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The Columbia University protests of 1968 were among the many student demonstrations that occurred around the world in that year. The Columbia protests erupted over the spring of that year after students discovered links between the university and the institutional apparatus supporting the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as their concern over an allegedly segregatory gymnasium to be constructed in the nearby Morningside Park. The protests resulted in the student occupation of many university buildings and their eventual violent removal by the New York City Police Department.[1]



In early March 1967, a Columbia University Students for a Democratic Society activist named Bob Feldman discovered documents in the International Law Library detailing Columbia's institutional affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research think-tank affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense. The nature of the association had not been, to that point, publicly announced by the University.

Prior to March 1967, IDA had rarely been mentioned in the U.S. media or in the left, underground or campus press. A few magazine articles on IDA had appeared between 1956 and 1967 and IDA had been mentioned in a few books for academic specialists published by university presses. The RAND Corporation, not the Institute for Defense Analyses, was the military-oriented think-tank that had received most of the publicity prior to March 1967. But after Feldman's name appeared in some leftist publications in reference to the Columbia-IDA revelation, the FBI opened a file on him and started to investigate him, according to Feldman's de-classified FBI files.

The discovery of the IDA documents touched off a Columbia SDS anti-war campaign between April 1967 and April 1968, which demanded that the Columbia University administration resign its institutional membership in the Institute for Defense Analyses. Following a peaceful demonstration inside the Low Library administration building on March 27, 1968, the Columbia Administration placed on probation six anti-war Columbia student activists, who were collectively nicknamed "The IDA Six," for violating its ban on indoor demonstrations.


Morningside Park gymnasium

Columbia's plan to construct a gymnasium in city-owned Morningside Park also touched off negative sentiment on campus and in the Harlem community. One of the causes for dispute was the gym's proposed design, which would have included access for residents of Harlem through a so-called "back door" to a dedicated community facility on its lower level. This design was actually a solution to the gym's physical placement on the park's highly-inclined slope, at the bottom of which is Harlem and at the top of which is Morningside Heights, where Columbia's campus is situated. By 1968, 7 years after the gym's proposal had been hailed as mutually beneficent, the civil rights movement cast things in a different light. The previously acceptable and pragmatic design was now interpreted as segregationist and therefore discriminatory, and labeled "Gym Crow". In addition, others were concerned with the appropriation of land from a public park. Harlem activists opposed the construction because, despite being on public land, Harlem residents would get only limited access to the facility.

What should be noted regarding these concerns are the following facts. The gym would occupy a very small footprint of the total area of the park; the park was unusable (and still is) after dark due to the crime danger; the space in question was already occupied by the university's outdoor winter running track (destined to be located within the new gym) and access to this track was restricted to university members unless specific consent was provided. The proposed gym therefore would have provided a new, much-needed and significant resource to the local community without depriving it of any then-current access or use of parkland.

However, all these legitimate advantages to the neighborhood must be placed in the context of the times and the background. Columbia University had (and still does) a long history of pre-empting properties in its vicinity when deemed necessary for expansion. This was facilitated by a close relationship between the university and the NYC power structure. While this had never before involved Harlem, being in the main restricted to Morningside Heights, it had nevertheless aroused resentment by those affected. When campus and community activists, sensitive to anything hinting of race, siezed upon the gym as a convenient focal point to advance their greater political agendas, the university provided a cooperative target, since the administration had a long history of achieving its goals via relationships with NYC and not through any knowledge of or desire to build community consensus. This exacerbated the immediate situation, with the end result being that a mutually advantageous project became, though the university's ignorance and arrogance and the activists' political agenda, the flashpoint that it did. Sadly, to this day the park remains as it was; crime-ridden and unusable at night, while the community has lost forever the intended university-provided facility. Columbia has placed the gym on the main campus and no longer has any interest in the park. What could have become a bridge between the Heights and Harlem has been lost.


