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NY Times, Oct. 10, 2018
Marie Runyon, Tenant Who Battled a University, Dies at 103
By Sam Roberts

Marie Runyon, a relentless radical who waged a Forty Years’ War on behalf of fellow tenants facing eviction by Columbia University, died on Sunday in the off-campus Upper Manhattan apartment where she had lived since 1954. She was 103.

Her daughter, Louise, confirmed the death. She said that Ms. Runyon, who was legally blind, had been largely housebound and unable to walk since she fell and fractured her thigh in July.

Thoroughly radicalized by her challenge to Columbia’s expansion plans in Harlem and Morningside Heights, Ms. Runyon later campaigned against American involvement in Vietnam, supported the Black Panthers and nuclear disarmament, and continued to get arrested for civil disobedience into her 90s as an indomitable leader of the Granny Peace Brigade, which protested the war in Iraq.

The daughter of a politically conservative North Carolina father, Ms. Runyon was working as a membership recruiter for the American Civil Liberties Union in 1961 when she, her neighbors at 130 Morningside Drive and residents of five nearby buildings received notices to vacate their apartments.

Columbia’s College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, which was operating from a 19th-century building 50 blocks south of the main campus, was hoping to demolish the six Columbia-owned apartment buildings as part of the thriving university’s master plan to accommodate more students and replace antiquated facilities.

Columbia’s football fight song asks “Who owns New York?” Ms. Runyon was determined to prove that the answer, in her neighborhood anyway, was not the university.

She mounted her own guerrilla street theater protests, as well as rent strikes and legal action against the evictions. She won most of her suits under rent control protections, even as most other tenants, frightened by what she called Columbia’s bulldozer diplomacy or mollified by modest financial incentives provided by the university, moved away.

She also aligned her tenant organizations with student groups that in 1968 seized campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and the university’s plans to encroach on Morningside Park with a gymnasium.

Ms. Runyon — who in 1974 parlayed her popularity briefly into political power by winning election to the State Assembly — fought on, as Columbia demolished five of the six buildings and warehoused hundreds of other vacant apartments on sites reserved for future development.

She even outlasted the College of Pharmaceutical Sciences, which closed in 1976 after being threatened with loss of accreditation for failing to upgrade its facilities and stabilize its finances.

And while the university’s anthem is titled “Stand, Columbia,” by the turn of the 21st century a new administration had decided to stand down.

While only five of the original 23 families, as well as Ms. Runyon, still lived at 130 Morningside Drive, the only one of the six targeted buildings still standing, Columbia announced in 1996 that it would no longer seek to evict them.

In 2002, William Scott, the university’s deputy vice president of institutional real estate, and Emily Lloyd, the executive vice president for administration, announced that the renovated building was being renamed Marie Runyon Court.

Marie Chisholm Morgan was born on March 20, 1915, in Brevard, N.C., on the fringes of the Nantahala National Forest, to Ralph Morgan, himself a pharmacist, and Louise (McIntosh) Morgan.

One of her earliest memories was of watching her mother, a college graduate, getting dressed up to go vote for the first time in November 1920. Her great-aunt founded the Penland School, to help women in Appalachia market handwoven goods. Her great-uncle was an environmentalist.

In 1937 she earned a degree in psychology from Berea College in Kentucky, an interracial school founded just before the Civil War. She pursued graduate studies in psychology at the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After working as a psychologist in Hartford and at a hospital in Michigan, she decided in 1946 to seek success in New York.

She was hired as a copy editor at The New York Post and married her boss, Dick Runyon. Their marriage ended in divorce. In addition to their daughter, she is survived by a stepdaughter, Mabry Runyon McCloud; two grandsons; and two step-grandsons.

After plans for another marriage and a move to Chicago fell through, Ms. Runyon and her daughter moved to public housing in South Flushing, Queens. In 1954, she was hired by the civil liberties union at $70 a week and rented Apartment 6C at 130 Morningside Drive, near Amsterdam Avenue and West 122nd Street. (In recent years, she had lived in the four-bedroom apartment with a home health aide and one or more graduate students.)

She remained in that job until 1963, then worked as director of development for the listener-supported FM radio station WBAI and later raised money for the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and Dr. Benjamin Spock’s National Conference for New Politics. In 1969, she established Marie Runyon Associates to raise funds for progressive and radical groups.

In 1974, after battling Columbia through the Morningside Tenants Committee and the Columbia Tenants Union, she squeaked by the incumbent, Jesse Gray, to win the Democratic nomination for the Assembly seat representing West Harlem and Morningside Heights, and went on to win the general election.

In Albany, one of her priorities was prisoners’ rights. In 1975 she helped win partial clemency from Gov. Hugh L. Carey for Martin Sostre, a Puerto Rican independence advocate who was serving a 41-year sentence on questionable drug and riot charges. After serving one term, she was narrowly defeated in a seven-candidate primary by Edward C. Sullivan.

Her advocacy on behalf of inmates prompted her in 1977 to found the Harlem Restoration Project, which managed buildings and hired former inmates to rehabilitate apartments. She served as its director for about 25 years. She also worked with the Harlem Council of Elders and Emmaus House, a homeless shelter and social service organization.

In 2006, she and 17 other members of the Granny Peace Brigade were acquitted of blocking access to the armed forces recruiting center in Times Square.

Michael McKee, whom she inspired to become a tenant organizer, said Ms. Runyon “had a rage for social, racial and economic justice, but was nevertheless a kind and gentle soul.”

Ruth W. Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president, called her “an icon for many people in standing up to the establishment.”

Ms. Runyon believed in standing up by whatever means necessary, arguing in 1975 in a letter to The New York Times that “when oppression makes the struggle for survival intolerable, passive acceptance is irresponsible.” In 2002, when Columbia renamed the apartment house for Ms. Runyon, she acknowledged that the university, at least, had learned to consult and to listen.

“We don’t always get our way,” she said, “but neither do they.”
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