Nat Hentoff's Greatest Hits

Excerpts from his first 50 years at the Voice

[ November 26, 1964]

It is instructive to note where the few defenses of Lenny Bruce have appeared in the New York press. Nothing from the Times, but this past summer Dick Schaap had a forceful column in the Tribune. ("I have never heard of anyone who was hurt by him. It is about time that people stop hurting him.") Schaap spoke again on November 19. Nothing meanwhile from the New York Post—except a couple of interviews—but John Chamberlain (yet) devoted a column to the harassment of Bruce despite the fact that Chamberlain doesn't dig the act. And the most direct support of Bruce recently in the dailies came from Charles McHarry in the Daily News. ("He belongs in night clubs, not jail.")


50 Years of Pissing People Off
Allen Barra celebrates Nat Hentoff

Even more instructive—and appalling— is the fact that not one editorial to my knowledge has appeared concerning Ralph Ginzburg losing his appeal to the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The former publisher of Eros still, therefore, faces an incredible sentence of five years in prison and $42,000 in fines for having mailed allegedly obscene literature. Apparently civil libertarians in the press are too fastidious to come to Ginzburg's defense because they don't approve of some of the material that appeared in Eros and his other publications. But the issue is utterly clear. Both Bruce and Ginzburg are being persecuted—there's no point in using euphemisms. And they have very few public friends.

[ April 4, 1968]

As Don McNeill's story in last week's Voice made clear—much, much clearer than any of the writing in the Times on the event—members of the police force rioted at Grand Central Station on the night of March 22. Considering that cops bashed Don's head into a glass door, McNeill's story was remarkably controlled. I couldn't have done it. Stitches and all, Don also underlined the culpability of YIP and the Mayor's office in setting up the kind of situation which made it easier for the police to be unleashed.

But no matter what the failures in planning and communication, there is no possible rationalization for the police savagery that night . . . .

I waited for the mayor to say something, and on Wednesday called one of his press aides . . . .

"Look," said a Mayor's aide, "there was no excuse for the police brutality." "Then the Mayor ought to say that." "Yes, he should, and he will . . . . One thing we're going to do is have a lot more supervisory officers out there with the men. A cop knows that if an officer sees him working someone over, he'll be in trouble . . . . "

Who the hell is going to supervise the supervisory officers?

. . . The white middle-class, as Dick Gregory has been saying, is beginning, in this respect at least, to know what it feels like to be treated as a nigger by a cop. And that's an instructive experience, possibly stimulating some empathy when you read about ghetto rebellions in other cities.

[ May 2, 1968]

Preliminary notes on the Columbia Rebellion: On April 26, three New York Post columnists wrote on the subject. Max Lerner was Max Lerner ("If the whole affair were not childish and ludicrous to the point of being funny it would be for weeping"). James Wechsler, God save the mark, was still trying to tell us how thoughtful Columbia had been to "provide exclusive facilities for Harlem residents" in the new gym.

April 1968: Police remove sit-ins from Avery Hall during the Columbia protests.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Only Jimmy Breslin knew what the hell was going on, and why. ("Columbia, like most universities in urban areas, has spent the years making distinct contributions to the trouble we're in. The school sits on a bluff which looks down on Harlem, and the people who administrate the school do just that.")

There was nothing in either Lerner's or Wechsler's columns about why Columbia is so hated by its "neighbors." Nothing about the incredible stubbornness of Columbia officials these past few years about the gym itself. Inadvertently I listened in early in the present city administration to attempts to convince Kirk and his colleagues that they were making a terrible mistake in pressing on with that gym. But Columbia had a legal deal made with the previous administration. (As Breslin wrote, " If a private citizen was discovered in a deal like this, there would be at least five indictments.") And having the law on its side, Columbia would not be moved. Not then, anyway.

Other issues are involved, issues of civil liberties and intersecting rights in what's been happening at Columbia during the past week. I don't have any instantly clear answers to those questions, but intend to try to explore them next time. However, it couldn't be clearer that the CAUSE of all this is Columbia University, and if there are going to be penalties, what penalty will be paid by Grayson Kirk and the administration hierarchy?

Another note: This is a further example of crisis journalism. Once the demonstrations began, there was extensive and even some intensive press, radio, and television coverage. But through the years, the callousness, to say the least, of Columbia University in its relations with its immediate neighborhood and with Harlem as a whole has been only glancingly reported on. So the citizen who has not kept up with Columbia's auto-anesthesia (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Lyford) can read Wechsler and Lerner and nod approvingly. Meanwhile that same Friday's Post ended one of its news stories on the events of the Columbia week: "The $12,000,000 facility will be massive, as seen from Harlem, which will have a view of a 126-foot-high rear façade built from three kinds of stone and concrete."

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