50 Years of Affirmative Action: What Went Right, and What It Got Wrong

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50 Years of Affirmative Action: What Went Right, and What It Got Wrong

“I tell you, I just totally flipped out,” Mr. Peterson said.

He did not know enough about Mr. Goodson’s life to judge him, he said. But the encounter made him conscious of his own good fortune.

In July 1972, Eldridge McKinney, a black sophomore at Columbia, shot the dean of students several times with a .38-caliber handgun. Mr. McKinney had been suspended for bad grades, and was angry that he was not reinstated, the police said. By one news account, he shouted “racist bastard” at the dean, who was white, before opening fire.

The dean, Henry S. Coleman, was badly wounded but returned to work. (Mr. Coleman had been caught up in campus turmoil before, when students occupied Hamilton Hall and took him hostage in 1968.)

Henry S. Coleman, a Columbia dean who was taken hostage when students occupied a campus building in 1968.CreditDon Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Mr. McKinney’s fall from grace was steep. He arrived at Columbia in the fall of 1970, a year behind Mr. Goodson and Mr. Peterson, as an overachiever: a Boy Scout leader; the valedictorian of his high school on the South Side of Chicago; a member of the band, school newspaper, yearbook, and the math, chess and Spanish clubs, according to The Chicago Tribune at the time. But at Columbia, something changed.

After the shooting, Mr. McKinney’s mother and Roy Innis, the civil rights leader, publicly pleaded with him to turn himself in. Charged with attempted murder, he disappeared. Classmates remember the jarring sight of his face on wanted posters at the post office. His friends believe that he has been living under an assumed name and identity for nearly 47 years.

Mr. McKinney, nicknamed E, became something of a legend. Some black students quietly cheered him on, understanding his rage. “E was sort of like a semi-hero at the time, because apparently he got away with it,” Mr. Goodson said. “And every once in a while, I’ll ask somebody, ‘Yo man, you ever hear from E?’”

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