April student strike and occupations

The first protest occurred eight days before Martin Luther King's assassination. In response to the Columbia Administration's attempts to suppress anti-IDA student protest on its campus, and Columbia's plans for the Morningside Park gymnasium, Columbia SDS activists and the student activists who led Columbia's Student Afro Society (SAS) held a second, confrontational demonstration on April 23, 1968. After the protesting Columbia and Barnard students were prevented from protesting inside Low Library by Columbia security guards, most of the student protesters marched down to the Columbia gymnasium construction site in Morningside Park, attempted to stop construction of the gymnasium and began to scuffle with the New York City Police officers who were guarding the construction site.The NYPD arrested one protester at the gym site. Columbia SDS chairman Mark Rudd then led the protesting students from Morningside Park back to Columbia's campus, where students took over Hamilton Hall, a building housing both classrooms and the offices of the Columbia College Administration.

An important aspect of the 1968 Columbia University protests was the manner in which activists were separated along racial lines. During the takeover of Hamilton Hall, the 60 African American Students at Columbia involved with the protest then stated that the white students were not wanted in Hamilton Hall. This was due to the fact that, while both the SAS and the SDS had the goal of preventing the construction of the new gymnasium, the two groups held different agendas. The goal of the SDS was to mobilize the student population of Columbia while the SAS was primarily interested in halting the gym construction, throughout the duration of the protests.The members of the SAS requested that the white radicals begin their own, separate protest so that the black students could put all of its focus into preventing the university from building the gym.[2] As part of a Black Power Movement, the African American students claimed that the European-American students could not understand the protest of the gymnasium as deeply as its architectural plans were developed in a segregationist fashion. What began as a unified effort would soon become a tension-filled standoff between black students and white students as the SAS began to meet separately from other protesters and secluding whites, with each group occupying a separate side of the building. There was minimal communication between the SDS and SAS which led to decreased solidarity between the two forces.[3] An agreement would soon be made between the SDS and the SAS to separate white and black demonstrators. Soon after, the whites left Hamilton Hall and moved to Low Library, which housed the President’s office.[4] Over the next few days, the University President's office in Low Library (but not the remainder of the building, which housed the school switchboard in the basement, and offices elsewhere, but no actual library) and three other buildings, including the School of Architecture, which contained classrooms were also occupied by the student protesters. This separation of the SDS and SAS, with each using different tactics to accomplish its goals, was consistent with the student movement across the country.[2]

In separating themselves the white protestors early in the demonstration, the black protesters forced Columbia to address the issue of race. Falling so soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which had caused riots in the black neighborhoods surrounding the university, caused administrators to tread lightly in dealing with the demonstrators of the SAS. University administration seemed helpless against the group of African-American students that controlled the university’s most important building and had support from off-campus black activists. Any use of force, officials feared, could incite riots in the neighboring Harlem community. Realizing this, those holed up in Hamilton Hall encouraged neighboring African-Americans to come to the campus and “recruited famous black militants to speak at their rallies.”[3] To the demonstration, the black students and community allies brought an unrivaled passion for the cause. The student-community alliance that forged between students of the SAS and Harlem residents led to widespread growth in white support for the cause.[3]

A photo of David Shapiro wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigar in Columbia President Grayson L. Kirk's office was published in the media. [5]Mark Rudd announced that acting dean Henry S. Coleman would be held hostage until the group's demands were met. Though he was not in his office when the takeover was initiated, Coleman made his way into the building past protesters, went into his office and stated that "I have no control over the demands you are making, but I have no intention of meeting any demand under a situation such as this." He was detained as a hostage in his office as furniture was placed to keep him from leaving. He had been provided with food while being held and was able to leave 24 hours later, with The New York Times describing his departure from the siege as "showing no sign that he had been unsettled by the experience"[6]

Based upon statistics gathered at the time by neutral campus organizations such as WKCR and Spectator (see URL "Columbia 68", Professor R. McCaughey), the majority of Columbia students did not support the demonstration, although there was sympathy for some of the stated goals. A group of 300 undergraduates calling themselves the "Majority Coalition" organized after several days of the building occupation, in response to what they perceived as administration inaction. This group was made up of student athletes, fraternity members and members of the general undergraduate population, led by Richard Waselewsky and Richard Forzani. These students were not necessarily opposed to the spectrum of goals enunciated by the demonstrators, but were adamant in their opposition to the occupation of University buildings. They formed a human blockade around the primary building, Low Library. Their stated mission was to allow anyone who wished to leave Low to do so, with no consequence. However, they also prevented anyone or any supplies from entering the building. After three consecutive days of blockade, a group of protesters attempted on the afternoon of April 29 to forcibly penetrate the line but were repulsed in a quick and violent confrontation. This was the administration's greatest fear; student on student violence. At 5:00 PM that evening the Coalition abandoned the blockade at the request of the faculty committee, who advised its leaders that the situation would be resolved by the next morning.

