights and Freedoms at Columbia University and Beyond
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40 2 The Reed Harris Affair Youth Claim Their Rights and Freedoms at Columbia University and Beyond Trying to voice their concern about the conditions under which coalminers suffered in Harlan County came to no avail for young people in 1932. Yet they had come together through the efforts of the National Student League (NSL), and their unity only grew stronger thereafter. The NSL intended to transform sympathy for workers into a genuine student-worker bond that could one day (soon, members hoped) have real influence over public policy, hastening the transition to a socialist economy. While activist students were inclined to side with workers against employers in any given situation, the link between students and workers remained tenuous due, in large part, to the class barrier: Most college students were members of the middle class or above, and despite what the Great Depression might have done to their families’ finances, they retained their middle-class mindset and lifestyle to a great extent. Blue collar workers were lucky if they maintained wages that kept them above the poverty line. As James Wechsler noted in 1935, the idea of America as a land of opportunity where “the working-man’s son goes to college with the youthful Duponts, has long ago been exploded.”1 Workers ’ sons did not go to college, and college students did not go to work in coal mines or on assembly lines. Students’ concerns, then, were not the same as workers’ concerns.Students“saw”the workers’ problems—which were not their problems—as philosophical or ideological issues. Their attention was more likely to be held by, and their sustained efforts likely to be expended upon, concerns that had more direct bearing on their lives, not someone else’s. The Reed Harris affair made this quite clear. They The Reed Harris Affair 41 could see themselves walking in the shoes of Columbia student Reed Harris, and so when he was mistreated, students protested because they felt that mistreatment personally, proving that empathy is a good deal more potent than sympathy. Moreover, by this time outrage sparked by campus authoritarianism was normal youth behavior as any affront to personal freedom or attempts to control and repress self-expression met with widespread condemnation on college campuses throughout the previous decade.2 That they could also claim to be concerned about the exploitation suffered by dining hall workers allowed them to feel secure that they had, indeed, secured the moral high ground from which they could voice their demands regarding how institutions of higher learning ought to be operated. In protesting what they saw as the deplorable treatment meted out to Harris, students (activist and non-activist, alike) were really fighting for their own rights: the right to free speech, the right to be heard, and the right to have a say in policies that affected them. Within a week of the Harlan County trip, Reed Harris, the editor of Columbia College’s student newspaper, the Spectator, was expelled for his “insolent” editorials. Harris had a rather common undergraduate experience (playing football, joining a fraternity) until he became editor his senior year.3 Radicalized by the deepening Depression, Harris began to question everything.4 He wrote editorials criticizing “king football,” a secret society known as Nacoms, and compulsory ROTC training. In advocating the eradication of military training from college campuses, Harris won the support of radical groups, such as the NSL.5 The NSL was further impressed that “although several persons high in administrative circles of the college heartily disapproved of the student trip to Kentucky, Spectator supported the expedition with some enthusiasm and plenty of space. (The Alumni Bulletin, on the other hand, expressed intense opposition.)”6 While Harris had won the support of radicals, none of these editorial topics stood him in good stead with the administration. It was his editorial decrying the poor treatment of John Jay Dining Hall workers and the administration of those dining halls for profit that precipitated his expulsion. He charged that prices were inflated and student waiters were exploited in order for the dining halls to earn a profit, proving that they were not being run for the benefit of the students as they were supposed to be—another example of the appalling effects of capitalist greed.7 Incidentally, the previous editor had claimed that the management of the dining service was incompetent a year before Harris aired his grievances, and he suffered no consequences for those accusations . But much had changed in...


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