Marie Runyon

Marie Runyon Dies at 103

Published: 
December 2018

Morningside Heights activist Marie Runyon, a longtime Met Council member, died Oct. 7 at the age of 103. 

Born in North Carolina, Runyon moved to New York in 1946 and worked as a copy editor for the then-liberal New York Post and a recruiter for the American Civil Liberties Union. She got involved in tenant activism in 1961, when Columbia University ordered residents in her building at 130 Morningside Drive and five others in the neighborhood to leave so it could demolish them for new facilities. 

Runyon led the tenants in what would become a 35-year struggle against the evictions, in street-theater protests, rent strikes, and lawsuits. Most tenants gave up or took buyouts to move out, and the five other buildings were demolished, but the university finally abandoned its efforts to evict them in 1996. 

Along the way, Runyon allied with the Columbia students who occupied buildings in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War and the university’s plans to build a gym in Morningside Park. She also started a consulting business that raised funds for progressive and radical causes, including legal defense funds for Dr. Benjamin Spock, the Chicago Eight, the Berrigan brothers, and the Black Panthers, and many organizations opposing the Vietnam War. 

She was elected to the Assembly in 1974 and served one term. In 1977, she founded the Harlem Restoration Project, which managed buildings tenants had taken over under the city’s 7A program and expanded into providing supportive housing for formerly homeless people and jobs and social services for people released from prison. 

“In the mid-1980s I was the lawyer for the tenants at 640 and 644 Riverside Drive, a building in foreclosure,” Met Council’s Kenny Schaeffer recalls, “and the judge was about to appoint ‘Devil Landlord’ Andonis (Tony) Morfesis as the receiver, so I asked Marie to come out of retirement and be the receiver. She did, and saved the buildings, which are now HDFCs.” 

Runyon remained an activist into her 90s. She was one of 18 members of the Granny Peace Brigade arrested in 2006 for blocking the entrance to the armed forces recruiting center in Times Square to protest the war in Iraq. Asked by a prosecutor why she’d sat down outside the recruiting center, she replied in her Southern drawl, “Well, honey, I was tired.” 

All 18 were acquitted. And in 2002, Columbia renamed the 130 Morningside Drive building Marie Runyon Court.