The protests came to a conclusion in the early morning hours of April 30, 1968, when the NYPD violently quashed the demonstrations. Hamilton Hall was cleared peacefully as African American lawyers were outside ready to represent SAS members in court and a tactical squad of African American police officers with the NYPD led by Detective Sanford Garelick (the same investigator of the Malcolm X homicide) had cleared the African American students out of Hamilton Hall. The buildings occupied by whites however were cleared violently as approximately 150 students were injured and taken to hospitals, while over 700 protesters were arrested.

Second round of protests

More protesting Columbia and Barnard students were arrested and/or injured by New York City police during a second round of protests May 17-18, 1968, when community residents occupied a Columbia University-owned partially vacant apartment building at 618 West 114 Street to protest Columbia's expansion policies, and later when students re-occupied Hamilton Hall to protest Columbia's suspension of "The IDA Six." (It might be noted that in the police arrest of 113 people at 618 West 114 Street, they also arrested four people watching events from the lobby of 622 West 114th Street, an apartment building not owned by Columbia. These four later had their trespassing charges dismissed. None had been directly involved in the demonstrations, although two were Columbia alumni and one a Barnard student. The Barnard student and one alumnus lived in 622, and this alumnus was covering the events for Liberation News Service.)


The protests achieved two of their stated goals. Columbia disaffiliated from the IDA and scrapped the plans for the controversial gym, building a subterranean physical fitness center under the north end of campus instead. The gym's plans were eventually used by Princeton University for the expansion of its athletic facilities.

At least 30 Columbia students were suspended by the administration as a result of the protests.[7]

At the start of the protests, professor Carl Hovde served on a faculty group that established a joint committee composed of administrators, faculty and students that established recommendations for addressing disciplinary action for the students involved in the protests. Appointed as dean while the protests were continuing, Hovde stated that he felt that the "sit-ins and the demonstrations were not without cause" and opposed criminal charges being filed against the students by the university, though he did agree that the protesters "were acting with insufficient cause".[8]

Most of the Class of ’68 walked out of their graduation and held a countercommencement on Low Plaza with a picnic following at Morningside Park, the place where it all began. [9] The student demonstration that happened on Columbia’s campus in 1968 proved that universities do not exist in a bubble and are, in fact, susceptible to the social and economic strife that surrounds them. [2] These 1968 protests left Columbia University a much changed place, with, as historian Todd Gitlin describes, “growing militancy, growing isolation [and] growing hatred among the competing factions with their competing imaginations. The Columbia building occupations and accompanying demonstrations, in which several thousand people participated, paralyzed the operations of the whole university and became “the most powerful and effective student protest in modern American history.” [3] A wide variety of effects, both positive and negative, occurred in the wake of the demonstrations.

Columbia became much more liberal in its policies as a result of the student demonstrations Classes were cancelled for the rest of the week following the end of the protest. Additionally, a policy was soon established that allowed students to receive passing grades in all classes with no additional work. In the place of traditional class, students held “liberation classes, rallies, [and] concerts outside” which included appearances by Allen Ginsberg and the Grateful Dead. [10]

Columbia suffered quite a bit in the aftermath of the student protest. Applications, endowments, and grants for the university declined significantly in the following years. “It took at least 20 years to fully recover.” [9] The protests left Columbia in a bad spot financially as many potential students chose to attend other universities and some alumni refused to donate any more to the school. Many believe that protest efforts at Columbia were also responsible for pushing higher education further toward the liberal left. These critics, such as Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor, believed, “American universities were no longer places of intellectual and academic debate, but rather places of ‘political correctness’ and liberalism.” [2]

Racial divisions had also been strengthened as a result of the protests, made worse by the separate deal that the administration, to prevent a riot in Harlem, made with the black students of the SAS who had occupied Hamilton Hall. These black activists were permitted to exit the building through underground tunnels before the New York Police Department came. Black students maintained their own separate organization with a particular agenda: to foster the relationship between Columbia and the Harlem community and modify the curriculum to include black studies courses. [3]

The students did not intend for any of these negative consequences; they were simply doing the best job they could to stop the war in Vietnam and battle racism in the United States. Student concerns about race, war, and power were not unique to Columbia’s Morningside Heights’ campus; they were also seen on Harvard and Cornell’s campuses. The student demonstrations of 1968 ushered in a new, more confrontational manner of protest, characteristics of which, such as participatory democracy, the occupation of buildings, and separation along racial lines, would carry on as they influenced students at other Ivy League schools in their protest efforts.[2]

A number of positive results also occurred because of the demonstrations, including the establishment of the university Senate. This council, comprised of representation from the faculty, administration and student population, gave students the opportunity to positively restructure the university. It was a way to produce positive dialogue between students and authority figures.[2] From here on out, university administration would be attentive to student concerns about university policies.[11] Another result of the protests was an improved relationship with the Harlem community. The university was forced to approach neighboring Harlem with a certain respect.[2] Instead of continuing expansion into Harlem, Columbia shifted its focus for expansion to the Riverside Park area.

Columbia’s relationship with the United States military and federal government was forever changed. There would be no more federal sponsorship of classified weapons research and international studies that had been occurring since World War II, as Columbia severed ties to with the Institute for Defense Analysis, which had been created in 1955 to foster the connection between Columbia University and the defense establishment.[11] In addition, the ROTC left the Morningside Heights campus as CIA and armed forces recruiters.[4]

Also, through the results of the protests, the SAS showed that Black Power, which refers to the ability for African-American students and black working-class community members to work together, despite class differences, to fight an issue affecting African-Americans, could succeed as it had done in the Columbia University protests of 1968. [2] The demonstration proved that with cooperation, blacks could gain power in American society.

In books and films

  • Confrontation On Campus - The Columbia Pattern for the New Protest - by Joanne Grant. Back cover: "... a definitive study of the New Protest--how it happens, why it happens, why it is happening again and again."
  • The Strawberry Statement - by James Simon Kunen. This book details the particulars of the protest.
  • The Strawberry Statement - film version of the above with less analysis.
  • Up Against The Ivy Wall - by Jerry Avorn. Avorn was an editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator and covered far more of the events than did The Strawberry Statement, though it got a few names wrong.
  • Columbia Revolt 1968 documentary about the incident made by a collective of independent filmmakers.
  • The Fall 1969 documentary by Peter Whitehead about violence, revolution and the turbulence within late-60s America.
  • Across the Universe (film) - by Julie Taymor.
  • A Time to Stir by Paul Cronin screened as work-in-progress at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival[12]

See also


  1. ^ "Columbia’s Radicals of 1968 Hold a Bittersweet Reunion", NY Times, April 28, 2008
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Bradley, Stefan (2009). Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s. New York, New York: University of Illinois. pp. 5-19,164-191. ISBN 9780252034527.  
  3. ^ a b c d e Naison, Mark (2002). White Boy: A Memoir. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press. pp. 90-95. ISBN 1566399416.  
  4. ^ a b Da Cruz, Frank. "Columbia University - 1968", Columbia University in the City of New YorkApril, 1998. Accessed November 2, 2009.
  5. ^ Banks, Eric. "New ghosts for old at Columbia", The Guardian, September 28, 2007. Accessed September 22, 2008. See this link for an image of the photo.
  6. ^ Martin, Douglas. "Henry S. Coleman, 79, Dies; Hostage at Columbia in '68", The New York Times, February 4, 2006. Accessed September 12, 2009.
  7. ^ Columbia University - 1968
  8. ^ Hevesi, Dennis. "Carl F. Hovde, Former Columbia Dean, Dies at 82", The New York Times, September 10, 2009. Accessed September 11, 2009.
  9. ^ a b Da Cruz, Frank. "Columbia University - 1968", Columbia University in the City of New YorkApril, 1998. Accessed November 2, 2009.
  11. ^ a b Karaganis, Joseph. "Radicalism and Research", Accessed October 27, 2009.
  12. ^ Toronto Rounds Out Film Festival with Four-Plus Hours of Its Best Material in A Time To Stir Village Voice

Further reading

External links


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